Rajkumar Hirani’s new movie PK, starring Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma, will be released on December 19 on at least 4,000 screens in India. It will also be released in several other countries ‒ including Japan, which has become the latest overseas territory to be annexed by Bollywood.
Recent Hindi films that have been shown in Japan in dubbed or subtitled versions include English Vinglish, 3 Idiots, Ra.One, Om Shanti Om, and most recently, Dhoom:3.
3 Idiots, Ek Tha Tiger, Don 2 and Jab Tak Hai Jaan were released through Nikkatsu, the venerable Japanese studio that was set up 102 years ago, said Aki Sugihara, executive vice president of the studio’s international operations department during a recent visit to Mumbai. While Dhoom:3opened on December 5, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag will be released in January, he said.
Indian films are traditionally shown on a limited scale in independent theatres, but Dhoom:3, the Yash Raj Films mega-hit from 2013, has been given special treatment. “Dhoom: 3 will be the very first Indian film to be released at one of the major cinema circuits on a nationwide basis in Japan,” Sugihara said.
Indians films have the potential to confound Japanese audiences with their length and song-and-dance formats, but the new crop, which explores a greater variety of subjects, has a greater chance of success, Sugihara believes. Locals expect a “message from the heart” that is gorgeously packaged and mounted, he said. “Simply comical and slapstick films may not work.”
By negotiating with Bollywood’s leading film production companies and studios, Nikkatsu hopes to eventually gain entry into the Indian market. “We wish to have more of our films marketed or seen in India,” Sugihara said. “And ultimately, we hope we can co-produce films with Indian producers or filmmakers together who attempt, like we do, to target a global market.”
Indian productions were previously released in Japan on a smaller scale, said Kyoko Dan, an independent consultant who is involved with the distribution and marketing of Asian cinema, including Indian productions, in Japan, and is a consultant with Nikkatsu on Indian projects. Japanese audiences enjoy the “heart-warming dramas” and the combination of laughter, tears and general emotions” that characterise Indian films, Dan said.
Audiences also identify with films such as English Vinglish, in which Sridevi’s language-challenged character brushes up on her English speaking skills and gains self-confidence during a visit to America. “Japanese people usually cannot speak English well although they have been learning English at schools,” she said. “This film presented a kind of braveheart who challenges herself – a common theme for the Japanese and a story that is very easy to understand.”
Some of Bollywood’s biggest names are involved in nurturing the Japanese market. Eros International has taken several of its productions and acquisitions to Japan, including the Rajinikanth starrer Endhiran, which was released on over 28 screens and grossed $1 million, said Kumar Ahuja, president of business development at Eros International.
“In an effort to constantly enter new markets, Japan was one of the main markets we were focusing on,” Ahuja said. “Especially with the success we got in the territory, we understood the potential of this market and kept pushing the right films and managed to bring it to such a great level where films like English Vinglish crossed a box office of 150 million Japanese yen.”
Eros titles released in Japan include Sivaji, Ra:One, Om Shanti Om,Agent Vinod, Krrish 3, Dabangg and Student of the Year. The movie that has done the best business for them is English Vinglish, which was released on over 50 screens across the territory, Ahuja said. Eros International hopes to take Ferrari Ki Sawaari and Go Goa Gone to Japan soon.
Reflecting local concerns
Some Indian films chime well with local concerns. Among these is 3 Idiots, a message-oriented comedy that advocates rebellion against a rote learning-based system and emphasises individual creativity. Hirani’s 2009 movie, produced by Vinod Chopra Films Private Limited, opened in Japan in 2013. “The success of 3 Idiots was an epoch-making incident for Bollywood and Indian films,” Sugihara said. “3 Idiots was nominated for the Best Foreign Film of the Year at the Japan Academy Awards last year.” The movie was named Best Picture by an organisation of home video retailers last year, beating domestic and Hollywood movies, Sugihara added.
In 2011, Nikkatsu approached Vinod Chopra Films with a conservative plan in mind: they would open 3 Idiots in a handful of shows all over the country and then scale it up if it did well.
“3 Idiots was released on only about 40 screens at independent theatres, and since its running time was close to three hours, most of the exhibitors were not sure of its marketability,” Aki Sugihara said. “But since its performance turned out to be much better than expected, in the third week about half of the theatres decided to show the film twice a day.” Many theatres extended the movie’s run beyond four weeks. “The distribution gradually expanded that way to 127 screens ultimately, though not simultaneously,” Sugihara said.
3 Idiots collected around $1.6 million, said Sameer Rao, chief executive officer at Vinod Chopra Films Private Limited. The movie’s surprise success in Japan will pave the way for PK’s release there, he added. “Not only Nikkatsu, but many local distributors are interested in PK,” he said. “We are also looking at television rights for our films, and we are in the process of evaluating whether to approach individual markets through television or digital platforms or look at local language remakes.”