Dancing Maharajas

Miyuki Shinogi, a 21-year-old college student in Tokyo, would rather be in southern India. No problem. She meets a friend at a small Ginza theater and buys tickets to "Yajaman, the Dancing Maharaja II." Shinogi took in her first Indian movie last summer, after reading a gushing review of "Muthu, the Dancing Maharaja." "That was it, I was hooked for life," she says, whispering between dance scenes. "Muthu had everything a movie fan could ask for, from dancing and singing to love scenes and tears. Most of all, it made me feel good."

Japanese yearn for feel-good movies these days--and the Madras film industry delivers. With armies of glittering dancers, garish sets and simple, sappy plots, south Indian movies are now the top draw at art theaters. Known as "masala musicals," after the region's blend of spices, these films touch a chord in a nation racked by recession and nostalgic for happy endings, says Shinya Aoki, editor of Japan's most prestigious film journal. "Indian films are filled with the classical entertainment movies used to offer," he says.

Made in 1995, "Muthu" came to Japan only last year. At Cinema Rise in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district, it attracted more than 127,000 viewers in a 23-week run, netting the theater about $1.7 million--its biggest gate of the year. "It was the 'Titanic' of the art theaters," says Atsushi Ichikawa, "Muthu's" Japanese distributor. "Forget about the recession," urged a flier for "Muthu." "Forget about the millennium. Get rid of your worries... This is the first page of a pleasant dream that will continue for the rest of your life."

Japan's masala fascination began in 1996 at a video shop in Singapore's Little India. Japanese film critic Jun Edoki, visiting the store, asked a clerk to recommend a sampling of Indian movies. "Muthu" was among the films he carried back to Japan, and when Edoki sat with his wife to view it in Tokyo, they were mesmerized. "It was absolutely fascinating--even without subtitles," he recalls. "We became addicted to the point where we had to see at least part of the film at least once a day." Edoki shopped "Muthu" around until Ichikawa's company, Xanadeux, agreed to release it.

Rajinikanth, the male lead in "Muthu" and "Yajaman," has supplanted Leonardo DiCaprio as Japan's trendiest heartthrob. His female lead in both films, the starlet Meena, charmed fans on a visit to Japan last year. Godo Shusei, a large Japanese distillery, recently hired Indian actors to re-create a dance scene from "Muthu"--this time as a sales pitch for Chuhai, a carbonated alcoholic beverage.

So far, nearly 500,000 Japanese have paid to see "Muthu," either on the big screen or on video. It premieres on satellite television in June. "Yajaman, the Dancing Maharaja II," remains a top draw. Xanadeux hopes for another Indian hit with the year-end release of "Jeans," a 1998 Madras blockbuster. It tells the story of wealthy lovers who circle the globe to see the world's great monuments--from the Statue of Liberty to the Pyramids of Egypt, where they dance with 50 camels. That's a journey Japanese moviegoers won't want to miss.