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What happens to films when they circulate in B circuit? To use the Indo Overseas Films example, films from Hong Kong are bought in package deals of about ten. Some films are never released in Indian theatres. Once in India (and after the film is certified by the censor board) a preview is organized for distributors. Generally 40-60 prints are made of major Hong Kong films and publicity prepared from transparencies provided by the Hong Kong based distributor. Indo Overseas also dubs some films into Indian languages (generally Tamil and Telugu and occasionally Hindi) and offers the distributors a choice of languages in their chosen territories. Smaller distributors may themselves have the films dubbed after buying the rights for a particular territory. English and Indian language versions might be shown in A-circuit cinema halls before they enter the B circuit. Since the late 1980s a number of Jackie Chan films began their career in the best of urban cinema halls before they travelled to the provinces. Other films, particularly those featuring lesser stars, end up directly in the B circuit. Most re-releases remain more or less confined to the B circuit.

Indo Overseas may opt for distributing the film either on their own, or working with lesser players on a percentage basis, or opting for outright sale. Often there is a combination of all three: they distribute the film themselves in a few territories like Chennai city, jointly with smaller players elsewhere and sell out their rights in yet other areas. It is useful to distinguish between the release of a film in the A-circuit (by say, Indo Overseas) and its journey to the B circuit. The point at which the importer more or less loses control is when the film is sold or released through smaller distributors in the B circuit. This is not to say that the company is unaware of what is happening at the lower rungs of distribution but it has no stakes in trying to discipline this segment, particularly when rights are reissued (ie. after five years of release). Anything that helps films is good for the business.

As these films make the transition, on a number of occasions films have had their names changed. There is nothing underhand about it since the Hong Kong based distributors are aware of such changes and are not particularly worried about it. Hong Kong films have been released under different titles in different parts of the world. Further, the new title sometimes figures on the censor certificate or the film print itself.

There is only a thin line between value addition and deliberate obfuscation, especially before the mid-1990s when only the English versions circulated among audiences most of whom knew little or no English. A name change may not be obvious from film publicity or even the film print, unless close attention is paid to small print.

Some of the most innovative interventions by both Indo Overseas and B circuit players occur in the process of finding local equivalents for what they see are highlights of a Hong Kong film. The title is of course the most obvious innovation and the need for catchy titles has only increased with the dubbing of Hong Kong films into Indian languages since the mid-1990s.

How, we need to now ask, is the Hong Kong film translated into something that is ‘familiar’ even as its main characteristics and special attraction, its spectacular action sequences, are not lost sight of?

Distributors realized fairly soon that stars were an important part of the popularity of Hong Kong films, not least because stars were central to local popular cinema. Stars were the anchors of the foreign language film, which was doubly strange because unlike other English films, the actors did not look like English speakers. But the distributors faced a problem – it was not possible to locally build the careers of stars due to the random manner in which films reached them. In films by Jackie Chan or Jet Li, these stars were inevitably the focus of publicity, but what of other films featuring unfamiliar stars? The further difficulty was that low returns made major publicity campaigns unviable. Distributors therefore often relied on the familiarity of a handful of stars, the list not always coinciding with Hong Kong’s own favourites. Low investment also meant that most publicity aimed at local (ie. Telugu speaking) audiences and had to be improvised from a set of photo-cards supplied by the importer. Under the given circumstances entire genealogies of popular Hong Kong stars were prepared to pass off unfamiliar stars as relatives, teachers etc. of recognizable stars.

 


The film’s title changed from Death Fighter to Top Fighter when Suchitra Films acquired its rights. In addition, the posters said, ‘Faster than Jackie Chan and Jet Li’, making sure that ‘Faster than’ was in small font and could therefore be completely missed by the reader. The campaign thus gave the impression that the film actually starred Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Other title of the film: Shaolin Vs Lama. (Lobby Card, source: Suchitra Films) Top Fighter in an earlier incarnation. (30X40 inch poster, source: Poorna Pictures) What remains of a collage that was used for the design of a newspaper advertisement. The caption reads: ‘Great action film featuring Jackie Chan’s guru, fat Sammo Hung.’
(Layout design, source: Suchitra Films)
Photo collage with hand painted backdrop and text. This is the layout artist’s design for a Telugu newspaper advertisement of Spanish Connection. Text says that the complete entertainment-action film has had a hundred day run in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras cities. ‘Jackie Chan’ appears in bold.
(Layout design, source: Suchitra Films)

Locally produced lobby card.
(Source: Suchitra Films)
Layout artist’s design for Operation Condor. The silhouetted figures and the inset (Hollywood actress Kim Basinger) don’t belong to the film.
(Layout design, source: Suchitra Films)
Newspaper advertisements put out by Suchitra Films. (Source: Suchitra Films)

Yet another instance of innovative publicity. Other titles untraceable. (Lobby card, source: Suchitra Films) Indo Overseas Films, India’s major importer of Hong Kong films, too realized the possibility of invoking major stars to promote films which didn’t feature them. Here the director Ringo Lam is introduced as Jackie Chan’s guru (‘Another massive action film directed by Jackie Chan’s guru Ringo Lam'). The film in question is Kapala Dweepam. (Lobby card, source: Indo Overseas Films) To save on the cost of printing new posters, existing posters of the sequel are used to advertise Project A.
(30X40 inch poster, source: Suchitra Films)
Portion of a damaged lobby card is crudely painted over to prolong its life. (Lobby card, source: Indo Overseas Films)

An example of ‘Matter Publicity’ produced by Prasad Babu of Kanthi Pictures, Tirupathi. Sahasa Gorilla (‘Brave Gorilla’), the Telugu version of Mighty Joe Young, the poster on the right says is running to house full collections and that the theatre is packed with women and children.The poster on the right asks the viewer to ‘Tell one person (about it) if you like the film and ten if you don’t.’
(Location: Kanthi Pictures, Tirupathi)
Among the most glaring instances of title changes. A distributor who held the rights for the older Jackie Chan films cashed in on the massive publicity campaign for Who am I? and Mr. Nice Guy to re-release his films with a new set of posters. Although the posters can be read as an attempt at misguiding the less educated Jackie Chan admirers, the distributor in question claims that his films were the authentic Jackie Chan films and the posters ‘replies’ to the inferior but expensive new releases. He went on sell the distribution rights (with the new set of posters) to another distributor. (30X40 inch posters, source: Sai Durga Films)
   

The titles of these films not withstanding, they are not martial arts films and have little to do with the original referents. What these films have in common are their origins in Kannada and R.K Bhagawan who had a financial stake in the Telugu dubbed versions.