Thailand catches Bollywood fever while sex worker plays biofilm chords New Entertainment

Bengaluru, India – An elderly influencer. A young woman. Well-known actor. Popular model. They wore bold red bindis on their foreheads, all of whom dressed up as the main character in last month’s Bollywood superstar Alia Bhatt’s film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, in viral Instagram posts.

Excessive tributes to actors are common in the Indian film industry. But these fans, many of them public figures, are not Indians: they are from Thailand.

Indian films have long been popular in some parts of Africa and the Middle East, as well as countries with a large South Asian diaspora population, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Malaysia. But Thailand’s relationship with Bollywood has been limited to the use of the idyllic beaches of the Southeast Asian nation mostly as a backdrop for the scene.

Now that the film world is trying to return to the previous revenue of COVID-19, Thailand is moving from being a peripheral device to a promising partner in an effort to expand India’s $ 2.3 billion film industry to new markets. Streaming platforms are making it easier for Thai viewers to access Indian films, according to industry experts and experts. And the growing collaboration between actors and filmmakers from both countries explains the two viewers to each other like never before.

In early June, Gangubai Kathiawadi – the story of a woman forced into prostitution who later became a staunch supporter of women’s rights – spent five weeks on Netflix’s top 10 most-watched films in Thailand. For two weeks in May, it was the most watched movie on Thai Netflix – a position he didn’t enjoy, even in India. And he wasn’t alone: ​​joining the film in the top 10 list was RRR, another Indian film.

“It’s really exciting,” Kulthep Narula, a veteran producer based in Bangkok, told Al Jazeera. “We have never seen Indian films receive such a response in Thailand.”

Experts say that the simultaneous success of RRR and Gangubai Kathiawadi is a profound change in the mindset of the Thai Indian film and entertainment sector, and it has not happened overnight. A number of Thai actors, including Savika Chaiyadej, Chatcha Patumthip and Ann Mitchai, have starred in Indian films in recent years. In 2019, Mitchai, who is also a singer, released an album of Hindi music.

“For Thai actors, it’s a chance to gain strength in a huge industry by offering a lot more money,” Anwesha Hazarika, a researcher at Cotton University in northeastern Guwahati, India, told Al Jazeera. “But there is also a gain for India, which is helping to increase the visibility of Indian films in Thailand.”

That “visibility” didn’t really exist until now, Narula said. Although a Bangkok cinema is screening Indian films, its viewers have been almost exclusively foreigners from South Asia, he said. Meanwhile, the Indian film industry also did not make much effort to reach the Thai audience.

“There was a belief that even though Indian audiences would like white actors in their films, they would not like the faces of East or Southeast Asia,” he said. Narula said the universal success of Korean dramas, including in India, helped break that stereotype.

In Thailand, Indian TV shows have also grown in popularity in recent years, with a drama, Naagin, gaining mostly cult followers. Arjun Bijlani, the main actor in that session, recalled how he and his actor were shocked when they were invited by a TV channel that broadcasts Indian soaps on their March 2018 tour of the country.

“It exceeded our wildest expectations,” Bijlani told Al Jazeera. The actors performed in a crowded stadium in Bangkok and were taken in a carriage while the fans shouted their names.

Bijlanik attributed the success of Indian shows like Naagin in Thailand to the broader cultural compatibility between the two societies, both sitting at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, with shared epics like Ramayana (known as Ramakian in Thailand) that follow life. Of a mythical prince of Ayodhya.

“India is a natural content market that has not been explored enough,” he said.

Gangubai Kathiawadi tells the story of a sex worker of the same name who is believed to have lived in this building in Mumbai. [File: Roli Srivastava/Reuters]

While history serves as a cultural link between countries, the present also offers common narratives, said researcher Hazarika. Like India, prostitution is illegal in Thailand, although it is practiced openly in most cities.

“It makes sense for Gangubai, the story of a sex worker who successfully surpasses him, to resonate with Thai audiences,” he said.

Enthusiastic consumption of social media in Thailand (the country’s citizens rank among the largest regular Internet users) also helped boost Gangubai’s popularity, Narula said.

“When so many social media agents started talking about the film, everyone wanted to know what it was all about,” Narula said.

Other factors are also contributing to the rise of Indian films in Thailand, Narula said. The advent of streaming platforms like Netflix (2016) and Disney + Hotstar (last year) has opened up a library of Indian films that were previously unavailable in Thailand to local viewers. Amazon Prime Video has also said it plans to launch it in Southeast Asia soon.

“People who don’t know Indian movies aren’t going to go to a theater to see one,” he said. “But if they’re on Netflix, they’ll look at one, and if they like it, give it a try.”

But to build the latest success of the Indian film industry in Thailand, it will need a new way of thinking, Bijlani warned.

“Honestly, I am disappointed at how little production companies in India have done for smart projects targeting markets like Thailand,” he said. “At the moment, these viewers continue to be treated as unexpected.”

As for Thai filmmakers, they don’t have the budget to hire famous Hollywood stars, Narula said.

“We can only work with good Indian secondary actors,” he said. “This creates a scenario where a film can come out well in Thailand, but we’re not sure if it will work with Indian audiences.”

Narula may know soon. Today, in its first episode, it is part of a production that will tell the story of an Indian wedding in Thailand, followed by a sequel to a Thai couple getting married in India. Actors from both nations are involved, he said.

“The possibilities are endless,” he said. “What we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg.”

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