In the 1990s, one of the most popular foreign movie stars in Japan was an Indian actor named Rajinikanth, who appeared in films made for India’s Tamil-speaking southern region. These movies were pure “masala” cinema, an exuberant mix of action, comedy, romance, melodrama and music that made no concession to anything but the will to entertain. The purity of their purpose, encapsulated in the hyperbolic acting style of the “Superstar” and production numbers featuring dozens of dancers, multiple locations, and gratuitous costume changes, delighted Japanese audiences, who normally responded by dancing in the aisles.
“In Japan, Rajinikanth’s 1995 film ‘Muthu, Dancing Maharajah’ was a big phenomenon,” says Kyoko Dan, a Kobe-based movie publicist who works with Asian producers. “So when Japanese people hear about Indian films many think of ‘Muthu.’ ”
Technically, Rajinikanth doesn’t qualify as Bollywood, the popular term that combines “Bombay” (now referred to as Mumbai) and “Hollywood” to represent Indian cinema in the world but which describes Hindi-language productions. Rajinikanth’s core fans reject the Bollywood label because, according to Dan, they think Bollywood films are insufficiently “manly.”
“We do have a perception of Japan as being a very fad-oriented market,” says Avtar Panesar, vice president of international operations for Yash Raj Films, during a conversation at the Shinjuku Cinemart theater in Tokyo, where a local audience was watching an invitational preview of his studio’s 2012 film “Ek Tha Tiger,” which boasts the second biggest international box-office take for a Bollywood movie.
Yash Raj is releasing four features here in the next few months, including “Tiger” and the No. 1 international Bollywood hit of all time, “Three Idiots,” through local distributor Nikkatsu. “We’ve been in talks for over a year-and-a-half,” he adds. “The idea is not to do a one-movie deal. We want to work with someone who will take the plunge.”
Coincidentally, “Om Shanti Om,” which at the time of its release in 2007 was the biggest grossing Hindi language film domestically, as well as the widest ever global release for an Indian production, is finally enjoying a theatrical run in Japan thanks to local art movie/documentary distributor Uplink. “It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival,” says Farah Khan, the director of “Om,” during a recent interview at the Indian Embassy. “The audience was dancing. It was everything they loved about Bollywood, all the big numbers and the typical Indian story. Over-the-top stuff.”
Kabir Khan (no relation) uses the same term when discussing “Ek Tha Tiger,” which he directed. “The lead, Salman Khan (also no relation), is the biggest star in India today,” he says, sitting next to Panesar. “Everything’s over-the-top — the action, the humor.” The difference with mainstream Bollywood is that his film has “some grounding in reality.”
It’s about an undercover agent for India’s intelligence service who is assigned to keeps tabs on a Indian missile scientist, a visiting scholar at an Irish university. The agent inadvertently falls in love with the scientist’s assistant, a Hindi-speaking woman who turns out to be a spy for Pakistan. “Ek Tha Tiger” has all the requisite masala components but dilutes them with social references — at least up to a point. The espionage has more to do with “Romeo and Juliet” than James Bond, but there are only two production numbers, and one is saved for the final credit roll.
Kabir started out as a documentary director. “I was getting commissions from foreign TV producers since I worked in Afghanistan,” he explains. “There were not many filmmakers with my kind of access, but I had no connection with an Indian audience, and if you want to say something in India there’s no medium more powerful than cinema.”
His first mainstream feature was “Kabul Express,” an action film set in Afghanistan with some comedy scenes but no songs. It was still considered Bollywood because of its marquee-level stars. His next film, “New York,” was about three Hindi-speaking friends living in New York City during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and how one becomes a terrorist suspect. It contains torture and bombs and Indian FBI agents, but also songs, lighthearted elements, and a love triangle.
“Normally, Bollywood doesn’t do politics,” Kabir says, and while he thinks the industry has become more adventurous there’s still a ways to go. In classic masala movies, for instance, Muslim characters were either sidekicks or bad guys. He wants to make films in which “characters have Muslim names (like Khan) but no special reference is made to them of being Muslim.”
Farah, whose father directed “B-grade action movies in the ’60s,” thinks the changes mentioned by Kabir affect only a small part of the business. “The indie and art sectors, what we call ‘parallel cinema’ in Bollywood, are doing well now in India,” she says. “They can make a lot of money at the multiplexes. But those movies don’t cater to the whole of India, which is vast.
Most of the country is illiterate, so you can’t give them something that goes over their heads.” Maybe one “socially relevant” Bollywood film makes any money in a given year. “Multiplex ticket prices are higher than those for single-screen theaters, which is where the masses go,” she says. “They want song-and-dance, glamorous girls, good-versus-evil. They want to go home feeling entertained.”
“Om Shanti Om” was seen as a movie that bridged the gap between the multiplex audience and the “single screen culture.” Basically a parody of (or, as Farah prefers, an “homage” to) classic masala films, it features a clever two-part structure, one taking place in 1977, the other in 2007, about two film actors, one a huge star the other a bumbling novice, who fall in love in the first part and are then reincarnated in the second with their roles reversed. This premise allowed Farah to stage a huge production number for each part with the biggest stars from their respective eras. “The multiplex audience totally got it,” she says. “It received great reviews, but the taxi drivers loved it, too.”
If Japan’s interest in Bollywood turns out to be more than a fad, producers will be happy to film here. Kabir is developing a script about the Indian Army’s alliance with the Japanese military during World War II to fight the former’s colonial masters, the British. But even if the movie doesn’t require Japan locations, Panesar says it doesn’t mean they can’t shoot in Japan. He has been in contact with regional film commissions in the Kansai region to discuss such possibilities, since a requirement of modern Bollywood is foreign settings, no matter how gratuitous. “Ek Tha Tiger” had six. “We used Trinity College in Dublin,” says Panesar, “but it just as easily could have been a school in Tokyo.”