Bollywood was pinning its hopes on superstar actor Sharukh Khan in its attempts to restore its once-mighty presence in Egypt.
This month, Egyptian distributor United Motion Pictures (UMP) released Khan’s latest movie Chennai Express on 10 screens across the country’s two major cities, Cairo and Alexandria.
While the film was a big success, garnering $15 million in returns around the globe, it did not make the top 10 hit list in Egypt, reaping a meager $8,430.
Egyptian movie Ish al-Bulbul (The Nightingale’s Nest) earned $156,591 in returns, another movie called al-Qashash earned $89,406, and Hollywood’s Gravity earned $66,271.
“The movie has created such a buzz because of Sharukh Khan, but because of the events unfolding in Egypt and the absence of good promotions for the film in the country, it didn’t fare well,” Duaa Abu Dhiya, head of the Arabic content department at elCinema.com, the biggest database website for films in Egypt, said.
The romantic action comedy Chennai Express is about a man who journeys to a small Indian town to fulfill his grandfather’s wish to have his ashes released in the holy waters there, and finds love in the process.
Chennai Express’s leap to the silver screen in Egypt owes much to Navdeep Suri, India’s ambassador to the country, who is behind the drive to reinstate the popularity of Bollywood in the Arab state.
In the 1980s, Indian movies in Egypt were considered popular. Over time, however, Bollywood films were restricted in the country.
This stiff competition with local movies led the Egyptian Cinema Industry Chamber, a non-governmental organization of filmmakers and theater owners, to place restrictions upon the influx on Indian cinema in 1987. This included limiting imports of Indian films to five each year, to boost revenues for home-grown films.
The restrictions faded away in the 1990s when Egypt witnessed great market growth with more malls and cinema multiplexes mushrooming across the main cities. This allowed far more screens to show different movies, including foreign ones, according to Suri and Antoine Zeind, UMP chairman.
While the restrictions were forgotten, the link between local importers and Indian producers remained severed.
Suri described the “relationships” between local importers and Indian distributors “that used to exist in the 1980s, saying they “have fallen apart.”
“We tried to help them restore these relations,” he told Al Arabiya News.
“I think what we tried to do really is to be facilitators, between the Egyptian importers and the Indian producers. And once that bridge was created, the producers and importers, who are private sector people, have to work [out] arrangements that are commercially viable for them,” he stated.
Zeind explained how the success of “My Name is Khan,” a Sharukh Khan movie released in Egypt in 2010, encouraged his company to bring Chennai Express to the local cinema scene.
UMP “sensed that [My Name Is Khan] would be a success in Egypt, and our vision was correct. When the movie was released, it was a big success,” Zeind told Al Arabiya News.
The film, which dealt with Islamophobia after the Sept. 11 attacks, reaped one million Egyptian pounds (more than $145,000) in the first four weeks of its release.
Egyptians are familiar with India’s movie stars, adds Suri. He added that upon a recent visit to a village in the governerate of Aswan, he chatted to local primary school teachers.
“When I asked what do you know about Indians, they say Sharukh Khan,” he laughed.
“Indian films are liked by Egyptian people,” he said, adding “a lot of Indian films are about color, passion, romance, and dance. And a number of [Egyptians] told me that it makes them smile and be happy. I think in difficult times, we can get more Egyptians to smile and be happy.”
Chennai Express will be followed by two other Indian blockbusters: Krissh 3 and Dhoom 3, to be released in Egypt in the coming months.