Tokyo restaurant Nandori backs passionate Indian film ‘Madras Beats’

©Mindscreen Cinemas
Peter (played by G.V. Prakash Kumar) learns from a mridangam master.

A South Indian musical drama has been screened at a Japanese theater thanks to efforts by a small Tokyo restaurant.

“Madras Beats” (Japanese title: “Jonetsu no Mridangam”) was released not by a typical film distributor, but by a small eatery called Nandori in Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward that serves South Indian dishes. Its owner-chef and his wife fell in love with the movie and spearheaded its showing to as many people as possible at theaters in Japan.

The coming-of-age film, which is filled with passionate mridangam beats, first ran on Oct. 1 at Image Forum in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, and will be shown in theaters nationwide.

The mridangam double-headed drum is a traditional Indian instrument. Set in Chennai in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, “Madras Beats” is the story of a young man who aspires to become a mridangam player and overcomes various hardships with passion. The film is set to a resonant drumming rhythm.

The story is accentuated with superb music that is interwoven with the serious reality of caste and conflicts that come with the succession to traditional performing arts.

“Madras Beats” was written and directed by Rajiv Menon, who is highly regarded for his music-themed works. Its music is directed by A.R. Rahman, a master composer who produced the smash hit “Muthu” (1995) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), for which he won one Academy Award for Original Score and another for Original Song.

In Japan, “Madras Beats” was first shown at the 2018 Tokyo International Film Festival to much applause. The Nandori owner and his wife were hoping for its theatrical release but had not imagined at the time that they would end up distributing it on their own.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The South Indian restaurant Nandori in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo

Final word

Nandori is run by owner-chef Tomihisa Inagaki, 56, and his wife, Noriko, 51, who said she fell in love with Indian cinema after watching “Muthu.”

Since its opening in 2013, the restaurant has been offering a selection of South Indian dishes, while also promoting Indian films. The Inagakis help distribute flyers of movies to be released in Japan, hold events and sell imported DVDs.

“We’re fans of both Indian food and movies, and we wanted to connect them a little bit, so we held dinner parties where we served dishes featured in the movies and organized events to introduce them,” Noriko said.

The couple has long promoted “Madras Beats” after watching it first at the Tokyo festival, she said.

In autumn 2020, they held an online discussion with experts in Indian classical music who were supporting “Madras Beats,” and Menon jumped into the conversation as an unofficial entrant. After the event, Noriko asked Menon about the possibility of the movie being rerun in Japan, and he asked them, “What if you buy it?”

Noriko was taken aback but made inquiries with the film’s rights holder about the terms and learned that it was “barely affordable.”

The Inagakis then sought out know-how from those involved in film distribution before making up their minds to try releasing the movie in Japan and acquiring the screening rights, based on the belief that “things will move forward by us buying it rather than asking someone to buy it.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nandori owners Noriko Inagaki, left, and her husband, Tomihisa

Charm of Indian cinema

To realize the theatrical release of “Madras Beats,” the couple needed amenable theaters and money for advertising.

“Even if we couldn’t find a theater in the end, it’ll still have some meaning if we can hold a few independent screenings,” Noriko said.

However, they were able to make a deal for the screening with a theater where the couple has a connection from their promotion of Indian films.

They launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise a portion of the promotional expenses and received contributions that were well above the target.

Noriko said one of the elements of Indian films that attracts her is that they are “full of emotion.”

“They have a clear sense of joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure that could be too exaggerated for Japanese viewers, yet they also depict the subtleties of life,” she said. “There is something about watching Indian films that brings me back to my own emotions.”

She experienced that sensation through the first Indian film she saw, “Muthu.”

“When the film was released in Japan in 1998, I had been laid off and stayed at home, but that movie encouraged me to go outside. The following year, I got a job and returned to society,” she said. “The movie really changed my life.”

“Madras Beats” is similarly filled with such Indian-film charms.

The original title of “Madras Beats” (2018/Indian/Tamil/2 hours 12 minutes) is “Sarvam Thaala Mayam,” while its Japanese title is “Jonetsu no Mridangam.”

©Mindscreen Cinemas
A scene from “Madras Beats”