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June 18, 1999


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Pioneer Muthu

Shobha Warrier

A Japanese poster of Muthu. Click for bigger pic!
Of late, Indian films -- whether in Hindi, Tamil or Telugu -- have found a lucrative market abroad.

Indians settled in the US, the UK, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia and other countries passionately look forward to new releases, perhaps more enthusiastically than Indians back home.

The overseas market is boosting sagging morale in the Indian film industry and improving its financial condition. But it called for some people to take a risk. And among the most successful was Kandaswamy Bharatan, chief executive of Digital Studios Ltd, who cracked into what appeared to be an impregnable Japanese market.

The Indian film industry has had a bad time in the last two years, prompting it to seek new markets to keep itself going. The safest bet was going to places where there was a large Indian expat/NRI population.

But Kandaswamy, the son-in-law of legendary Tamil film director K Balachander, decided to explore markets that lacked a significant Indian population, where nobody knows what Indian films and culture was about.

And thanks to his efforts, Indian films have made an impact in Japan for the first time ever.

"We did not anticipate such a great success in Japan," he says. "Yes, this was a bold experiment. One reason why we thought of Japan as a market for our films was because we knew Japanese youngsters were looking for novel ideas and challenges. And they weren't happy with either their films or those from Hollywood."

It all began with a collaboration between Kandaswamy's Digital studios Ltd and a company in Japan called Japan Cinema Associates. Three Indian films (Muthu, Roja and Annamalai) were shown to the Japanese company and they chose to distribute Muthu first. Muthu, directed by K S Ravikumar and produced by K Balachander's production unit Kavithalaya, stars Rajnikant and Meena.

The company felt Muthu had all the elements to entertain people and it was promoted as an Indian film, not one in Tamil. Renamed, Muthu, The Dancing Maharaja, it's been running in Japan for the last one year now. And reports suggest that though the films were screened only in the cities, it's now available even in rental video shops.

According to one viewer, Chiharu Ikeda, "I was quite at home watching this film. The film talks about how to live life, but not in a preaching, oppressive way -- that's what's great about it. The film is full of positive feeling -- 'Don't get used by money', and 'enjoy life', and it makes you feel positive. The scenes are lively and it's full of dances... [It's] an exuberant film."

Director Ravikumar.
Mayumi Takahashi, though, like the element of the absurd in it: "The reckless action... dancing with exaggerated choreography, the unusual filming..."

Shinjiro Ogiwara says he hasn't had such fun in ages. In fact, his friends had told him it would make him laugh. It did. But he felt there was more to Muthu, a remake of the Malayalam film, Thenmavin Kompathu, directed by Priyadarshan and starring Mohanlal and Shobhana.

"After seeing the film, it occurred to me that this is not a shallow film; it's got depth. It made me reflect on Indian religious views and cultural values. In particular, Muthu's father says, 'The one who allows himself to be cheated is worse than the one who cheats' and 'Even if you don't have any money, I want you to grow up a good person'. These comments made me think..."

Miyuki Ishizawa felt Indian women, as depicted by Meena, came out as being strong-minded, and that film also highlighted the frankness of Indians.

An unofficial fan club has been also been set up on the Internet for fans of Rajnikant, though we haven't been able to locate it yet. There's also a free "mail magazine" which sends up-to-date information about Rajnikant and his films via email twice every month.

Kandaswamy said the unprecedented success of the film had much to do with some meticulously planned promotion. He says the Indian and Japanese companies sat together and chalked out a detailed plan months before the release of the film. The joke among the Indian collaborators was that they made the film in six months but the promotional plans went on for nine months.

"That gives you an idea how meticulous the Japanese are in planning things. They don't do anything in haste," says Kandaswamy.

Nearly 21 television channels carried the promos at regular intervals for nearly six months and the trailer ran for three months. The Japanese press also was a part of the promotional activities. Representatives from three leading Japanese magazines -- a fashion magazine, a film and video magazine and a life style magazine -- were flown to India for interviews with Meena, Rajnikant, A R Rahman and director K S Ravikumar.

A book on Muthu in Japanese, including the story and packed with stills from the film was published.

"The Japanese people would like to know what they were going to see and what they could expect from the film. This attitude is not confined to films alone; this is generally their approach to life," says Kandaswamy.

Finally, in June 1998, Muthu was released in Tokyo. The audience was surprised when Meena came onstage after the film and went overboard when she spoke a few words in Japanese. She came onstage for all the three shows on the first day.

K S Ravikumar
Kandaswamy agrees with the view that the youngsters in the audience liked the message in the film. The first song, Oruvan oruvan muthalali conveys that money is not everything in life and that everyone should adhere to some values. Kandaswamy says the westernised Japanese youth feel a spiritual vacuum that this film addressed. And the older generation was happy that a film with a positive message has captivated the fancy of the younger generation.

"They are very fascinated by the way we have packaged such a serious message in a film with all the entertaining masala," he says.

Muthu ran for 23 weeks in Shibuya in Tokyo, 15 weeks in Osaka and, like any other Hollywood film, moved on to almost all the major centres in Japan. After successfully completing one year of its release in Japan, Kandaswamy is confident that Indian films have found a niche in Japan.

Contrary to expectations, it was not Rajnikant who has become the biggest rage in Japan but the petite Meena. Meena with her big, black eyes has become such a big hit there that many more films starring her are ready to invade the Japanese market.

Yajaman, starring Rajnikant and Meena, is already running, though not as successfully as Muthu. Porkkalam, a film directed by Cheran with Meena and Murali in the lead will be released in September and Jeans, starring Aiswarya Rai and Prasant in November. Roja is slated to hit Japanese theatres in 2000.

Click for bigger pic!
Muthu's director K S Ravikumar, is excited about his film's success in Japan.

"I took only the base from the original Malayalam film. Otherwise, the screenplay of Muthu is entirely different," he says.

A R Rahman too has made a big impact with his music. Now Kandaswamy plans to market more of Rahman's songs there. A music video by young musician Ramani Bharadwaj is also getting ready for a Japanese release.

Kandaswamy feels the Japanese market has to be nurtured carefully and that Indians should not dump all kinds of films and music there.

"It's more of a challenge to sustain the market. We are planning a mega non-classical dance show with 14 film songs from various films in November this year. We have called it the Maharaja show," he says. Naturally, Meena is part of that show too.

After the success of Muthu, Dentsu, one of Japan's leading advertising agencies, came to India to produce a soft drink commercial. It had colourful song and dance sequences by Indian dancers, a clip that seemed clear out of Bollywood.

After tasting success in one of the choosiest market, Kandaswamy is now planning ahead. For starters, he's thinking of a foray into Korea and other far eastern countries. Not bad at all, considering the whole exodus began because the local markets were in the doldrums.

The Rajnikanth Fan Club (Japanese)
The Unofficial (Japanese) Meena Homepage

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