Thailand gets Bollywood fever as sex worker biopic strikes chord
Gangubai Kathiawadi is the latest film to highlight the Indian industry’s growing foothold in the Southeast Asian country.
Bengaluru, India – An elderly influencer. A young woman. A well-known actress. A popular model. Wearing bold red bindis on their foreheads, they all dressed as the lead character from Bollywood superstar Alia Bhatt’s latest film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, in viral Instagram posts last month.
Over-the-top tributes to actors are common for the Indian movie industry. But these fans, many of them public figures themselves, are not Indian: They’re from Thailand.
Indian films have long been popular in parts of Africa and the Middle East, apart from countries with large South Asian diaspora populations such as the United States, United Kingdom and Malaysia. But Thailand’s relationship with Bollywood has mostly been limited to the use of the Southeast Asian nation’s idyllic beaches as backdrops for scenes.
Now, as cinema globally tries to claw its way back to pre-COVID-19 revenues, Thailand is turning from a peripheral prop to a promising partner in the $2.3bn Indian film industry’s drive 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 growing collaboration between actors and filmmakers in the two countries is exposing both audiences to each other like never before.
By 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 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 was not alone: Joining the movie on the top-10 list was RRR, another Indian film.
“It’s really exciting,” Kulthep Narula, a veteran Bangkok-based producer, told Al Jazeera. “We’ve never seen Indian films get this kind of response in Thailand.”
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The simultaneous success of RRR and Gangubai Kathiawadi captures a deeper shift in Thailand’s appetite for India’s film and entertainment sector, said experts — and it has not come about overnight. A series of Thai actresses, including Savika Chaiyadej, Chatcha Patumthip and Ann Mitchai, have acted in Indian films in recent years. In 2019, Mitchai, who is also a singer, launched a Hindi music album.
“For Thai actors, it’s an opportunity to gain traction in a giant industry, with much more money on offer,” Anwesha Hazarika, a research scholar at Cotton University in the northeast Indian city of Guwahati, told Al Jazeera. “But there’s a gain for India too — this helps increase the visibility of Indian films in Thailand.”
That “visibility” did not truly exist until now, said Narula. Though one cinema in Bangkok does screen Indian films, its audience has almost exclusively consisted of South Asian expatriates, he said. Meanwhile, the Indian movie industry did not make much of an effort to reach Thai audiences, either.
“There was a perception that while Indian audiences might like white actors in their films, they wouldn’t be receptive to faces from East or Southeast Asia,” he said. The success of Korean dramas universally, including in India, helped break that stereotype, Narula said.
In Thailand, Indian TV shows have also grown in popularity in recent years, with one drama, Naagin, in particular gaining a cult following. Arjun Bijlani, the lead actor in that show, recalled how his co-stars and he were stunned by the affection they received on a tour to the country in March 2018 at the invitation of a TV channel that broadcasts Indian soaps.
“It was beyond our wildest expectations,” Bijlani told Al Jazeera. The actors were feted in a packed Bangkok stadium and driven around in a carriage while fans chanted their names.
Bijlani attributed the success of Indian shows like Naagin in Thailand to a broader cultural compatibility between the two societies — both sitting at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, with shared epics like the Ramayana (known as the Ramakien in Thailand), which follows the life of a legendary prince from Ayodhya.
“It’s a natural market for Indian content that’s just not been explored enough,” he said.
If history serves as a cultural bond between the countries, the present offers common narratives too, said Hazarika, the research scholar. Like India, prostitution is illegal in Thailand, even though it is practised openly in most cities.
“It makes sense that Gangubai, the story of a sex worker who successfully takes on the odds against her, would resonate with audiences in Thailand,” she said.
Thailand’s voracious social media consumption — the country’s citizens routinely rank among the biggest users of the internet — also helped drive the popularity of Gangubai, Narula said.
“Once a large number of social media influencers started talking about the film, everyone wanted to know what it was about,” Narula said.
Other factors are also helping Indian films make it 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 previously unavailable library of Indian films for local audiences. Amazon Prime Video has also said that it plans to launch across Southeast Asia soon.
“People who don’t know Indian films aren’t going to go to a theatre to watch one,” he said. “But if they’re on Netflix, they’ll check one out, and if they like it, try more.”
But for the Indian film industry to build on its recent successes in Thailand, it will need a new mindset, cautioned Bijlani.
“Frankly, I’ve been disappointed by how little Indian production houses have done to come up with smart projects targeted at markets like Thailand,” he said. “At the moment, these audiences continue to be treated as an afterthought.”
As for Thai filmmakers, they do not have the budget to hire A-list Bollywood stars, said Narula.
“We can only work with really good, second-tier Indian actors,” he said. “That creates a scenario where a film might do well in Thailand, but we’re not sure whether it will work with Indian audiences.”
Narula might know soon. He’s currently part of a production that will, in its first instalment, tell the story of an Indian wedding in Thailand, followed by a sequel where a Thai couple gets married in India. Actors from both nations are involved, he said.
“The opportunities are limitless,” he said. “What we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg.”