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.