Bangalore, India – Elderly powerful man. Young woman. Famous actress. Popular model. With flashy red bindis on their foreheads, they were all dressed as the protagonists of Bollywood superstar Alia Bhatt’s latest film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, in viral Instagram posts last month.
Excessive tributes to actors are common in the Indian film industry. But these fans, many of whom are public figures themselves, are not Indians: they are from Thailand.
Indian films have long been popular in parts of Africa and the Middle East, with the exception of countries with a large South Asian diaspora such as the US, UK and Malaysia. But Thailand’s relationship with Bollywood has mostly been limited to using the Southeast Asian country’s idyllic beaches as the backdrop for scenes.
Now, as cinema around the world struggles to return to pre-COVID-19 revenues, Thailand is transforming from a minor support to a promising partner in India’s $2.3 billion film industry’s quest to expand into new markets. According to industry insiders and experts, streaming platforms are making it easier for Thai viewers to access Indian films. And the growing collaboration between actors and filmmakers in the two countries opens up both audiences to each other like never before.
By early June, Gangubai Katiawadi — the story of a woman forced into prostitution who then becomes a fierce campaigner for women’s rights — had spent five weeks among the top 10 most-watched Netflix movies in Thailand. For two weeks in May, it was the most viewed film on Thai Netflix, a position it didn’t enjoy even in India. And not alone: another Indian film, RRR, has joined the top ten films.
“It’s really exciting,” Kultep Narula, an experienced Bangkok producer, told Al Jazeera. “We have never seen Indian films get such a response in Thailand.”
The simultaneous success of RRR and Gangubai Kathiawadi is indicative of a deeper shift in Thailand’s appetite for the Indian film and entertainment sector, experts say, and it didn’t happen overnight. In recent years, a number of Thai actresses including Savika Chaiyadej, Chatcha Pathumtip and Ann Mitchai have appeared in Indian films. In 2019, Mitchai, who is also a singer, released a Hindi music album.
“For Thai actors, this is an opportunity to gain support in a giant industry offering a lot more money,” Anvesha Hazarika, a research fellow at Cotton University in Guwahati, in northeast India, told Al Jazeera. “But there is also a benefit for India – it helps increase the popularity of Indian films in Thailand.”
According to Narula, until now this “appearance” did not actually exist. While one theater in Bangkok shows Indian films, he says, its audience is almost entirely South Asian. Meanwhile, the Indian film industry has also made little effort to reach Thai audiences.
“There was a perception that while Indian audiences might like white actors in their films, they would not be receptive to faces from East or Southeast Asia,” he said. According to Narula, the success of Korean dramas around the world, including in India, has helped break that stereotype.
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 show’s lead actor, recalled how he and his co-stars were overwhelmed by the love they received while touring the country in March 2018 at the invitation of a TV channel that broadcasts Indian soap operas.
“It exceeded our wildest expectations,” Bijlani told Al Jazeera. The actors were honored at a crowded Bangkok stadium and driven in a carriage while fans chanted their names.
Bijlani attributed the success of Indian shows like Naagin in Thailand to the wider cultural compatibility between the two societies – both at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, with shared epics like the Ramayana (known as the Ramakien in Thailand) being follows life. the legendary prince of Ayodhya.
“This is a natural market for Indian content that is not well understood,” he said.
If history serves as a cultural link between countries, then the present also offers common narratives, says researcher Hazarika. As in India, prostitution is illegal in Thailand, although it is practiced openly in most cities.
“It makes sense that Gangubai, the story of a sex worker who successfully coped with difficulties, resonated with the public in Thailand,” she said.
Thailand’s voracious consumption of social media — the country’s citizens are regularly among the top internet users — has also contributed to Gangubai’s rise in popularity, Narula said.
“Once a large number of social media influencers started talking about the film, everyone wanted to know what it was about,” said Narula.
Narula says there are other factors contributing to the success of Indian films in Thailand. The emergence of streaming platforms such as Netflix (in 2016) and Disney+ Hotstar (last year) in Thailand has opened up a previously inaccessible library of Indian films to local audiences. Amazon Prime Video also said it plans to launch the service in Southeast Asia soon.
“People who are not familiar with Indian films will not go to the cinema to watch them,” he said. “But if they’re on Netflix, they’ll watch one, and if they like it, they’ll try another.”
But for the Indian film industry to build on its recent success in Thailand, it will need new thinking, Bijlani warned.
“Honestly, I was disappointed with how little Indian manufacturing companies have done to develop smart projects targeting markets like Thailand,” he said. “For now, that audience is still being treated as a side issue.”
As for Thai filmmakers, they don’t have the budget to hire Bollywood stars, Narula said.
“We can only work with really good second tier Indian actors,” he said. “It creates a scenario where the film could do well in Thailand, but we’re not sure if it will work with an Indian audience.”
Narula may soon find out. He is currently involved in a production that will tell the story of an Indian wedding in Thailand in its first installation, followed by a sequel in which a Thai couple gets married in India. According to him, actors from both countries are participating in the project.
“The possibilities are endless,” he said. “What we have seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg.”