“DDLJ kick-started young diaspora’s reconnection with India” - Avtar Panesar, Yash Raj Films

Shah Rukh Khan during the promotion of his film Fan Photo courtesy: Yash Raj Films
Shah Rukh Khan during the promotion of his film Fan Photo courtesy: Yash Raj Films

One cannot help being awestruck walking into the offices of Yash Raj Films (YRF) in Mumbai. You automatically start creating a list of great films this leading movie studio has given to the world. After Deewar, Trishul, DDLJ, Kala Pathar, Mashaal, Dil Toh Pagal Hai, Fan, Sultan, you start slowing down, lose patience and hit the Yash Raj Films movie section to read the list. Turns out that 'search' was a good call as the list is 69 movies long and counting. To understand the importance YRF lays on the NRI audiences, new media platforms, distribution and overseas markets, we connected with Avtar Panesar, Vice President, International Operations, Yash Raj Films.

Avtar Panesar, Vice President, International Operations, Yash Raj Films
Avtar Panesar, Vice President, International Operations, Yash Raj Films

International market for Hindi movies is growing at a rapid 11 per cent as per Deloitte and ASSOCHAM, was pegged at a USD 2.3 billion in 2016. Indian film fraternity can feel even more bullish about 2017 and onwards on account of a host of reasons; expanding base of Hindi movies on the backing of increasing population of diaspora; 31.7 million, ever increasing popularity of Indian actors like Shah Rukh Khan beyond Indians abroad, growing need for Hindi programming in SEA, and the increasing affluence of the NRI community.

Indian actors like Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Irrfan Khan getting roles in major Hollywood productions also draw attention towards Hindi cinema. While the conventional international markets like US, UK continue to perform smaller markets like Singapore sprung a surprise in the beginning of 2017. Raees and Kaabil both did very well, with Raees making a record of highest weekend opening of SGD 321 K. An opening the deluge of Hindi movies to come in 2017 can benefit from.

CtoI: How have the international markets opened up for Hindi Cinema over the last decade? In which year did YRF start taking note of the growing international market for Hindi movies?

Avtar Panesar: International markets used to really be just East Africa and Russia to a large extent. After the exodus from East Africa it moved to the UK. Russia was also key as there was a ban on US content during the cold war and the Russians started to enjoy Indian stories. As soon as US content opened up that market also dried up.

Around the 70’s and beyond, the UK was the hub for international business for our industry with the largest population of diaspora.

After the demise of the business due to video piracy, the UK once again led the resurgence in the early 90’s and remained the number one overseas market till early 2000’s. Around late 2000’s the USA started to catch up and the since the turn of 2010’s the UAE has leapfrogged to share the top slot with the USA very consistently.

While historically the ranking was: 1. UK 2. USA 3. UAE Today these 3 markets represent around 75% of the international business, by and large but the rankings are: 1. USA/UAE 2. UAE / USA 3. UK

We opened the UK office as the first international office back in 1997. The overseas success of DDLJ and HAHK became the catalysis for international business resurgence and YRF were at the forefront. It was only a natural progression for YRF to control its own destiny. YRF became the first India studio to set up its international distribution arm. Since the early days of indie cinema and opening a handful of screens, today we release a big film across 1000+ screens outside of India and contribute 30 – 50% of the BO depending on the film.  

CtoI: To what extent does the market comprise of non-Indians? Does YRF see non-Indians as an important potential target? Do you carry out specific marketing efforts to expand the market beyond Indian audiences?

Avtar Panesar: While non-diaspora audiences are the growth market for us, the fact is that our bread and butter is still the diaspora. The non-diaspora audiences in the key traditional markets is virtually non-existent. It’s difficult to quantify but in percentages it would be in lower single digits.

Despite the efforts of all of us collectively as an industry, we have not been able to convert the non-diaspora audiences in to fans in the numbers that one would hope to, given the BO success as well as the profile we have built over the last 2 decades.   

That said, while we continue to cater to the diaspora in the core markets  we have shifted focus to other markets where perhaps the diaspora is very low or isn’t there at all, yet we are seeing some level of traction from the local native audiences. Territories like Peru, South Korea, China, Japan, Germany, Romania etc are markets that have shown promise.

Each film requires targeted marketing and we always work with our partners to try and come up with new and innovative ways to reach the local native audiences but we must accept we still have a long way to go before it becomes the norm to go and watch a “Bollywood” film as your weekend cinema stop.

CtoI: Great marketing does lead to some tremendous results, case in point, Raees’scollection of SGD 321 K in the opening weekend in Singapore. How much importance does YRF lay on marketing of films or does it rely primarily on the story line and the cast to carry the film?

Avtar Panesar: We live in a world that is driven by marketing – positioning of a product today is the key to that all important weekend opening. There is no question that one has to put every effort into marketing one’s film. That said, as I mentioned earlier, it has to be based on the film at hand.

For example, what I would do for a Dhoom is not the same as a Band Baaja Baaraat. In the case of Titli, we used the festival route to market the film to the mainstream.

So, while the story and the content will be what carries the film eventually, the opening weekend has to be pushed through marketing – after that the film has to speak.

In the case of Dhoom 3 it became the first Bollywood film to do over a USD 1 million a day in the USA on its opening weekend – that could well be attributed to the hype, marketing and star power, but it became the first film to cross USD 8 million at the BO (Box Office) is where the film spoke and took over.

Avtar Panesar in the centre with the team of Hindi movie - Titli Photo courtesy: YRF Blog
From left: Shashank Arora, Lead Actor, Titli, Kanu Behl, Director, Titli, Avtar Panesar, International VP, YRF, Guneet Monga, YRF brought 'The Lunchbox' producer on board to chart out the promotion and the international festival strategy and Navraj Panear, GM, UK, YRF Photo courtesy: YRF Blog

CtoI: Koreans have done very well in marketing their pop music, dramas and movies, Hindi movies with their growing popularity and brand India with its growing influence can do as well if not better, do you see Hindi cinema growing in similar lines? Note: Train to Busan (Zombie thriller) did make in the last count SGD 4 million in Singapore alone.

Avtar Panesar: I always say Indian food and films are an acquired taste, it takes a while but once one is hooked, there’s no going back. Of course there’s a chance we can do as well or better, however, there are some norms of doing business outside of our core markets.

Our strength as an industry has always been that we’ve been a very self-sufficient industry. We have never needed to look towards the West or anywhere for funding, production or distribution. Our industry is built on very passionate filmmakers willing to sell the shirts on their back to make the film they wanted to make.

The need of the hour compelled them to expand from indie film directors to producers, to distributors and to studios. We have played the game on our terms for 100 years.

Today if we are to play on the world stage and position ourselves as global players, we need to conform to some international norms. Some of which are to have a film ready more than 10 days before release, to screen the film to potential international non-traditional buyers early enough for them to decide whether they want to buy, perhaps look to festivals to reach a new audience, travel with the film… All these things are normal for the west or even the east.

However, apart from playing the game on our terms for reasons I’ve mentioned earlier, we also have to remember that the lions of share of our business is still domestic and diaspora internationally. Consequently, we are unable to take the same route on the majority of our big commercial films as this could well jeopardize the security of the film and risk potential bad word of mouth where the core business can be wiped out.

During the early foray of the US studios into India, they tried this method with a couple of earlier films and paid the price.

So I suspect a film like a Lunchbox or a Masaan can do this but not a Sultan, Dhoom or a Fan. Hence we become victims of our own success in a strange way. We have to reap the harvest at home first and then see if we can find some cream outside of our core markets by which time the film may or may not find interested parties to invest. While we have managed to do some great deals, these are not enough to turn the tide just yet.

CtoI: Which are the most important international markets for producers of Hindi movies?

Avtar Panesar: As I mentioned earlier, the 3 core markets are USA, UAE and UK but the other two markets that feature amongst the top 5 now are Pakistan and Australia. Both are growth markets with great potential.

CtoI: How is YRF responding to the change in consumption of entertainment from large screens to smaller-and-smaller screens?

Avtar Panesar: Well we’re perhaps the only Studio in India that controls all our own touch points we own and control all IP. So this is a very important area for us and we have an in-house Digital division that is dedicated to this area.

We have also been producing software under our Y Films brand for this platform and have had huge success with our web series like Bang Baaja Baaraat, Ladies Room, Sex Chat with Pappu etc. We have been able to really push the envelope with this medium given the freedom from censor restrictions.

CtoI: How big an issue does piracy remain for the film industry?  

Avtar Panesar: Piracy is a menace that is never going away, not in my lifetime at least. It’s changed forms but it’s still very much an issue. The problem is that it’s not really very high on the list of priorities for the authorities and now with all of us living in a digital world it’s actually worse than ever.  The fact is that our core audience base is the youth and that same youth is now so tech savvy that they are able to find content online without any difficulty. Earlier it was a case of finding a cheap VHS / DVD now it’s available free. There’s really little or no hope and we have to continue to battle on.

DDLJ poster Courtesy: Yash Raj Films
DDLJ poster Courtesy: Yash Raj Films

CtoI: Hindi movies are seemingly connecting the NRI youth with India, does YRF, with its repertoire of youth oriented films/cinema agree with this?

Avtar Panesar: Well, if I may say, it was YRF that kicked off this revolution with DDLJ. Nothing connected the NRI youth to India quite like DDLJ and it continues to do so 2 decades on.  

It’s no secret that YRF films have always been very overseas friendly and appeal to NRIs, from Kabhi Kabhie, Silsila, Lamhe, Chandni,  DDLJ to  a Sultan. The stories have always connected because they speak to the Indian inside, irrespective of where he/she lives.

CtoI: While there have been improvements, India continues to dapple with usual issues like price of tickets, lower number of screens, quality of cinema halls, smaller of screens per capita and so on. In such a scenario do international markets serve as greener pastures for Hindi movie makers? Marketing ROI in Singapore for a movie which does a topline of SGD 321 K is undeniably very high.

Avtar Panesar: Credit where credit is due, with all the problems you talk of, the fact is that we are still able to do a BO of Rs 300 cr (SGD 63.7 million approx) plus on films speaks volumes. This might be a drop in the ocean when we compare this to the population size but we’re all just graduating from being mom and pop shops to super markets, so in time all these matters will get addressed as it’s in everyone’s commercial interest.  The overseas is great but no doubt the exchange rate makes it greater.

If we were able to address all the issues, there’s no reason these BO numbers will explode and a Rs 1000 cr (SGDs 212 million approx.) film will no longer be a dream. If China can do nearly USD 500 million BO on a Chinese film, there’s no reason why India can’t once these things are sorted out.

We’ve come a long way and have a long way to go, but one thing our industry excels at is surviving and thriving. I am optimistic that we’ll do the really big numbers soon enough.

Himanshu Verma
Himanshu Verma – Founder & CEO

Founder & ceo of Connected to India. Experience and understanding of working in print, electronic, on-mobile and online media. Led branding, marketing and communications teams at ESPN STAR Sports and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Found and divested digital marketing and communications consultancy, Like Minds Consulting to Fifth Ring of UK. Served as their MD for APAC.


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