Thailand gets Bollywood fever as sex worker biopic strikes chord

Gangubai Kathiawadi is the latest film to highlight the Indian industry’s growing foothold in the Southeast Asian country.

Bengaluru, India – An elderly influencer. A young woman. A well-known actress. A popular model. Wearing bold red bindis on their foreheads, they all dressed as the lead character from Bollywood superstar Alia Bhatt’s latest film, Gangubai Kathiawadi, in viral Instagram posts last month.

Over-the-top tributes to actors are common for the Indian movie industry. But these fans, many of them public figures themselves, are not Indian: They’re from Thailand.

Indian films have long been popular in parts of Africa and the Middle East, apart from countries with large South Asian diaspora populations such as the United States, United Kingdom and Malaysia. But Thailand’s relationship with Bollywood has mostly been limited to the use of the Southeast Asian nation’s idyllic beaches as backdrops for scenes.

Now, as cinema globally tries to claw its way back to pre-COVID-19 revenues, Thailand is turning from a peripheral prop to a promising partner in the $2.3bn Indian film industry’s drive to expand into new markets. Streaming platforms are making it easier for Thai audiences to access Indian films, according to industry insiders and experts. And growing collaboration between actors and filmmakers in the two countries is exposing both audiences to each other like never before.

By early June, Gangubai Kathiawadi — the story of a woman forced into prostitution who then becomes a fierce fighter for women’s rights — had spent five weeks among Netflix’s 10-most-watched films in Thailand. For two weeks in May, it was the most-watched film on Thai Netflix — a position it did not enjoy, even in India. And it was not alone: Joining the movie on the top-10 list was RRR, another Indian film.

“It’s really exciting,” Kulthep Narula, a veteran Bangkok-based producer, told Al Jazeera. “We’ve never seen Indian films get this kind of response in Thailand.”