Bollywood Juggernaut: What makes Indian Films Global?

By | Wed 25 May 2022

I’ve just finished the Netflix’s Indian movie Gangubai Kathiawadi. Like many Thais, I was blown away by the castings, the plot, the tight scripts, and the production. It was a marvel, a delight, an inspiration worth every streaming minute.

It made me reflect on Indian politics, culture, and India in general.  (By the way, prostitution is legal in India, but pimping and operating a brothel isn’t.)

That is what a great film should do to you. Arouse your curiosity.

This Netflix movie is based on the true story of Gangubai – a middle-class Indian girl sold to a brothel in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) by her boyfriend for 1000 rupees ($13). Raped and beaten up badly by a thug, she sought help and justice with the local Muslim Indian mafia. Later, she accumulated power until she became a madam (brothel owner) and a local politician, championing prostitutes’ rights.

So, what makes Bollywood earn world recognition?

Before I answer, let’s define Bollywood first. As India is a multicultural and multi-ethnic nation with 1.4 billion people, it uses multiple languages. Hindi is spoken by 500 million people, followed by Bengali (91 million), then Marathi (83 million), among other languages. Bollywood is Hindi films made in Mumbaithe financial capitalIt’s a subset of the Indian film industry, albeit the largest and most successful subset. Other regions in India also produce their own films in their own languages, with a large audience base.

In terms of market value, while Hollywood is much larger (+$100 billion) and grossing more box office sales than the entire Indian film industry ($2.3 billion in 2018), India produces more films per year (1800 vs. 500). It has billions of audiences worldwide including in China and Pakistan.

What makes Indian films successful is (1) its singing and dancing sequences unique to its industry. I have yet to see Mel Gibson kicking the door, shooting the villains, then dancing for five minutes before returning to more shooting. I used to laugh at this when I was a teen watching Indian films. But I have come to realize (decades later with greater maturity) its charm and cultural value. Some Indian films feature dancing and singing for up to 1/3 of the film!  (Though I’m not sure how that will go in the Avengers or Avatars.)

(2) Indians are passionate about storytelling, whether rags-to-rich or overcoming obstacles stories. It helps that India has 1.4 billion people. That makes it one of, if not the largest, markets in the world. Movies are expensive to make, requiring a large initial investment. Once finished, however, the cost of distributing movies to theaters and online is close to zero.

(3) If you google Gangubai’s castings, you will learn that all the main actors/actresses aren’t just performers. They are directors and producers in other works also. What this tells me is that they are professionals with a wide-ranging experience and understanding in their industry. They know the film-making process, not just acting (and then blowing all the money away on drugs and hookers like some Hollywood celebrities.)

(4) Due to its past British colonization and its present Commonwealth status, there are many British Indians and Indian immigrants in developed countries. In fact, British Indians are the largest ethnic minority in the UK, comprising 1.4 million. Some of them, like the leading actress playing Gangubai, Alia Bhatt, are born in India, hold British citizenship, and work in the Bollywood industry. Crucially, they help promote and bridge the two countries’ entertainment industries.

Relatedly, that’s why there are plenty of Indian restaurants in the UK. The Brits are fond of them. It, therefore, helps to have your own ethnic group reside in and integrate with a foreign country to spread your ‘entertainment tastebuds.’ Viewed another way, Bollywood embraces globalization well.

Can there be “Thaiwood”?

Thailand, on average, produces about 30-50 films per year (pre-covid). Which is a pittance compared to Hollywood and Bollywood. In 2019 the Thai Box Office only yielded 711 million THB ($20 million).

Why is that?

Thais have been consuming US-made movies and Thai soap operas for most of their lives. Netflix has opened their eyes to many non-English language original content such as K-dramas, docuseries, and other cultures’ movies.

We are not good at making movies for the international audience, which speaks a lot about the locals’ mindset and the state of our entertainment industry.

My suggestion for Thailand is to professionalize the Thai entertainment industry and get the know-how and learn from the more mature entertainment industries such as South Korea, Japan, and the US. Send our young film directors for overseas training, as well as hire foreign writers and producers to train local staff here. Even China’s pace of entertainment production has surpassed us.

I’ve never seen a Thai science-fiction film and won’t expect it anytime soon. Why? We are not a scientific-literate society, but a superstitious one. Thirty years ago, I remember there were lots of Chinese ghost movies in Thailand. Today, the Chinese are making space travel movies. By contrast, Thai producers will stick to the usual theme: Love jealousy, slapstick comedy with a talkative gay character, ghost stories, and the glorification of the ancient Thai period. They are relatively easy to make. Don’t require too much thinking. And a safe bet to make a profit, I suppose.

A Chinese sci-fi genre film, with a $50 million budget, and $700 million box office revenue. 

As I have written often in many of my articles, Thailand has a lot of unique “raw cultural ingredients” of value to the world, which I dare say may be more valuable than oil. The problem is our leaders, whose mindsets are embedded in the 18th century, lack the ability to assemble, add value, and market them. For instance, Japan has a huge lavender field in Hokkaido. With it, they sell lavender flavored ice cream, lavender perfume etc. Thai tourists rush to take selfies there when we have the capability to accomplish that right underneath our noses.
That’s a great shame on our part.