Thailand has Bollywood fever as sex worker biopic strikes a chord | Entertainment News

Bangalore, India – An older influencer. A young woman. A well-known actress. A popular model. Wearing bold red bindis on their foreheads, they all dressed up as the lead character in Bollywood superstar Alia Bhatt’s latest film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, in viral Instagram posts last month.

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

Indian films have long been popular in parts of Africa and the Middle East, with the exception of countries with large South Asian diasporas such as the United States, United Kingdom and Malaysia. But Thailand’s relationship with Bollywood has mostly been limited to using the Southeast Asian nation’s idyllic beaches as backdrops for scenes.

Now, as the cinema globally tries to regain its pre-COVID-19 revenues, Thailand is changing from a peripheral accessory to a promising partner in the will of India’s 2.3 billion film industry. dollars to expand into new markets. Streaming platforms are making it easier for Thai audiences to access Indian films, according to industry insiders and experts. And the growing collaboration between actors and filmmakers from both countries exposes the two audiences to each other like never before.

In early June, Gangubai Kathiawadi – the story of a woman forced into prostitution who then becomes a fierce fighter for women’s rights – had spent five weeks among Netflix’s top 10 most-watched films in Thailand. For two weeks in May, it was the most-watched film on Thai Netflix – a position it did not enjoy even in India. And it wasn’t the only one: RRR, another Indian film, joined the film in the top 10.

“It’s really exciting,” Bangkok-based veteran producer Kulthep Narula told Al Jazeera. “We’ve never seen Indian films get this kind of response in Thailand.”

The simultaneous success of RRR and Gangubai Kathiawadi reflects a deeper shift in Thailand’s appetite for India’s film and entertainment sector, experts say – and it didn’t happen overnight. A string of Thai actresses, 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 a Hindi music album.

“For Thai actors, this is an opportunity to gain ground in a giant industry, with a lot more money to offer,” Anwesha Hazarika, a researcher at Cotton University in the city of Guwahati, told Al Jazeera. , in northeastern India. “But there is also a payoff for India – it helps increase the visibility of Indian films in Thailand.”

That “visibility” didn’t really exist until now, Narula said. Although a cinema in Bangkok screens Indian films, its audience is almost exclusively made up of South Asian expats, he said. Meanwhile, the Indian film industry has also not made much effort to reach Thai audiences.

“There was a perception that while Indian audiences might like white actors in their movies, they wouldn’t be receptive to East or Southeast Asian faces,” he said. The success of Korean dramas around the world, including in India, has helped break this stereotype, Narula said.

In Thailand, Indian TV shows have also grown in popularity in recent years, with one drama, Naagin, in particular gaining cult status. Arjun Bijlani, the main actor of this show, recalled how he and his co-stars were stunned by the affection they received while touring the country in March 2018 at the invitation of a television channel broadcasting Indian soap operas.

“It was beyond our wildest expectations,” Bijlani told Al Jazeera. The actors were celebrated in a crowded Bangkok stadium and driven in a horse-drawn carriage as fans chanted their names.

Bijlani attributed the success of Indian shows like Naagin in Thailand to a wider cultural compatibility between the two societies – both located at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, with shared epics like the Ramayana (known as Ramakien in Thailand), which follows the life of a legendary prince of Ayodhya.

“It’s a natural market for Indian content that just hasn’t been explored enough,” he said.

Gangubai Kathiawadi tells the story of a sex worker with the same name who allegedly lived in this building in Mumbai [File: Roli Srivastava/Reuters]

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

“It makes sense that Gangubai, the story of a sex worker who manages to take all the odds against her, would resonate with Thai audiences,” she said.

Thailand’s voracious consumption of social media – the country’s citizens regularly rank among the heaviest internet users – has also contributed to Gangubai’s popularity, Narula said.

“Once a lot of social media influencers started talking about the movie, everyone wanted to know what it was about,” Narula said.

Other factors also help Indian films gain exposure in Thailand, Narula said. The arrival of streaming platforms like Netflix (in 2016) and Disney+ Hotstar (last year) in Thailand has opened up a library of Indian films previously unavailable to local audiences. Amazon Prime Video also said it plans to launch across Southeast Asia soon.

“People who don’t know about Indian movies won’t go to the cinema to watch one,” he said. “But if they’re on Netflix, they’ll check one out, and if they like it, they’ll try some others.”

But for the Indian film industry to build on its recent successes in Thailand, it will need a new mindset, Bijlani warned.

“Frankly, I was disappointed with how little Indian production houses did to come up with smart projects aimed at markets like Thailand,” he said. “At the moment, these audiences continue to be treated as an afterthought.”

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

“We can only work with very good second-tier Indian actors,” he said. “It creates a scenario where a movie might do well in Thailand, but we don’t know if it will work with Indian audiences.”

Narula might soon find out. He is currently part of a production which, in its first episode, will tell the story of an Indian wedding in Thailand, followed by a sequel where a Thai couple get married in India. Actors from both nations are involved, he said.

“The opportunities are limitless,” he said. “What we have seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg.”