In 1971, Tamaki Matsuoka watched her first Hindi movie at a cinema in Tokyo. Matsuoka was a student of Hindi literature at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. She could read and write in Hindi, but she struggled to speak the language. Her professor suggested that she could gain fluency by watching films in the language.

So off she went to a show of the Mumtaz-Sanjeev Kumar starrer Khilona (1970). “I found that I could follow the Hindi spoken in the film,” Matsuoka told Scroll. In 1975, she made her first visit to India, as much to practise her Hindi as to stay in touch with Indian cinema. Since then, Matsuoka has not only been coming here nearly every year, but has also become an evangelist for Indian cinema in Japan.

Matsuoka organises screenings of Indian movies in Japan. She provides subtitles for Indian productions shown at cultural centres or film festivals. She maintains lists of Indian productions, which she updates every few years. She writes and lectures on Indian cinema. She is on the executive committee of the Indian Film Festival in Japan.

“I am fascinated by the melodrama in Indian films, its form of entertainment,” Matsuoka said during a recent visit to Mumbai. Dressed in a pink sequinned sari, Matsuoka could easily be mistaken for a local.

“Indian films are filled with joy and sorrow and so many other emotions,” Matsuoka added. “And then there are the songs. I like this cinema very much.”

Chasing the Indian dream

Matsuoka, now 75, said that when she was in high school, she was advised to enrol in a language course to improve her grades. At Osaka University of Foreign Studies, a department with a focus on Indian and Pakistani cultures offered two choices: Hindi and Urdu.

Matsuoka picked Hindi despite having no exposure to the language. “In my first year, my marks were not very good, but it got better in the second year,” she recalled. It was when she enrolled in University of Tokyo that her professor guided her to the movies.

Hindi films were barely being shown in Japan at the time. Matsuoka managed to watch only one other Hindi film, Upasana (1970), starring Mumtaz, Sanjay Khan and Feroz Khan. It wasn’t until she visited Mumbai on her first trip to India that she managed to catch a re-run of Jagte Raho (1956). However, she had some trouble following the Urdu-inflected dialogue and needed the help of a friend to translate the word “khwab” or dream. Matsuoka only knew the word “sapna”.

“The Hindi I learnt was very formal, what is known as shudh Hindi,” Matsuoka said. On her next trip, she watched a few more movies, including Sholay (1975), Haathi Mere Saathi (1971) and Geet Gaata Chal (1975).

In approach, form and technique, these films were very different from contemporaneous Japanese cinema. But they reminded her of older Japanese musicals.

“Indian cinema has its own unique style of melodrama,” Matsuoka observed. “Asian cinema in general has had a history of music in films, such as in Thailand and Indonesia, but this style largely disappeared with the advent of television. In India, music in films has stayed alive.”

Taking India back to Japan

Back in Japan, Matsuoka had begun working for the Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. In 1983, she organised possibly the first festival of Indian films in Tokyo. It was a modest effort, but better than nothing.

“We couldn’t watch Indian films in Japan, except for the films of Satyajit Ray,” Matsuoka said. The event she helped put together included screenings of Govindan Aravindan’s Thamp (1978), Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974) and Bhimsain’s Gharonda (1977).

“A lot of people came for the screenings, including famous Japanese actors, but the event wasn’t very successful,” Matsuoka said. In 1985, another mini-festival was held, this time of 11 movies, including the works of Aravindan, Benegal and Mrinal Sen.

Indian films have been commercially released in Japan in dribs and dabs over the decades. Among them have been Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Kama Sutra (1996) and Aziz Mirza’s Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992). “The scale is very small since there are very few distributors, and they can’t always afford to publicise the films,” Matsuoka said.

She subtitled Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla, in Japanese. “I really liked the film,” she said. In 1998, KS Ravikumar’s Tamil-language Muthu, starring Rajinikanth, was a surprise hit in Japan.

In Rajinikanth The Definitive Biography, Naman Ramachandan writes that the film’s distribution in Japan was the result a chance encounter between its producer, Bharathan Kandaswamy, in Singapore and Japanese tourists whom he overheard discussing Rajinikanth.

Muthu was dubbed as Muthu, Odori Maharaja (Muthu, The Dancing Maharaja). Advertised as a balm against a recession at the time – “Get rid of your worries. This is the first page of a pleasant dream that will continue for the rest of your life” – the movie caused a storm at the box office, Ramachandran writes.

More recently, SS Rajamouli’s two-part Baahubali (2015, 2017) and RRR (2022) have charmed Japanese audiences. In a Scroll report in 2018, Devarsi Ghosh wrote about the fan art, manga, videos and cosplaying that followed the release of the Baahubali movies in Japan. The intermittent craze for Indian films extends to arthouse productions. in 2018, Subhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan ran for weeks in Japan.

Such films introduce Japanese viewers to aspects of Indian mythology, history and society, she noted.

Matsuoka’s own attempts to understand India better has spurred her to learn Bharatanatyam, Manipuri dance and the sitar. Her frequent visits have led to her acquiring to a large collection of Indian films on videotape, VCD, DVD and now Blu-ray. She has also amassed song and dialogue booklets, 145 of which she donated to the Film Heritage Foundation during her current trip.

“The collection is a rare treasure including promotional books and booklets that have dialogues, scripts and songs of a wide range of landmark films dating from 1957 to 1988 including Mother India (1957), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Amar Prem (1972), Kati Patang (1971), Bobby (1973), Sholay (1975), Don (1978), Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), Mr. India (1987) and Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) and even Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970) to name just a few,” the foundation said in a post on social media.

Matsuoka finds ways to keep her interest in Indian cinema alive. She is currently researching the history of single-screen cinemas, with the focus on the twin theatres Gaiety and Galaxy in Mumbai and the now-defunct Abhirami in Chennai.

“I have learnt so many Hindi words simply by watching films,” Matsuoka said. In the bargain, this ambassador of Indian soft power has taught Japanese audiences something about the country’s cinema too.

Also read:

What recession when there is Rajinikanth? How the Tamil superstar added Japan to his conquests with ‘Muthu’

When Katappa-san killed Baahubali-san: SS Rajamouli’s films are the latest fan favourite in Japan

In Japan, Varanasi-set film ‘Mukti Bhawan’ starring Adil Hussain, is winning hearts