Bollywood needs the sound of Arabic

Filmmakers agree that interest would grow if audiences could understand what actors were saying instead of reading subtitles.

Amit Khanna, right, the head of Reliance Big Entertainment, and the Bollywood director Karan Johar speak at the event.
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DUBAI // Dubbing Indian films in Arabic, exploring Middle Eastern markets and striking partnerships is the way ahead for Bollywood, top Indian filmmakers and experts said on day five of the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff).

The reach of Indian films in the Gulf would increase with dubbing, which has begun in markets such as Latin America and Germany, said a senior Indian producer Amit Khanna and well-known Bollywood director Karan Johar.

"We're seriously looking at dubbing films here," said Khanna, the chairman of Reliance Entertainment, India's largest entertainment company that is in a joint venture with Hollywood's DreamWorks SKG to produce movies internationally.

"It's time to move on from subtitling to dubbing in Arabic. The local people have an interest in Indian films, we just need better marketing and more penetration."

Movies such as Johar's blockbuster My Name is Khan about Islamophobia in post 9/11 America have been dubbed for the German market, while Reliance's Kites, an adventure film about a fugitive is being dubbed in Latin America.

Hindi and other Indian language movies are released with English subtitles in the Middle East and most parts of the world. Indian movies are a big draw for the UAE's large 1.7 million community and have traditionally attracted local Arab audiences as well.

Distribution of Indian movies began in the 1940s in the Middle East, making it among the top three markets for Indian cinema behind the US and Britain.

"We must nurture a potentially huge market," Khanna told filmmakers and students gathered at a discussion on Indian cinema at Diff yesterday. "We need to revisit the whole Middle East region where there is still potential for growth. There are huge possibilities and potential in this engagement."

Johar said My Name is Khan, which was released last February, had touched a chord in the Arab world and this showed the need to continue producing films to appeal to a broader audience.

"The Arab world was very accepting. It showed how an Indian film can travel and achieve box office figures worldwide," said Johar, a famous Indian filmmaker also known for family entertainers such as Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Some Happiness, Some Sadness).

"It resonated because it spoke of the misconception of a great religion and a lack of awareness in the Western world. But it's a one-off success and our content should broaden for other films as well."

Several audience members expressed an interest in entering co-production and dubbing agreements with Indian companies.

"I would love to make co-production movies with you because you make touching films," Nassim Abassi, a Moroccan filmmaker, told Johar. "I love your cinema. I have seen many of your films."

Abassi's film Majid, about an orphan who struggles for some reminder of his parents, is among 12 films in the Muhr Arab Awards.

Dorothy Wenner, a programme consultant for the sub-continent for Diff, said Arab audiences responded to Indian cinema due to the play on emotions and the stress on family.

"Western films are very big in technology in CGI [computer generated imagery], but Indian cinema hits the heart and is much more intense," Wenner said. "That's the reason these films have fans in the Arab world and even in Germany."

She said stories of alienation in a foreign land such as My Name is Khan were understood by Arab, Turkish, Arab and Russian migrants away from home.

Indian films are often criticised for song and dance numbers that bear no relation to the plot, overdramatic scenes, melodrama and theatrical sets. But Wenner believed that people did strongly connect with the films. "The films tell stories you can relate to," she said. "We want to make the festival a platform for Indian filmmakers to explore future options on how the market can develop. They can further explore the interest in Indian films in the Arab market. The idea is to get them to use the festival to develop new audiences."

Johar was unapologetic about the emotional weight of his movies. "We're [Indian filmmakers] flamboyant and in your face emotionally," Johar said. "But subtlety is not part of my agenda."