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Berlin Loves Bollywood

Abheet Gidwhan/Reliance Entertainment

Indian cinema is huge in the German capital, but even the experts can't explain why.

When Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan was shooting his latest Indian actioner, Don 2: The Chase Continues, in Berlin two years ago, local fans -- lots of them -- set up camp outside Khan's hotel on Potsdamer Platz, braving Berlin's subzero winter cold for a fleeting glimpse of their hero.

Khan, often called Bollywood's Tom Cruise, is used to this kind of attention back home, where his fan base reaches to the hundreds of millions. But there aren't many Hindi speakers in Hanover, and Munich is a long way from Mumbai. Yet Berlin and all of Germany are crazy for Bollywood.

"Germany has consistently proved to be the second-largest market in Europe for Bollywood films, after the U.K.," says Sanjeev Lamba, CEO of Indian media giant Reliance Entertainment, which distributed Don 2 in India and sold it worldwide. "In Germany, [there is] a large fan base for a few Indian stars, Shah Rukh Khan being the most recognized and followed. Don 2 is one of the most anticipated releases in Germany this year."

Germany's Bollywood boom started nearly a decade ago when a local cable channel first aired an Indian film in primetime. To almost everyone's surprise, it was a hit. Success followed on DVD, with Bollywood films regularly selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

The previous two times a Khan film screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, tickets sold out in minutes. Don't even try to get a seat for the Berlin premiere of Don 2.

"The Bollywood blogs and fan sites are already going crazy," says Berlin festival press boss Frauke Greiner, adding that the Khan-driven fan onslaught is comparable to, or even greater than, that for the Berlin VIP visits of Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio.

No one can really explain why Germans go gaga for Indian cinema. Stephan Holl, whose Cologne-based company Rapid Eye Movies is a market leader in distributing Bollywood films, likes to talk of the "emotional nature" of Mumbai-made movies, suggesting a three-hour Bollywood melodrama gives even the most straitlaced German a chance to have a good cry.

Another factor is Germany's substantial population of Turkish immigrants, many of whom grew up with Bollywood films on TV -- a staple of the Turkish-language satellite channels. German audiences also love old Hollywood movies and modern ones that follow the fairy-tale formula: A year ago, public network ZDF aired Pretty Woman for what felt like the 1,000th time. Five million viewers tuned in.

"Bollywood films offer audiences a gentle form of escapism," says London-based author Vikas Pota. "Bollywood continues to offer audiences the power and impact of suggestion, something that Hollywood seldom does anymore."

So far, Germany's Bollywood boom is a small-screen phenomenon. Theatrically, Indian films in Germany remain a tough sell. But Reliance is hoping Don 2, which Rapid Eye will release in German theaters Feb. 16, will be the start of a string of Bollywood blockbusters.

"This is not a passing trend," says Lamba. "Germany will continue to hold an important market position for Indian filmmakers who are keen to expand into Europe. German audiences have a particular affinity for Bollywood -- color, songs, romance and drama -- and we expect this to continue."

Nyay Bhushan in Mumbai contributed to this report.