Bollywood or bust
It is close to midnight and a steady stream of film-goers are emerging from the Grand Cinema. Even though it's a Sunday night, the exiting throng is bubbling with excitement over the movie they've watched, part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF).
'It's not unusual to see a full HKIFF screening, but it's surprising to see such a positive reaction from the audience,' says Li Cheuk-to, the festival's artistic director.
The film being shown is Om Shanti Om, Farah Khan's no-holds-barred Bollywood musical that combines the trademark all-singing, all-dancing sequences with unfettered romantic melodrama.
'You don't often see film festival screenings generating such enthusiasm - people were really swaying and tapping along with the film,' says Li.
Such fervour for Bollywood productions is behind the HKIFF's decision to showcase four Indian productions at the festival's annual Summer Pops event. A screening of Om Shanti Om will be followed by Chak De! India (in which Indian cinematic icon Shahrukh Khan plays a sports coach trying to form a group of hockey players into a formidable team); Life in a ... Metro (a contemporary romantic comedy set in Mumbai) and Omkara (Vishal Bharadwaj's remake of Othello, set as a drama about a band of outlaws in Uttar Pradesh).
It's not the first time Bollywood productions have taken centre stage at the HKIFF. Don, a thriller starring Khan, was featured at last year's festival.
Li also points out that in 1998, the programme included a section on Song and Dance in Indian Cinema, which showcased 13 films - the oldest one produced in 1936. The films were shown to celebrate what he describes as 'films which seek to shamelessly please audiences'.
'It has always been the type of film ignored by the festival circuit. [Our efforts] have always been about introducing audiences to something new, in what we call world cinema,' he says.
Hong Kong audiences could certainly do with more exposure to Bollywood productions, or some of the regional variations, such as the Tamil-language, Chennai-based Kollywood film productions.
While such films have achieved a large niche in some overseas markets - particularly Malaysia, Singapore and, to a lesser extent, Britain and the US - in Hong Kong they have yet to become a cultural phenomenon. Even the biggest hits are unable to secure a general release in our cinemas. The attention generated elsewhere by Indian stars such as Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai has not been repeated in Hong Kong. Local screenings, like that featuring the Tamil thriller Dasaavatharam, organised by the Tamil Cultural Association, are rare.
However, some small Indian operators are active, among them cultural entrepreneur Anita Garg, whose company, Jade Group, has brought in films such as Guru (starring Bollywood's golden couple Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai); Sarkar (again featuring Bachchan alongside his father Amitabh); Krrish (with Roshan playing an invincible superhero) and Lage Raho Munna Bhai (a comedy starring Sanjay Dutt).
It's an uphill task to get cinema operators interested in these productions, she says, adding that many are 'not receptive' because 'it doesn't make business sense to feature them'.
The unconventional length of these films - Om Shanti Om and Guru both come in at just under 170 minutes, while Krrish is over three hours long - is another factor, says Garg. The length means fewer screenings per day and therefore less turnover.
'This is one of the reasons why the price of film tickets [at the Bollywood screenings] is much higher,' says Larry Parmanand, former president of the Indian Association Hongkong. 'Cinemas here want to do five shows. If you do only three, you're paying double the rent,' says Parmanand.
The Tamil Cultural Association, Jade Group and their local counterparts are selling tickets to their screenings at nearly twice the standard ticket price. Admittance to Singh is Kinng - a romantic comedy that the Jade Group will screen at Golden Gateway - ranges from HK$120 to HK$180 per person.
'Tickets here are usually HK$60 to HK$70 each - and on Tuesdays it could be HK$30 or HK$40. When you put that alongside HK$180, even I'd think twice,' Garg says.
Garg says her aim is for her films - Indian films in general - to have a more sustained run in cinemas, but so far this has eluded her.
'We hope to screen movies for a week, or every Sunday, so there would be a regularity,' she says.
'[If that happens] ticket prices will come down and more people will go to the cinemas,' Garg says, adding that many of those who watch these films don't go to the theatres for that celluloid fix.
'When the films come out on [pirated] DVD two days after the release at HK$20, it's much cheaper than buying a ticket from us.'
Driven by word-of-mouth, and given the nature of these sporadic screenings, Garg says her company is showing films on 'a very ad hoc basis'.
However well-received the films are at special events, mainstream Chinese audiences are slow to buy into Bollywood mania.
'If it's a film by Shahrukh Khan, a lot of Chinese will go - they are all crazy about him,' says Garg. Her point is illustrated by comments made in Hong Kong blogs about Khan, who is described simply as 'SRK', while the HKIFF's promotional material dubs him as 'the Andy Lau of India'.
However, films without Khan have not caught on.
'If it's not an SRK film, it's mainly Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans or Nepalis going to see these films,' says Garg.
Gary Mak Sing-hei, associate director of art-house cinema Broadway Cinematheque, says 'it's not easy for Indian films to find acceptance among local audiences'. He cites the way mainstream commercial distributors overlooked Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India. 'People tend to gravitate towards films from places like South Korea or Eastern Europe,' he says.
Only a few recent films with Indian casts were screened at his cinema, Mak adds. For example, Paul Mayeda Berges' directional debut The Mistress of Spices - hardly the uber-kitsch musical one expects of Bollywood.
Garg, however, declines to second the notion that a Eurocentric slant among local audiences is running against her efforts to boost Bollywood's presence in Hong Kong.
'Maybe that would be too harsh a word to use,' she says, but quickly adds, 'although I do wonder at times.'
It will be interesting to see if any of her concerns are evident at the HKIFF screenings later this month.
HKIFF's Bollywood Fever is part of the Summer Pops showcase - details at hkiff.org.hk. Singh is Kinng is screening tomorrow (9pm) and Sunday (6pm) at Golden Gateway, and Saturday (9pm) at UA Whampoa. For ticket details call 2366 7725