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Deutschland's Bollywood affair

In the land of Bach and Beethoven, Hindi films—and stars—are creating an alternative subculture. All thanks to one man

Published: Jan 1, 2015 06:38:30 AM IST
Updated: Dec 31, 2014 01:54:19 PM IST
Deutschland's Bollywood affair
Stars behind the scenes: With a team of inexperienced youngsters, Naseem Bergau-Khan (third from right) launched Ishq in Germany in 2006. The monthly Bollywood lifestyle magazine sells in Germany and German-speaking parts of Europe

Naseem Bergau-Khan’s earliest recollection of watching a Hindi film goes back to his days in Germany’s Oberhausen,  his  childhood   home.  He was about six, and he saw  Ganga Jamuna, starring Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala, on television. All he remembers from that experience are his own tears. “I [had] cried a lot,” says the 35-year-old Bergau-Khan, founder-CEO of Ishq Media Group, (now known as the NBK 7 Media Group), in a video chat from his Düsseldorf office. “The film was heart-touching and,  well, extremely long. At some point, my patience ran out,” he says. That remained his last Bollywood experience for a long time.

Bergau-Khan had a fairly desi upbringing. His mother, Qudsia Khan, hailed from Ahmedabad and his late German father, Heinz Bergau, had a “huge love for India”. Bergau was a businessman but is remembered more for his travel escapades—which he wrote about in newspaper columns—that took him to India. Mother Khan, now a retired school teacher, indulged in Indian films
and music.

Inevitably, his Bollywood-shyness didn’t last long.

In the early- and mid-2000s, when Hindi films, riding on the success of Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), became a rage with the German youth, Bergau-Khan converted. He not only fell in love with Bollywood but, in its world of glamour and gossip, he also found his true calling.

In 2006, he launched Ishq. Positioned as a “Bollywood lifestyle magazine”, the monthly sells in Germany and German-speaking parts of Europe, mainly in Austria and Switzerland. It offers readers updates on new film releases, interviews of celebrities, tidbits on Indian fashion trends, food and travel. “Ishq has become a highly valuable brand in these years,” says Bergau-Khan. “Consumers associate Ishq with an exclusive image of India.”

In about two years, he got into public relations and managing Bollywood events. In his latest venture, he has launched a Hindi-language course for German speakers.

“Our profile has now changed, so we wanted to change the name too,” he says. “NBK 7 Media Group is our new trademark.” An acronym of Naseem Bergau-Khan, the name was officially adopted in August.

Bergau-Khan calls himself a “classical startupper”. “To begin with, I had no clue, [had done] no market research or anything,” he says. He followed his heart in search of “something exciting”. When the Bollywood boom happened in Deutschland, something resonated within him. “I was filled with dreams,” he says. He was in his mid-20s then, “raw” and “adventurous”.

He put together a team, as young and inexperienced as him. “They were university students and Julia [Wessel], who has been the chief editor since inception, had just finished her studies in cultural anthropology,” says Bergau-Khan. “With disparate colleagues [almost entirely Germans] fuelled by the same dreams, some luck and all my savings, we launched Ishq.”

The aim of Ishq has been to keep a “German eye on Bollywood and beyond”. The magazine’s monthly circulation is 30,000, and it has a subscriber base of 6,500. Its website gets 2.2 lakh unique visitors and 35 lakh page views every month. Its newsletter has 34, 400 subscribers and it has about 41,000 followers on Facebook. “These are big figures considering it is a niche German-language magazine market and a high-end product,” says Bergau-Khan. With a cover price of 6.5 euros, it is one of the more expensive magazines in Germany. But the owner asserts that this does not matter to Ishq readers, 90 percent of whom are “price-insensitive” women.

Design was also an important consideration when Bergau-Khan was visualising his magazine eight years ago. “I always knew women would be more interested in our magazine than men,” he says. “So, we decided to keep the magazine of the same size as an iPad, something that can easily fit inside a woman’s handbag.”

Deutschland's Bollywood affair
Image: Thomas Peter / Reuters
Germany’s heartthrob: Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan signs autographs for his German fans during the promotion of his movie Don 2 in Berlin on October 22, 2010

However, just like a Bollywood film, Ishq was not without its pitfalls. “As young and inexperienced people are wont to, I made many mistakes,” recounts Bergau-Khan. “There was nobody to learn from, no benchmark to compare with. It was a trial-and-error process. Once, I collaborated with a German company for a very big India show. The company went bankrupt and I lost the entire money that I had invested, putting Ishq in a dangerous situation.”

Bergau-Khan refuses to share numbers on the company’s financial health. “We are the so-called ‘hidden champions’, not that big in size and, yet, a leader in what we do,” he says. But, more than size, what makes Ishq special is its consistency over
a period of time.

“It is still running and people are discussing it on Bollywood platforms,” says Maya Kristin Schönfelder, a Berlin-based culture journalist.

Having established the magazine, Bergau-Khan diversified into events in 2008. He partnered with ‘Bollywood Träume’ (Bollywood Dreams), a musical on a four-week tour to Germany. “We did the entire marketing and PR campaign,” he says. One of the most fulfilling experiences, the CEO says, was tying up with ‘Merchants of Bollywood’, the internationally acclaimed Australian musical, which travelled across Germany as ‘Bollywood, the Show’ this year. Bergau-Khan has now roped in Carol Furtado, the female lead of the musical, for a Bollywood masterclass in contemporary Indian and film dance.
Last June, the company organised an interactive session with Hansal Mehta, the National Award-winning director of Shahid, as part of the monthly Indo-German film dinner series. Then, there’s also Ishq Miss India (a beauty pageant for Indian-origin girls in Germany, Austria and Switzerland) that the group has been organising since 2012. Events have now become the mainstay for Bergau-Khan’s company. “The magazine business is financially sound, but just about. The company makes its money from organising events and providing allied services,” he says.

It faces competition in the publishing space with a number of Bollywood-themed German magazines hitting the market. “Some Indian film magazines also tried to test waters with German translations of their products, but they did not work because it was not only the German language, but also a German perspective to Indian films that was needed,” says Ishq’s German-born owner-publisher who enjoys a meal of daal-roti-chawal at the end of the day.

Competition from websites that offer free content is also a challenge for Bergau-Khan. But he’s confident that Ishq’s exclusive features will compel users to pay for it. “So far, we have been fine, and I firmly believe that if the content is good, people will be willing to pay for a print product,” he says.

But, how does the kitsch-high Bollywood fit into a culture nourished by Bach, Brecht and Beethoven?

The initial push came from German television channel RTL II which began screening commercial Hindi films in 2004. SRK’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... dubbed in German was aired first. It was a bigger success than the earlier films which were telecast with German subtitles. In no time, SRK became a household name and his fan clubs mushroomed in every German city. Girls travelled miles to get clicked with the Bollywood Baadshah irrespective of where he was—at the Berlinale (a leading film festival) or on the streets of Berlin shooting for Don 2.

“When I saw my first Bollywood film [Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham...] it was like stumbling onto a new cinematic universe! I was intrigued,” says Julia Wessel, chief editor of Ishq magazine, who is a cultural anthropologist by training. The “trashy films” evoked a hitherto unknown emotional response among Germans, who are otherwise known for their stiff upper lip.

Deutschland's Bollywood affair
Blockbuster hit: With a cover price of 6.5 euros, Ishq is one of the more expensive magazines in Germany. Its website gets 2.2 lakh unique visitors and 35 lakh page views every month. 

Bollywood is almost “like an alternative culture for the people of Europe who do not find happiness in their ruthlessly individualistic societies, devoid of emotion and passion. It presents them a space where they can open up,” says Bergau-Khan. For over a decade now, a distinct Bollywood following has taken shape in the country, especially among the youth. “The hype was so big that even a toilet paper could be sold in the name of Bollywood,” he adds.  

Frank Nette, media spokesperson of RTL II, the channel that took the lead in broadcasting Bollywood films, tells ForbesLife India, “Bollywood is still an issue [in German culture] though not as large as [it was] a few years ago.” It is still very Shah Rukh Khan-centric, he adds. And though it will never be able to match Hollywood’s popularity in Germany, “it is here to stay”, says Ishq’s Wessel.

The Bollywood fever has created what Wessel calls a “Bollywood subculture”, and Khan-Bergau terms a “Bollywood market”. Contrary to what it may seem, its popularity is not fuelled by non-resident Indians, but by the local German-speaking population and the German media. The press and television have given more space and time to Shah Rukh Khan than even some well-known Hollywood stars. And this, when Hollywood dominates Germany’s film market.

“Unlike in other places, it is not an NRI-fuelled Bollywood craze,” Bergau-Khan explains. “The interest in and love for Bollywood is purely a German phenomenon that picked up when a local television channel began screening Bollywood films dubbed in German in the mid-2000s.”

And it was around the same time that Bergau-Khan got bitten by the Bollywood bug too.

The Indian film industry wasn’t entirely unheard of in Germany. Films of Raj Kapoor and Mrinal Sen had been screened at the Berlinale. But it was only at the turn of the century that commercial Hindi cinema caught the fancy of Germans, with SRK becoming the most famous Indian in German-speaking parts of Europe.

“The commitment of Rapid Eye Movies [the biggest distributor of Indian films in Germany] was crucial in introducing Bollywood to Germany about 10 to 12 years ago,” Ilse Henckel, independent film critic, tells ForbesLife India in an email.

Though commercial Hindi films are screened at festivals and watched on television, they do not guarantee much box-office success because of their length and lack of substance, says Henckel. On the other hand, independent and “parallel” or “non-mainstream” films such as The Lunchbox last year, and Maqbool and Omkara earlier, have been successful.

Says Bergau-Khan, “There was always a vibrant interaction between writers and filmmakers. So, my idea of giving it a publishing platform is only a consequence of something which always existed.”

And the Indian influence in Germany isn’t restricted to just Bollywood. “It is not strange in today’s world to have Anshu Jain as the head of Deutsche Bank, Ranga Yogeshwar as Germany’s most famous TV scientist or Xavier Naidoo as a tremendously popular singer. Indian movies are just one tessera of the larger Indian image,” he says.

Ishq’s Wessel says Bollywood fans in Germany are very “open-minded ” and get involved to the extent that they, for example, start learning Hindi. “Ishq is a part of that vibrant subculture.” And the company’s new language course in Hindi fits right into that space.

But why call a magazine Ishq? “Ishq means love, but not just any kind of love. It’s a very high form of emotion, the strongest form of love,” says Bergau-Khan. It helped his cause that love happens to be the dominant theme in most Bollywood films. “It’s a nice word. It sounds good to the ear, and it looks good on print.”

(This story appears in the Nov-Dec 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Tarik Dubois

    we Love Superstar SALMAN KHAN

    on Jan 2, 2015