What is one factor which unites Indian diaspora? Apart from their patriotic fervour, it is the Indian entertainment industry, more specifically Indian cinema.
But it is to be clearly understood Indian cinema is not Hindi cinema or the Bollywood as it is called. India produces nearly 1500 films in a year and less than half of it is in Hindi.
The first Indian film to have a commercial release in an overseas territory was Dharti Ke Lal (1946), directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and based on the Bengal famine of 1943. It was released in the Soviet Union in 1949.
The first Indian film to have a worldwide release in many countries was Aan (1952), directed by Mehboob Khan, and starring Dilip Kumar and Nimmi. It was subtitled in 17 languages and released in 28 countries, including the United Kingdom, United States, France, and Japan, earning a considerable profit from overseas. Mehboob Khan’s Academy Award nominated Mother India, made in 1957 was an unprecedented success in overseas markets, including Europe, Russia, French territories, and Latin America.
Up until the 1980s, the largest overseas market for Indian films was the Soviet Union. And, Raj Kapoor became a household name even amongst the Russians. I remember when we had gone for the Moscow film festival in the early eighties, a taxi driver, who did not understand Hindi, played the song `awaara hoon…’ repeatedly on his car audio and what was more surprising was that he refused to accept the fare as we had come from the land of Raj Kapoor.
The first Indian film to become a blockbuster at the Soviet box office was Awaara (1951)
Indian films were routinely released with hundreds of prints in the Soviet Union, with the most popular Indian films releasing with more than a thousand prints there. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, bringing an end to Indian cinema’s largest overseas market at the time.
Since the 1990s, the largest overseas market for Indian cinema has been South Asia.
Shah Rukh Khan starrer Darr (1993) and the Madhuri Dixit and Salman Khan starrer Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994), were the biggest hits. Shah Rukh starrer Dil Se (1998) was the first Indian film to enter the United Kingdom’s top 10 box office charts.
In China, some of the Indian films to gain commercial success there during the 1970s–1980s included Awaara, Tahir Hussain’s Caravan (1971), Noorie (1979), and Disco Dancer. Aamir Khan again opened up the Chinese market for Indian films in the early 21st century with the Academy Award nominated Lagaan (2001). 3 Idiots became a big hit and has been reported to be the 12th favourite film of all time, according to ratings on Chinese film review site Douban.
Dangal (2016) is the first Indian film to exceed ₹10 billion and $100 million overseas, including US $ 196 million from China. Dangal became the 16th highest-grossing film in China.
Aamir is hailed as a “king of the Chinese box office”, though Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Irrfan Khan’s Hindi Medium have also became blockbusters in China in 2018.
Unfortunately, 2019 hasn’t been that good for Bollywood films at the overseas market. Apart from ‘Bharat’ and ‘Gully Boy’, the other films to fare better include ‘Uri – The Surgical Strike’, ‘Kalank’, ‘Mission Mangal’ and ‘Kabir Singh’.
Siddharth Anand directorial mega action thriller ‘War’, starring Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff in the lead roles, has been doing well but exact figures are not available.
According to unconfirmed reports, the worldwide numbers for ‘War’ stands around Rs 235-240 crore.
Here are some Indian movies that won over not only the NRIs but also the local citizens of various countries:
Lagaan (2001), Earth (1998) by Deepa Mehta, Dil Se (1998) by Mani Ratnam, Liar’s Dice (2013) by Geetu Mohandas, Devdas (2002) by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Black Friday (2004) by Anurag Kashyap, Awaara (1951) by Raj Kapoor which has been included in the list of 100 all-time greatest films by TIME magazine, Monsoon Wedding (2001) by Mira Nair, The Namesake (2006), again by Mira Nair and finally the Magnum Opus, Pather Panchali (1955) by Satyajit Ray.
While these are award-winning films, some of the other box office hits include Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) by Guru Dutt, Salaam Bombay (1988) by Mira Nair, (rated as one of the ‘1000 Best Movies Ever Made’ by NY Times, Tamil film Nayakan (1987) by Mani Ratnam.
While China has emerged as a highly profitable market for Indian movies in recent years, Tamil super star Rajnikant is a superstar in Japan a well. His Tamil film Muthu raked in good money for its producers and since then there has been no looking back for him. Recently a Japanese Cabinet minister who had come to India said, Rajni is a bigger star in his country than any of the Japanese actors.
For Malayalam films, the biggest market is of course the UAE which has a sizeable number of Malayalis and actors like Mohan Lal and Mammooty has a huge fan following.
In 2019, Lal acted in Prithviraj Sukumaran’s directorial venture Lucifer, which has become the highest-grossing Malayalam film ever, collecting more than Rs 200 crore worldwide, bulk of it coming from the ex-patriate community in the UAE.
Mammooty’s Mamangam, a historical film with hugely expensive sets was his blockbuster in 2019. But the unfamiliar storyline and overload of violent scenes did not go well with the audience.
South Indian films have a limited market overseas and usually, it is segmented. But Hindi has a wider reach and festivals like Indian International Film Academy awards (IIFA, which I have had the fortune of attending five times in different parts of the world) give the Indian diaspora wonderful opportunities to meet the top stars and attend the award ceremonies. These events have helped to promote Indian films in various countries and I have seen families driving down hundreds of miles to attend these functions in countries like South Africa and England.
While many Indian films are shot abroad, there is not much interaction with local population but only in events like IIFA actors mingle freely with the countrymen.
There is need for more such events and as there is growing interest for Indian films even amongst the citizens of other countries, the Indian film industry should reach out to lesser known countries and cities.
Indian cinema, unlike cricket which is played only in certain countries, has spread its wings wide and far