The Indian International Film Academy, the Indian equivalent of the Oscars organized its 2008 award ceremony in Bangkok in June 2008. It is the third gala event organized in the last six years in Southeast Asia by the Indian film industry in collaboration with business and media houses. The previous two events were convened in Malaysia (2002) and Singapore (2004). This event is not just a matter of distributing awards in a foreign location, but is a clear indication of Bollywood's growing interest in Southeast Asia both as a potential market and as a favorite shooting spot in the neighborhood. Though Indian cinema has always been popular in Southeast Asia especially in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, Bollywood is increasingly poised to give a strategic leverage to India's presence in Southeast Asia.
There exists a huge potential market for the Bollywood in Southeast Asia given the large Indian Diaspora and limited production capacity of local film industries. Moreover, Indian movies are also becoming popular among the indigenous and non-Indian origin population. The popularity of Indian movies are moving beyond the Little India in Singapore and three big names of Indian cinema, popularly known as the three Khans - Shahrukh Khan, Amir Khan and Salman Khan - have been very popular in the Malay world - Malaysia and Indonesia. Telecasts of Indian movies in Indonesia have become almost a daily affair and Indian movies are also being released with the regional language sub-titles in some Southeast Asian countries.
Geographical proximity, cost-effective shooting locales and hassle-free atmosphere make Southeast Asia an attractive destination for the Bollywood. So much so that some Indian producers even prefer shooting the entire movie in various locations in Southeast Asia. Movies like Zinda, Murder, Anthony Kaun Hai have been shot entirely in Thailand and Don in Malaysia. A full-fledged Indian television channel named Vasantham has been started in Singapore and Tamil, Hindi and other Indian regional movies will be shown on this channel. Adlabs Films Ltd, an Anil Ambani group's company has formed a joint venture with Malaysian company, Lotus Five Star Cinemas, to operate a 51-megaplex chain in Malaysia to take advantage of the existing huge market for Indian movies in Malaysia.
The Indian film industry's efforts to tap opportunities in Southeast Asia have received an overwhelming response from various Southeast Asian governments. Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has appreciated the Bollywood-led growing cultural engagement between India and Southeast Asia. Having acknowledged the importance of the Bollywood as a agent of promoting tourism, some Southeast Asian countries have taken several significant initiatives to attract the Indian film industry.
In Singapore, two agencies, the Media Development Authority (MDA) and the Singapore Tourism Board are actively involved in the promotion of Singapore's image as a global film market. The Singapore Tourism Board is also trying to promote the popularity of Singapore as a tourist spot by providing subsidy to the extent of 50 per cent to foreign film producers who plan to shoot their movies in Singapore. Indian movies too are taking advantage of these opportunities. The Hritik Roshan starrer, Krrish, is the first Indian movie, filmed in Singapore under this scheme. Singapore has since emerged as a cost-effective shooting destination for Bollywood.
Malaysia, meanwhile, is planning to build a separate film city for Bollywood to facilitate the shooting of entire movies. This project will be developed by PK Resources, a Malaysian investment company. A noteworthy point here, is that some big names of Bollywood are likely to be included in the management board of this project. The recently-held IIFA award ceremony in Bangkok was also facilitated by the tourism authority of Thailand and the federation of Thai industries.
Though the presence of Bollywood is being felt in the Southeast Asia, a major challenge in the form of pirated CDs exists in the way of tapping the Southeast Asian market in a profitable manner. Therefore, better coordination is needed at the governmental level so that the trade and distribution of pirated CDs can be prevented. Next, the Bollywood-led cultural engagement should be a two-way process. The growing influence of Bollywood and the limited capacity of indigenous movie production can generate discontent among locals and native artists and the issue could be politicized. The Malacca government's decision to confer the Datuk title to Indian film star Shah Rukh Khan was heavily criticized by indigenous Malaysian artists and the opposition parties.
India should, therefore, provide enough room for the cultural sentiments of Southeast Asian countries in its cultural diplomacy. It could opt for organizing combined and specific film festivals for Indian and Southeast Asian movies. Though Bollywood is gaining ground in the cultural arena of Southeast Asia, efforts need to be made to transform Bolllywood's soft power engagement into a well-crafted Indian policy of cultural diplomacy in Southeast Asia.