Take a tour to see how Indian cinema has found foreign fans

Hindustan Times | By
Oct 25, 2015 10:41 AM IST

Badey badey deshon mein... Bollywood is flourishing in crazy and unexpected ways. Take a filmi chakkar through Peru, Israel, Germany, Africa, Afghanistan, Korea and beyond to see how our cinema has found foreign fans

Three hours of drameybaazi, dishoom-dishoom, dialogue, song-and-dance, herogiri and maybe a few tears. Our brand of cinema is thriving (dubbed, subtitled, pirated or officially released) in the unlikeliest of places. In faraway continents, young women are falling for our heroes at first sight. In nations ravaged by war, viewers have treasured our love stories across generations. Fans who don’t speak a word of Hindi can sing our songs; cold cultures have warmed to our comedies. And even at hostile borders, all it takes is a mention of Bollywood for the doors (and hearts) to open.

This is not a story of Bollywood taking over the world – our films have a long way to go before that happens. It’s not about India’s “soft power” abroad either – we can scarcely understand this phenomenon, let alone control it.

But it is a humbling look at how far our films have gone, how they take on a life of their own on foreign soil, and how cinema transcends barriers in ways we’re yet to fathom. Take a look...

In Europe, SRK is Kaiser of Hearts

This isn’t about brown folks in the UK filling theatres. It’s about, as film critic Anupama Chopra describes, “German fans – we’re talking blonde, white women – shivering in sub-zero temperatures for hours for a glimpse of Shah Rukh Khan!”

What made Germans fall for Bollywood? It started in 2004, when a German TV channel showed Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham at prime time. A nation of women tuned in and got hooked on to the melodrama, the family values and Shah Rukh Khan.

Shah Rukh Khan at the Berlin Film Festival in 2012. German women love Indian heroes as they are not afraid to show their emotional side. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
Shah Rukh Khan at the Berlin Film Festival in 2012. German women love Indian heroes as they are not afraid to show their emotional side. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Julia Wessel was one of them. “I loved everything about it, especially the Shava Shava song,” she recalls. “My mum never cries at funerals, but K3G got to her!” Fans connected via Web boards back then, but Wessel knew what they needed something more concrete. So in 2006, she quit studying cultural anthropology to edit Ishq, a slick German-language Bollywood magazine.

Ishq, at 6.50 euros, is not cheap. But nine years on, it boasts a readership of 10,000 across Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with 90,000 fans on Facebook.

Ishq, a German magazine, at 6.50 euros, is not cheap. But it boasts a readership of 10,000 across Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Ishq, a German magazine, at 6.50 euros, is not cheap. But it boasts a readership of 10,000 across Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

“About 95 per cent of these are women,” Wessel says. “They’re drawn to the movies because German culture can be quite cold, especially for men. In actors like Shah Rukh, they see a guy who is soft, romantic, not afraid to cry or show his emotional side.” It’s probably why Ishq’s readers also love Shahid Kapoor (“Even his bad films, though he redeemed himself with Haider.”) and Hritik Roshan. Wessel says that when Khan was filming Don 2 in Berlin, fans gathered by his hotel window to catch sight of him. The star must have obliged, for the women now commemorate the day they saw him!

Shah Rukh and the other Khans offer more than romance for Europe, Wessel says. “They’re positive, entertaining role models, especially at a time of Islamophobia.” The films sit oddly with the region’s liberal mindset. “My Indian friend who’s a feminist can’t understand why I love Karan Johar films,” she says. “My mum just figured out how arranged marriages work. But marrying a man you don’t know… that’s where I draw the line.”

In Afghanistan, Salman Khan is more than a star. He’s a style icon

How much do the Afghans love Salman Khan? Let Taran Khan tell you. The journalist and writer made several trips to Afghanistan over the last decade. On her first visit, in 2006, on a picnic in Paghman, north of Kabul she noticed that one of the horses on the farm had been given a haircut – weird but somewhat familiar.

“We got talking to the boys looking after the horses and I asked why the horse looked so weird,” she says. They giggled, “He is Tere Naam.” The animal was sporting the same long fringed hairstyle Salman had recently made popular in his film.

Afghanistan’s love for Hindi films has lasted through the decades and through the Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, when cinemas and TV were banned. Taran also met two girls, who’d never been outside Kabul, but were unusually informed about Bollywood. How? “When the Taliban took over, they weren’t allowed to go to school or work. So they parked themselves in a small room, its windows blackened out, and spent all their time watching films.”

Bollywood is everywhere: on the radio, on posters at the gyms and beauty parlours and at weddings, when they play Parde Mein Rehne Do. And of course, it’s in the fashions. A 2012 article in the Washington Post reported of just how influential Salman Khan is among young boys. The promos for Ek Tha Tiger had just released, sparking a nationwide craze for the bright scarves he wore. The, paper called the scarves “more fashionable than practical” in Afghanistan’s hot, dusty climate. And still, scarf prices increased five-, sometimes tenfold before the film even released.

Even older folks have been passionate about Hindi films. Madhubala’s Afghan descent made her a favourite in her day, Kabul-born Kader Khan’s has a following and old-timers remember when Feroz Khan shot scenes from Dharmatma (1975) in Bamiyan and Band-e-Amir. More recently, Kabul Express (2006) was shot there. Afghans made its hero their own: they call him Ibrahim Jan.

In South America, fan clubs are already planning a flash mob for the next big release

While NRIs boost the fortunes of Hindi films in USA and Canada, in South America there’s a kahani mein twist. The fans in Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela are entirely local. Over the last decade, our action films and energetic dances have found young new fans.

Fifteen Bollywood films were screened at the 2007 Bogota International Film Festival. 3 Idiots, My Name Is Khan, Guzaarish, Dhoom 3 and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu have been released in Peru. Fanaa played on Brazil screens in 2012, doing well despite arriving six years late. And when Chennai Express opened in Peru (on the same day it released in India) it had 1 lakh viewers, not bad for a nation with fewer than 350 Indians.

Salman’s scarves in Ek Tha Tiger set off a craze in Afghanistan, while Shah Rukh fans in Peru perform flash mobs when his films open.
Salman’s scarves in Ek Tha Tiger set off a craze in Afghanistan, while Shah Rukh fans in Peru perform flash mobs when his films open.

Fan clubs are big in South America. There are groups honouring Hritik Roshan, Preity Zinta, the Khans, Kapoors and Aishwarya Rai. But no one is bigger than Shah Rukh Khan.

Ask 23-year-old travel agent, Fresia Kim Tong Vargas, hopelessly smitten for eight years. Introduced to Bollywood at 15, when a friend urged her to watch Mujhse Dosti Karoge! on DVD, life changed when she watched SRK for the first time in Devdas. “I didn’t know his name or that he was popular. You could say he was my first crush.” She co-created the Shah Rukh Khan FC Perú fan club in Feb 2013, building up to 500 members and 19,000 Facebook fans. “For us, Bollywood is Shah Rukh,” says Vargas.

So what does an SRK fan club in faraway Peru do? Screen movies, create memorabilia, and share news, sure. But “fans love to meet, so a couple of years ago, about 150 of us gathered in Lima for Shah Rukh’s birthday party,” Vargas says. “We rented a place and got a custom cake made.” For last year’s party, 300 fans showed up. Proceeds go towards Peru’s homeless.

Clubs mean company. You can put together a flash mob to show off dance moves (a popular activity, if you browse YouTube), to celebrate the release of Chennai Express, as Vargas did. And if you want to watch the film 15 times (as Vargas also did) there’s someone to accompany you. “When Dhoom 3 released here, I saw it several times,” Vargas says. “It wasn’t that good but I knew I had to support Indian cinema so one day I’d get to watch Dilwale and Fan.”

As with Europe, South American Bollywood fans are mostly women, girls really. “I also love Dwayne Johnson,” Vargas points out. “But Shah Rukh… he has a special magic. He reaches a part of my heart that other actors don’t.” She has a plan for when she finally meets the star – and no she won’t faint: “I will greet him the way you Indians show respect. By touching his feet.”

In the former Soviet Republics, they still love our romances and name their baby girls Nargis

In 2013, when Canada-based refugee-and immigration-rights lawyer Aurina Chatterji was driving from Georgia to Armenia, she was a bit nervous: “I was travelling alone, and an Indian passport is always closely examined.” The guard at the border, in his Soviet-era uniform glared at her visa page. Without making eye contact, they then had the following conversation:

“You India?”


“You Amitabh Bachchan.”


“I like Amitabh Bachchan.”

Then he grinned, stamped her passport, and “just like that,” Chatterji says, “I was in Armenia.”

The countries carved from the USSR carry the same memories of Hindi films as their Russian brethren. Earlier this year, in Kyrgyzstan, when Chatterji took a shared taxi from the capital, Bishkek, south to Osh, one of her co-passengers on the 14-hour ride turned out to be a filmi fan.

“She spoke no English, and I speak no Kyrgyz/Russian, but we managed through gestures. After we had suitably bonded at our lunch stop, she implored me to join her in singing Mera Joota Hai Japani, which she sang with much enthusiasm, clapping gleefully and tugging on my hand, insisting that I sing along, which I did.”

In Tajikistan in 2008, sheepherder Baimurat Allaberiyev’s video of him singing Disco Dancer songs Goron Ki Na Kalon Ki and Jimmy Jimmy in a warehouse garnered 1 million hits on YouTube, landing him a Russian film role. And a few months ago, photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri, in Azerbaijan on work, turned on the hotel-room TV to find Nagarjuna staring back: “It turned out to be Khuda Gawah.” Azerbaijan, is also where the name Nargis is popular for girls because of the actress.

Khuda Gawah is still playing on Azerbaijani TV.
Khuda Gawah is still playing on Azerbaijani TV.

Uzbeki hearts probably beat the hardest for Indian cinema in this region. Local channels show Hindi films every week. You can buy Aishwarya Rai, Preity Zinta, Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan posters at the cornershop. And on the radio, Akhmadjon Kasimov’s show Namaste Hindiston has been on for more than 15 years. He plays the latest songs, shares filmi news and even fields listeners’ questions about Karva Chauth.

You’ll be treated well as a tourist, as an all-girl group that went there in 2013 found out. “They thought we all came from Bollywood so we were pulled into their family photos,” says Aastha Vadhera. “At the chaikhana near the market, a bunch of women commented on how I looked like Rani Mukherjee and Aastha like Preity Zinta!” says Nishtha Vadehra.

Sharayna DeSouza remembers “one hotel receptionist who refused to believe that we all don’t live near SRK”, and Raji Chacko recalls the evening they watched a belly-dance show in Tashkent. “Some Uzbeki girl sang Jimmy Jimmy,” she says. “We were so impressed that some of us got up and started dancing.”

While in Russia, Raj Kapoor and Mithun rule the roost

Indian films have had a Russian audience since 1949, when Dharti Ke Lal became the first Indian film to be dubbed into Russian. The connection was made official in 1965 when socialist Russia, wary of Hollywood’s capitalist influence, deemed that eight to 10 Indian films be shown in the USSR annually instead. Over the decades, Russians fell in love with Awara, Shree 420, Mera Naam Joker, Barood, Seeta Aur Geeta (55.2 million Soviets watched it), Bobby and some 200 other films.

Disco Dancer songs are still sung on Russian TV shows, Awara is popular in East Europe.
Disco Dancer songs are still sung on Russian TV shows, Awara is popular in East Europe.

Oleg Akkuratov, a prodigious 25-year-old jazz pianist who’d never been to India until this month, is a fan of Raj Kapoor too – though, being blind, he knows mostly the songs. “I learned them from my father, but young people like them too” he says. “I also like Mithun Chakraborty,” he adds, before singing, unbidded, Goron Ki Na Kalon Ki from Disco Dancer.

Mithun’s hold over Russia comes at the tail end of Soviet history. Disco Dancer was the top movie there when it released in 1984. Some 61 million people watched it. Today, occasional films such as Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani make it to theatres. But Disco Dancer is not dead. Last year on a TV talent show a singer known as Jasmine showed up in shiny disco gear and sang her way, pitch perfect, into judges hearts. Her number: “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy… Aajaa Aajaa Aajaa”.

In Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea, they love a good Indian story

The Far East is closer to Bollywood than you might imagine. Taiwan has watched Taare Zameen Par, Peepli (Live) and Dhobi Ghat. The Japanese have watched Om Shanti Om, Don 2, Student of the Year, 2 States and Barfi!.

Even North Korea has made room for Bollywood. In 2007, the government screened Taare Zameen Par to honour 40 years of diplomatic relations with India. In South Korea, My Name is Khan was among the top three films in 2011 and the local Korea India Film Association organises screenings and (until recently) Bollywood dance classes for its 14,000 members. “Call me Rahul,” urges its president Kwanghyun Jung.

Two success stories dominate here: 3 Idiots and, surprisingly, English Vinglish. The latter has found fans in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong (where it made the most money) and Japan (where it was running until a few weeks ago). “People have loved the film because the language barrier is such a universal theme,” says the film’s director Gauri Shinde. “When I went to promote it, Japanese women showed up with saris and ladoos for the screening – I have no idea how they got hold of them. And they thanked me with greetings and drawings of the characters they’d made.”

In Israel, a onetime soldier has taken his love for Bachchan above and beyond

Bollywood, like so much else, thrives despite the odds in the troubled nation. There are few distributors – until Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani released in 2013, the last Hindi screening was Devdas in 2002.

And yet Bollywood is everywhere. A pirated print or DVD is not hard to find, Sholay is telecast several times a year, the Khans are a hit and people are crazy for Krrish. Amitabh Bachchan, however, is the people’s biggest hero and 36-year-old Moses Sapir is probably his most vocal fan.

Sapir loves AB. Scratch that. He’s obsessed with AB. Fanatically so. He’s named his son Amit. He claims to have watched Amar Akbar Anthony 200 times (totalling 24 days and nights). He ran a fan page for seven years before social media came along, and while many fans wish Bachchan on his birthday, Sapir is one of the few who gets wished in return by the superstar.

Israeli fan Moses Sapir loves Amitabh so much, he named his firstborn son (right) Amit after him.
Israeli fan Moses Sapir loves Amitabh so much, he named his firstborn son (right) Amit after him.

“My love for Indian cinema came from my parents,” says Sapir. They were born in Georgia, had watched Indian films like much of the former USSR and carried that love when, as Jews, they exercised their right of return to Israel. Young Sapir grew up watching Bachchan, preferring them over cartoons or playing with toys. “He was the ultimate hero for a little boy,” Sapir says. “Strong and handsome, he could sing and dance, he was tall, with lots of charm. Watching his movies, I felt like I was seeing the most amazing man in the world.”

Sapir carried his love for Bachchan films into adulthood, through eight years in the army, and as a pharma manager after. He recalls flying out at age 25 to India to meet AB (“It was actually the biggest dream I had in my life”), as one of the happiest days of his life. More milestones are tinged with stardust: At his wedding, Sapir played Bachchan clips and a video in which the star sent his wishes.

Sapir’s fandom has landed him a job with a TV channel, one of three that is just for Indian cinema (one is even in HD). It means Sapir’s own kids (he also has a daughter) can watch stars other than Bachchan too. “My son loves Akshay Kumar,” Sapir says.

Across Africa, Indian cinema has had varied takers

At 92, textile exporter Maganbhai Savani, who started International Film Distributors, remembers every details of his life with HD-clarity. The distribution pioneer – he convinced our government, in 1958, to subtitle films so they’d sell abroad – travelled the world with his wife, selling films in practically every country from 1947 to 1975.

Savani tailored India’s offerings not just for the diaspora, but for native audiences too, often snipping out the songs to trim their runtime. IFD sent films to Laos, Malaysia and Singapore (“They loved action films”) and took movies to the Gulf (“They loved fantasy stories”). But on the African continent, “everybody wanted Indian films”, and the recipe was carefully tweaked.

“Action films were for West and North Africa,” he recalls. “We took the first films to Libya and Tunisia, where they’d be dubbed in Arabic. Social, family cinema was for the East – mainly in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.” As for South Africa, they’d banned movies so everything was pirated there.

“I knew a story set in a village would never work overseas,” Savani says. “But sometimes we’d experiment. Waqt went to the Middle East and was a grand success.” He remembers well the elephantine global success of Haathi Mere Saathi, which he says ran for a year in Ceylon and was so popular in Bulgaria that a distributor in Romania publicly regretted not taking on the film in his country. In Africa, no stranger to elephants, the film did trumpeting business.

By the 1980s, video casettes took over. Bollywood was so popular in Egypt that they threatened the revenues of the local film industry, forcing the government to limit screenings well into the 1990s.

Today, in Morocco, one star shines brighter than the others. “Shah Rukh is like a god there,” says film critic Anupama Chopra who covered the Marrakesh Film Festival in 2011. “The man doing my hair and makeup for a shoot found out I was Indian and immediately began singing Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jaana Sanam.”

That was the year SRK himself visited, to receive Morocco’s prestigious L’Etoile d’Or, the first Indian to receive the honour. “It was 12 degrees – it was cold, man!” Chopra recalls. “But the fans stood outside, just for a glimpse of him.”

In Antarctica, the penguins aren’t responding to Bollywood…

...But give them time.


“I didn’t expect this kind of response in my wildest dreams”

With PK earning Rs 120 crore in China, Raj Kumar Hirani is probably India’s most successful filmmaker on foreign soil. What’s his secret?

Yes PK. The 2014 Aamir Khan comedy about an alien on Earth is far and away India’s most successful film in China. Released across 4,600 screens in May, it’s rung up Rs 120 crores there. PK is also the most successful Indian film in Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan.

Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan at a promotional event for PK. (Photos: Yogen Shah)
Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan at a promotional event for PK. (Photos: Yogen Shah)

But China? Our neighbour hasn’t been keen on Hindi movies. Awara was screened there in 1979 (taxi-drivers still sing the songs for Indian passengers). Lagaan and Dhoom 3 have released, but in a market dominated by Hollywood and their own cinema, these were mere blips. Then Raj Kumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots got picked up for distribution in 2011. The rest, Hirani says, is a surprise:

At what point did you realise that you were a big name in China?

It was just after 3 Idiots. Out of the blue, someone wrote to me, asking me to be a judge on a dance show in China. It seemed odd. I went online to check and realised that 3 Idiots had released there.

We’d given it to a distributor and forgotten about it! But even after a limited run it was huge on DVD and pirated copies. Everyone had seen it – they identified with the pressure in the educational system, which is much worse in China. There were about 40-50 videos of people singing Zoobi Doobi and All Izz Well. Kids were performing the songs in school. Of course, I didn’t judge the dance show!

Why do you think they liked PK?

You know, in my wildest dreams I never imagined it would do this well. PK is not a subject for China in any way – they are more agnostic than religious. But because 3 Idiots was a hit, the Chinese themselves approached us for PK. We actively promoted it. Aamir Khan went on a Chinese talk show, a major star dubbed for him, and we travelled to China for it.

And that’s where you discovered a Raj Kumar Hirani fan club…

Arrey, I was completely shocked! We’d visit all these places and there’d be so many people. Aamir, of course, they knew as Rancho, but they’d hold up iPads with our names on it. If the Chinese like a director, they’ll find all his films, so many fans told me they’d watched the Munnabhai films. They keep writing to me.

There’s big money involved now. Is there pressure to skew your work for a foreign audience?

The reality is that none of us really know how to make films for anybody else. If I were to look at Bihar as a market, and maybe add an item number to the film, then look at China and think of an education angle, I’d end up with a khichdi. I don’t think anyone can say ‘I’m going to do a crossover film’. You have to make a film you like and hope somebody somewhere likes it too.

Also, it’s not that China is going berserk, saying ‘We want to watch each and every Indian film’. They’ll watch American, Japanese and German films. but they’re interested in a unique story. Our reputation has been established. It’s time now for us to pick carefully what is screened in China. Then the belief will be formed that any film that comes from India is good.


Behind the scenes

This cover story took 2 months, interviews from 7 countries and a million time-zone calculations but what a ride it was!

1. I pitched this story thinking I’d do a little research, a few interviews and be done. How much could firangs like our movies anyway? Boy was I wrong. And humbled. Bollywood has spread across the world with almost no push from us. It’s all the power of the films themselves.

2. I expected patronising chatter from Westerners: “Your movies are so colourful!” “What energetic dancing!” There was none of this. Just fans loving our films, our heroes, our songs for what they are – a different, but legitimate form of cinema.

3. All my research (academic papers about Bollywood’s pull, articles on India’s foreign relations v/s films) couldn’t prepare me for actual fans: South Americans dancing to Hindi songs, a German saying “Main ek achchi Hindustani ladki hoon”, and a Korean requesting, “Call me Rahul”.

4. To every filmi fan on foreign soil: Thank you for loving our films. To Rajini fans: Didn’t have space for Tamil films, yaar! And to everyone within earshot at work: Sorry guys! Listening to me sing Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Ajaa Ajaa Ajaa for weeks must have been disco hell.

5. And speaking of Jimmy, I tried so hard to interview my childhood crush Mithun about his popularity in Uzbekistan. He didn’t reply. Achievement remains locked. Sigh!

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From HT Brunch, October 25

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    Rachel Lopez is a a writer and editor with the Hindustan Times. She has worked with the Times Group, Time Out and Vogue and has a special interest in city history, culture, etymology and internet and society.

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