Behind the Scenes of Hong Kong’s First Homegrown Indian Movie

First things first: director Sri Kishore was born in Hyderabad, in India’s south-central Telangana state, and he is indeed married to a Hongkonger. His father remains apprehensive about his choice of vocation, but Kishore’s fourth feature—his first in Hong Kong—is not autobiographical. For starters, the main character in the film is something of a layabout; a mildly angry young Indian man who spends his days gambling and drinking with his pals. In real life, Kishore is an electrical engineer who spent six years designing transformers before he threw in the proverbial towel. 

“One day I just got fed up,” he says of the engineering grind. “Going into cinema in India is discouraged, but I told my father I just couldn’t do it anymore.” Sitting in the boardroom of a Kwun Tong shared office space a week ahead of My Indian Boyfriend’s premiere, Kishore admits his decision to try his hand making films came suddenly but was a long simmering dream. Like many Indians, Kishore is steeped in cinema: the country produced over 1,800 films in 2018. By contrast, the Hollywood machine produced approximately 575 that same year, and at its peak in the late 1980s and early 90s, Hong Kong produced roughly 400 in a year. Kishore’s hometown is a filmmaking hub for Telugu language films, nicknamed Tollywood, and it ranks behind only Mumbai for production volume. Directing seemed a natural career path.

Between 2000 and 2005, Kishore studied filmmaking basics with a private tutor who suggested he use his strong penmanship to his advantage and work as an assistant director at a production house. At the time, laptops were uncommon on sets, and clear writing was crucial for day-to-day shooting in the event of on-the-fly dialogue or scene changes. “I worked on a few small films, I learnt editing, which I thought was important, and then started making short films,” he recalls. His first three were all accepted into the Hyderabad International Film Festival. “So I thought I was heading in the right direction.”

That path was derailed for a stretch after he accepted a job in Hong Kong in 2007 teaching Bollywood dance at California Fitness, something he’d done at home for extra cash while working at the studio, as a way to help out his family financially. Though initially hesitant to relocate, Hong Kong’s technical superiority at the time (especially for indie and first-time filmmakers), was eye-opening and inspiring; accessible digital filmmaking had yet to gain wide traction in India. Thoroughly convinced he could make a go of it as a director, and loaded with knowledge gleaned by broadening his film horizons while in Hong Kong—influences include Doze Niu, Johnnie To and Zhang Yimou to go along with Sandeep Reddy Vanga and Trivikram Srinivas—he quit his job and made a trip back to India to produce his first feature, mystery-thriller Sasesham (2012), with a group of equally passionate friends. The film was a commercial success, so he repeated the process two more times, for the horror film Bhoo (2014)—which Kishore calls “a disaster”—and actioner Devi Sri Prasad (2017), another hit.

A Bollywood style dance routine breaks out in Central, led by newcomer Karan Cholia

But commuting between Hyderabad and Hong Kong was taking a physical and mental toll, and by 2012 Kishore had met the woman who would go on to become his wife. “She’s not really into movies but she understands and supports me,” he says. “And she reminds me to stay calm and relax whenever I get crazy in the process.” After settling down, a friend asked the obvious. “‘Why don’t you make a movie in Hong Kong? It’s a beautiful city and you’re right there,’” he recalls. “I thought it would be too hard and too expensive. Then my friend suggested making a Cantonese movie.” Thus the seed was planted.

Kishore workshopped the idea in his head for months, asking himself why anyone would want to see his film when there were plenty of filmmakers in Hong Kong, and what could he offer the industry. That’s when he realised he should make a Bollywood movie. But first he had to overcome his own doubts; Kishore grew up on less flashy local Telugu fare so he was resistant at first. When he floated the idea of a Hong Kong Bollywood film the first question from any investor was about how many songs the film would have. “I used to think those movies made no sense. ‘Why are you dancing in the road?’” he says with a laugh. But the time he spent teaching Bollywood dance gave him a grudging respect for the genre. He settled for a few songs in a bright, fluffy rom-com where Indian boy meets Chinese girl, “with some Bollywood masala thrown in.”

Fortunately, private investors were keen to take a risk on something new. With his budget secure, Kishore set out to find a cast. That proved tricky, with potential actors not understanding the project. “I’d tell them, ‘Now the song starts,’ and they were just confused. Dancing in Central was a hard concept to grasp. Everyone’s logic got in the way. In India you can chase a train. No problem,” he says.

My Indian Boyfriend revolves around Krishna (Karan Cholia), a bit of a bad boy who becomes smitten with his new neighbour, Jasmine (Shirley Chan). She falls for him despite her looming engagement to wealthy, racist Richard (Justin Cheung). Financial troubles have made Richard the preferred choice of Jasmine’s mother (Lenna Yeung). Krishna’s father (TVB fixture Gill Mohindepaul Singh, better known as Q Bobo) would prefer his son concentrate on getting a job, the whole reason he moved his family to Hong Kong. “Indian dads are like that,” says Kishore. “I wanted a conflict that would connect with everybody.” The model is Bollywood, so there’s family friction, over-the-top villains, extreme plot machinations, flights of fantasy and—naturally—characters breaking into random song and dance. Bollywood fans will recognise and appreciate those touches. Others may find them silly. The highlight is a sunny production number shot on Chater Road in Central, with 55 dancers lining the street.

For the trifle that it is, Boyfriend ever so slightly touches on subjects that affect many Hongkongers, including harassment of the city’s minority communities and the reality that the city can be far from a promised land. “I wanted to incorporate more of that into the final film, but we opted to go easy on the politics,” reasons Kishore. “Ultimately it’s a rom-com. But I did get harassed by the cops when I was living in Tsim Sha Tsui.”

My Indian Boyfriend represents several firsts for Hong Kong. Bollywood style aside, it’s the first local film directed by an Indian filmmaker and among the few to star a non-Chinese actor (newcomer Cholia who speaks Cantonese), despite nearly eight percent of Hong Kong’s population being non-Chinese. But the film isn’t releasing in a vacuum: actor-director Chan Kin-long’s Hand Rolled Cigarette opens in June and also features an Indian co-lead. Are the two films a sign that Hong Kong filmmakers are finally boarding the representation train that’s been circling the globe over the past few years? Is greater diversity that actually reflects Hong Kong’s streets coming to its cinema screens?

Kishore is conflicted about what that could mean in context of the bigger picture, but he does see it as a way for the industry to grow and thrive. “I love this question. I didn’t care if I was a first-time Indian filmmaker in Hong Kong – I just wanted to make a movie. [Diversity] is a problem that goes both ways. I looked for an Indian director for information and collaboration and I only found [co-star] Q Bobo,” he laments, acknowledging the possibility that budding local Indian filmmakers question whether anyone wants to see their work in the same way he did.

My Indian Boyfriend isn’t an official Hong Kong-India co-production, but it is in spirit. Local talent may be lingering in the shadows, but Indian film pros have dabbled in Hong Kong in the past, most notably when living Bollywood legend Farah Khan (known for Om Shanti Om, Dil Se and its moving train-top routine) choreographed Peter Chan’s ambitious China-set musical Perhaps Love in 2005. Boyfriend represents the next logical step. Local funding paid for local cast and crew, while Kishore imported Mumbai-based cinematographer Kunj Gutka and composer Shravan Bharadwaj to ensure a Bollywood vibe. Hong Kong lyricists Manman Lau and Lung Siu Kwan contributed Cantonese lyrics for Jasmine’s songs. To maximise the budget, post-production was done in Hyderabad. 

The result is a true hybrid: a Cantonese and Hindi language romance, with the heightened emotions and melodrama of a Bollywood film, grafted onto Hong Kong. More than anything, Boyfriend demonstrates the potential for alternative approaches to co-production in Hong Kong, separate from the traditional treaty-based agreements with other jurisdictions that currently dominate the landscape, and which can include requirements that do not serve a film’s narrative.

To Kishore, this is what the future of co-production looks like and he thinks it could be a way forward for Hong Kong cinema. Though it took him five years to develop the film, and two of those years were hampered by citywide protests and Covid-19, Kishore is cautiously optimistic that Boyfriend could signal a new, inclusive direction for local filmmaking. “It will only happen when passionate filmmakers do it,” he says. “Pakistanis and Indians here have tons of stories to tell. I have stories to tell.” 

My Indian Boyfriend opens on May 27, 2021. For more information, click here.

 

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