Bangalore, India – An elderly influencer. A young woman. A well-known actress. A popular model. Wearing bold red bindis across their foreheads, they all dressed up as the main character from 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 them public figures, are not Indians: they come from Thailand.
Indian films have long been popular in parts of Africa and the Middle East, aside from countries with large South Asian diaspora populations such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Malaysia. But Thailand’s relationship with Bollywood has mostly been limited to using the Southeast Asian nation’s idyllic beaches as a backdrop for the scenes.
Now, as cinema globally seeks to return to pre-COVID-19 revenues, Thailand is transforming from peripheral support to a promising partner in the $ 2.3 billion push of the Indian film industry to expand into new markets. Streaming platforms are making it easier for Thai audiences to access Indian films, according to industry experts and experts. And the growing collaboration between actors and directors in the two countries is exposing both viewers 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 on Netflix’s 10 most viewed films in Thailand. For two weeks in May, it was the most watched movie on Thai Netflix, a position it didn’t enjoy, not even in India. And he was not alone: in the top-10 of the film he joined the film 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 get this kind of response in Thailand.”
The simultaneous success of RRR and Gangubai Kathiawadi captures a deeper shift in Thailand’s appetite for India’s film and entertainment industry, experts said, and it didn’t happen overnight. A number 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, launched a Hindi music album.
“For Thai actors, it is an opportunity to gain ground in a giant industry, with much more money on offer,” Anwesha Hazarika, a researcher at Cotton University in the city of Guwahati, north India, told Al Jazeera. Oriental. “But there is also an advantage for India: this helps to increase the visibility of Indian films in Thailand.”
That “visibility” didn’t really exist until now, Narula said. Although a cinema in Bangkok shows Indian films, its audience is made up almost exclusively of South Asian expats, she 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 have appreciated white actors in their films, they would not be receptive to the faces of East or Southeast Asia,” he said. The success of Korean dramas worldwide, including in India, has helped break this stereotype, Narula said.
In Thailand, Indian TV shows have also become popular in recent years, with one drama, Naagin, notably gaining a cult following. Arjun Bijlani, the lead actor of that 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 that airs Indian soap operas.
“It was beyond our wildest expectations,” Bijlani told Al Jazeera. The actors were celebrated in a packed Bangkok stadium and carried around in a 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 sitting at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, with shared epics such as the Ramayana (known as Ramakien in Thailand), which follows life of a legendary prince of Ayodhya.
“It’s a natural market for Indian content that hasn’t been explored enough,” he said.
If history serves as a cultural link between countries, the present also offers common narratives, said Hazarika, the researcher. Like India, prostitution is illegal in Thailand, although it is practiced openly in most cities.
“It makes sense that Gangubai, the story of a prostitute successfully taking the odds against her, resonates with audiences in Thailand,” she said.
Thailand’s voracious social media consumption – the country’s citizens are routinely ranked among the largest Internet users – has also helped drive Gangubai’s popularity, Narula said.
“Once a large number of social media influencers started talking about the film, everyone wanted to know what it was all about,” Narula said.
Other factors are also helping Indian films to go big 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 in Southeast Asia soon.
“People who are unfamiliar with Indian films will not 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 more.”
But for the Indian film industry to build on its recent successes in Thailand, it will need a new mindset, Bijlani cautioned.
“Frankly, I was disappointed with the little Indian production houses have done to come up with smart designs for markets like Thailand,” he said. “At the moment, this audience continues to be treated as an afterthought.”
As for Thai filmmakers, they don’t have the budget to hire Bollywood A-list stars, Narula said.
“We can only work with really good second tier Indian actors,” he said. “This creates a scenario where a film could do well in Thailand, but we’re not sure if it will work with Indian audiences.”
Narula may soon know. It is currently part of a production that, in its first installment, will tell the story of an Indian wedding in Thailand, followed by a sequel in which a Thai couple gets married in India. Actors from both countries are involved, you said.
“The opportunities are limitless,” he said. “What we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg.”