Do pelvic thrusts and cool tricks with cigarettes have anything to do with a new Japanese fascination with all things Indian? Iain Ball, our man in Osaka, meets a man who wants to change Japanese perceptions of India by showing them our most popular movies.

September 2000-Osaka, Japan: An excited audience spills out of the Paradise Cinema in the fashionable Amerika-Mura district of Osaka. The theatre was packed, and I admit to being surprised at that because the movie they just saw was Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se—with Japanese subtitles, of course. In Japanese, there’s no ‘L’ sound, so on the posters the title reads as Diru Se. The all-Japanese audience now animatedly discussing the movie looks like a good mix of ages—but a lot more women than men.

Being very un-Japanese, I stop a couple of twenty-somethings and ask them what they thought of it.

“I really enjoyed it! Manisha is just sooo pretty,” coos Chiaki, an office worker.

“I liked it,” says her friend Keiko, “but I didn’t think much of the ending.” Chiaki agrees with that, but when I ask them if they’ll go and see another Indian movie they nod vigorously: “Definitely,” says Chiaki. They’re hooked.

These are members of a new cult of Indian movie fans in Japan that has been growing since 1997, when the first ever commercially released Indian movie in this country, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, came to town. Soon after that came Border, then Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Dil Se, and soon, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. The driving force behind all of these releases is a man named Vibhav Kant Upadhyay, a 31-year old Agra-born Indian now living in Tokyo. He is the founder and president of an organisation called the India Centre, which he set up in 1992 to promote Indo-Japanese cultural and economic relations. With his own money, and the financial backing of a Japanese movie distributor called IAP Company, Upadhyay has been releasing and promoting Indian movies, mainly in Tokyo and Osaka, waiting for what he calls a “chain reaction” to begin. The truth is, four years and millions of dollars after Raju, he still hasn’t made any money, despite helping to create a sizeable Indian movie-cult following. But Upadhyay claims that he just doesn’t care. He says the India Centre and its supporters are focused on a “bigger vision”. Intrigued, I decided to go to Tokyo to find out what this vision is, and to meet an example of a previously undiscovered species—a movie promoter who says the money doesn’t matter.

Upadhyay has some small offices in Yotsuya, not far from the glittering shopping-and-partying district of Shinjuku. He leaps up to greet me, irrepressibly cheerful and friendly, with a bushy moustache and round face split by a schoolboy grin. He is endearingly vain—he repeatedly assures me that this small office is not the main India Centre office; and later I discover that he has sat through the entire interview suffering pain from a neck injury because he didn’t want me to see him wearing a neck brace. But his enthusiasm for what he does is clearly genuine, and I have no problems getting him to talk about it.

“I came to Japan as a student at Tokyo University in 1992, and I found that the Japanese don’t have a very good understanding of India” —Vibhav Kant Upadhyay

“I came to Japan as a student at Tokyo University in 1992, and I found that the Japanese don’t have a very good understanding of India,” he says, explaining why he decided to set up the India Centre. “They have some rather biased images of India and Indians. Also, India was just seen as a spiritual country, and spiritual things in Japan are seen as kind of ‘out of office’ stuff, you know—they didn’t think they could do business with that kind of place.” He grins. “This is what I took on as a challenge. I wanted to break that concept.”

Upadhyay says that in the ‘90s, despite the massive economic liberalisation taking place at home, the general image of India in Japanese society and especially amongst the business community steadfastly remained that of a poor, outmoded socialist country: “I thought, if India is to develop any kind of partnership with Japan, that image of India has to be changed here. We have to show that India has changed—and is changing—for good. So we did this experiment with the movies.”

Hold on, I tell him. How the hell are masala movies going to convince hard-headed Japanese businessmen to, say, invest in India, or buy Indian goods and services? Directly, movies can’t do that, he admits, but he argues that they could be instrumental over the medium and long term in creating an environment in which Indo-Japanese trade and cultural relations can flourish. “Take the example of Hollywood. Most Japanese young people have never been to America, but they all know America, what it looks like, what Americans are like and all that—from the movies. And I thought, why not try doing the same for India? In Japanese, they call it minkan koryu—inter-community, or ‘people-to-people’ communication. These movies are not just business propositions but tools of cultural and political relations.” Ultimately, this is Upadhyay’s ‘bigger vision’—to gradually bring about a realignment of Japanese attention away from the United States and back to Asia. To me, it seems somewhat ambitious to suppose that a bunch of feel-good movies with improbable plots and outlandish song-and-dance routines could do something as grand as forge a “new Asian era”, as the India Centre’s website suggests, but when I consider Hollywood’s impact on Japan, the idea begins to seem tantalisingly possible. If you can have millions of Japanese high school kids wanting to be like Bruce Willis and Leo DiCaprio after watching Armageddon and Titanic, why can’t you have them wanting to be like Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan instead?

Upadhyay says that the movies he has chosen to release were all carefully chosen for what he thought they could tell Japanese people about modern India. He argues that the Japanese understanding of India is restricted to what he sees as stereotyped images of rural India—be-turbaned villagers riding elephants in the countryside. He wanted to show movies that contrasted with that image. “When people see them, they see different aspects of India. A movie about terrorism… Dil Se; a movie about the India-Pakistan war… Border; a movie about success and a young man’s dreams… Raju, and so on.”

Okay, so it goes something like this: a young Indian man goes to Japan and promotes Bollywood movies in order to build stronger ties between India and Japan; he succeeds, and single-handedly brings about a new “Asian era” of enhanced business and cultural relations whilst taking a healthy slice of the billion-dollar Japanese movie market. Let’s face it, that might make a good idea for a movie, but it’s never going to happen in real life, is it? I ask him how Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, the last movie he released, did at the box office. To his credit, he doesn’t try to dress it up: “We spent more than one-and-a-half million dollars promoting that movie and it totally failed, it totally failed,” he admits, shaking his head. Upadhyay repeats again and again throughout our interview that showing a profit is not the measure he uses for success in his movie releases—he believes that through a process of attrition, he can make a difference to Japanese people’s understanding of India. But he readily admits that he could do the job much faster if the movies were more successful and reached a wider audience. As he says, he wants to start a “chain reaction”—opening up the market with a successful movie and drawing other entrepreneurs into the field.

I’m almost afraid to bring it up, but I bite the bullet and just ask him: “What happened with Muthu?”

The Tamil-language Rajnikant movie Muthu is the only Indian movie to have made a profit in Japan. It was a huge success—the closest anyone has ever come to starting the “chain reaction” Upadhyay talks about—but he and the India Centre had no part in its release. He did, he tells me, help a little with promoting the film at the time. I ask Upadhyay to tell me the story.

In 1997, Digital Studios Ltd chief executive Kandaswamy Bharatan struck a deal with a Japanese distributor called Japan Cinema Associates (JCA) to release Muthu in Japan. After careful planning, it was released in Tokyo in June 1998 with the Japanese title, Odotte Iru Maharaja— “The Dancing Maharajah”. It became an overnight hit. Stories abounded of usually reserved Japanese audiences standing up and dancing in the aisles during the dance numbers. Interest in Rajnikanth and his co-star Meena became intense as the Japanese media portrayed them as India’s ‘biggest superstars’ and a multitude of fan websites devoted to the two sprung up. Immediately, anything remotely India-themed gained popular currency—companies started using Indian music and images in ads and products. A leading soft-drinks manufacturer decided to go to Chennai to shoot a high-profile ad for a new lemon drink featuring Indian dancers and musicians.

At the time, everything seemed set for a massive Indian movie and merchandising boom. The potential for profit was enormous, and a fierce competition began between Japanese investors for the rights to the next Rajnikant movie. Feeling like they must have been on the brink of something big, Digital Studios and their distributor, JCA, released Yajaman, another Rajnikant/Meena movie, in May 1999, and then suddenly everything turned sour. Almost simultaneously, another Japanese distributor released exactly the same movie, Yajaman, and sued JCA. JCA counter-sued. When the sound and fury died down, it became apparent in court that both distributors legally owned the rights to Yajaman—one to the Tamil-language version, and the other to the Hindi-language version. “Bad guys appeared,” says Upadhyay, “and compared to a bad Indian guy, a bad Japanese guy is a relatively good guy, you know? So, they cheated them—they sold the same movie to several different Japanese companies. And there’s no mechanism where the Japanese can go and check this. They complained to the Indian Embassy, but they just said, ‘Hey, we don’t deal in movies!’” A lot of potential Japanese investors, who had been so anxious to get hold of Indian movie rights, were frightened off. And on top of this mess, it quickly became apparent that box office receipts for Yajaman were lower than expected. “It was counter-productive,” says Upadhyay, clearly still angry. “It did a lot of damage to what we’re trying to do.” He blames the terrible failure of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge on the bad publicity generated by the Yajaman fiasco. By July 1999, a little more than a year after it had begun, the Indian movie boom in Japan seemed—and still seems—finished.

But maybe not for good. Upadhyay is in for the long haul. In December last year he took Hum and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam to the Tokyo Film Festival and now has his sights set on a commercial release for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Although the long-awaited “chain reaction” for Indian movies in Japan has not materialised, Indian movies actually have helped in raising India’s profile here considerably. The knick-knacks and household goods store down the road from my house has started selling “Ganesh” curtains and handbags covered in Hindi script. It’s gibberish—but to Japanese kids it looks cool. A famous Japanese comedian, Kiyotaka Nanbara, has just finished shooting what he calls “a mega-scale B-movie” called Nattu: Odoru Ninja Densetsu—“Nattu: The Legend of the Dancing Ninja”—a Japanese-language rip-off of Muthu that he filmed in Chennai complete with seven Tamil-language songs and real Indian dancers. Other influences are helping, too —curry, or rather the Japanese version of it, kare, has been increasing in popularity for about ten years and is now pretty much a national dish. More recently, the idea that India has a vital role to play in Japan’s information-technology future has been finding greater favour at the highest levels of government.

So, India is coming to Japan. Only metaphorically, of course—it’s crowded enough here as it is. Literally, it’s the other way around—the number of Japanese tourists choosing to visit India has risen three-fold over the last four years to 150,000 visitors. Increasingly, it appears that young Japanese people are turning away from their parents’ and grandparents’ preoccupation with the West and looking to Asia, almost as if for the first time, and beginning to rediscover it. So perhaps it’s not too bold to claim, as Upadhyay does, that the “Asian era” is beginning. “Long live Bollywood,” he writes on his website, “our brave new cultural ambassador!” Or as they would say in Japan: “Bollywood, banzai!”

This article was first published in the April 2001 issue