Rohit Khattar: cinema and food, biggest global ambassadors, remain unexploited

In a freewheeling interview with TF, Rohit Khattar, Founder Chairman, Old World Hospitality – which also manages the India Habitat Centre in Delhi – opens up about two of his major engagements, food and cinema. Calling Indian culinary offerings and cinema as two of the biggest ambassadors of the country in the global market, he advocates a stronger push by state governments in popularising local cuisines and bats for a more holistic marketing outreach for the same. Excerpts of the interview follows:


You have an interesting presence in two relatively new verticals for Indian tourism, namely, culinary and cinema. How do you see the two developing for India as an inbound destination?

In terms of restaurants, we started with the Chor Bazaar at Broadway Hotel in Delhi Gate. We have a Chor Bizarre in London for some time, and now an Indian Accent, first in Delhi, and more recently in New York. All of this centres around Indian food. 

How do you see India’s story going forward in terms of bringing tourists to India for authentic culinary food? Because we feel in many cases authentic Indian food is missing.

Honestly, when I did these launches I don’t think that my intention was to take Indian food overseas, it was more an opportunity that turned up in London and then in New York. Indian Accent is modern Indian food; it is an interpretation of what the world wants today. Having said that, the flavours are intrinsically Indian. 

But coming to your question, as far as I think, a lot of people come to India for its mysticism but I don’t think the images of India that are projected talk about food. However, when you think of India’s two biggest ambassadors worldwide – overseas – these are food and films. I think mainly the Indian diaspora, now that my company also distributes films is mainly UK, USA, UAE, that’s where the volumes are. Surely, these can become the new pullers for Indian tourism. Easily, I can say, both remain hugely unexploited.

Where has the story of Indian food reached yet? 

Indian food has penetrated everywhere. Now you may say that much of the Indian food in Britain is not really Indian, it is more Bangladeshi. Which, perhaps, is also true. But the fact remains that in the most obscure town in any part of the world, you will find Indian food. So, Indian cuisine is the greatest ambassador and perhaps because of that, now that you mention, people have their fill of food. Maybe that is why they are not travelling for the food. Of course, when they are here, they try it. They may not have felt the need to go all the way to India, when Indian food is available to them at home. For a more authentic experience, to try so much more of the variety that Indian food has in store, these elements need to be promoted.

Yes, the Indian cuisine overseas, so far, has been essentially tandoor and only in a few exceptional cases, like in London there is a small bit of the south as well, the whole gamut of Indian cuisine is mind boggling.

I feel tourism bodies, such as the state tourism departments need to think this through, and decide to put in more money on aspects of India such as its cuisines.  And I feel that in a widely read magazine such as the British Airways inflight magazine, they need to promote such images. All I get to seeing is the usual monuments and the same imagery. What if each state started to push a few dishes to the world, this could change the dynamics of the business. 

What is your impression on creating some mechanism in India or in London, to begin with, to organize a regular and genuine authentic food festival?

We have done food festivals from everywhere, but somewhere sustaining them has always been a challenge.

Just as a thought, every year there is a WTM in London, around the same time. Why not have a 20 cuisine festival in the city, around the same time?

I agree with you. I think it is needed, and can be done.

Do you think food has that potential?

Yes. Across the country, every hotel is doing food festivals all the time. I have this regional restaurant called Delhi O Delhi. It opened in 1999. Till now, every month, I have some state food focus and people do not tire of it. Even at Chor Bizarre, people know us for Kashmiri but we are a regional food restaurant. Most people across the world, and even the Indian food that has gone overseas, predominantly is north Indian. Once in a while, you will see the dosa and other South Indian dishes.

What is your experience at Indian Accent or at Chor Bizarre?

We have been very lucky. We have people flying in once to enjoy a meal at Indian Accent. A lot of the success is on account of social media. We have been number one on TripAdvisor for so many years. We are the only restaurant from India on the world best list. So people see that and they come. There is so much wealth in this country in terms of food.

It can be a strong pulling power for tourism into India.  

Yes. Absolutely.

At Chor Bizarre in New Delhi, what has been your experience with foreign tourists?

70% of the clientele are foreign tourists and it remains packed for a major part of the year. It has been 25 years now; we have never seen recession.  

I was also pleasantly surprised when I was eating at Chor Bizarre in London, maybe barring 2 tables, all others were well-heeled locals.

I guess you are right. It is the tip of the iceberg. No one has really done anything. For example, Kerala and Rishikesh have taken ownership of yoga. But with tandoori, no one has taken ownership. I think Britain has perhaps taken more ownership of the chicken tikka masala than us. According to statistics, the UK sells more tikka than fish and chips in the UK. I feel guilty, as an Indian, that I don’t know myself adequately, on what kind of cuisine states and destinations like Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh have to offer in terms of their cuisines.

Bengal and Andhra are legendary, there is Goan as well, and many others that can become instant hits overnight.

I agree, for sure. But we have yet to get started on this.

You mentioned the second ambassador for India, the big potential one, Indian cinema. And you are actively into films?

I have tied up with Anil Thadani. He is the biggest distributor in India. I own 51% and he owns 49% of Cinestaan AA Distributors. Cinestaan is my studio and AA is his company. Indian films have a market in Germany and Spain. And now we have Cinestaan international sales based out of Madrid. In films again it is not as big as it could be. The diaspora is hungry for it. The non-diaspora gets interested, once in a while, with films such as Monsoon Wedding, or the more recent Lunch Box, when the film breaks through and becomes universally liked.

What about promoting British films or other language films to shoot in India and therefore promote India, to let’s say, the French audience?

Desperately needed. There is a lack of process and intent right now. Each one of these countries are giving tax credits to shoot. Here UP tourism is giving something. Others do not. The advantage of shooting in so many cities and countries is so fantastic.

What has been your experience so far of dealing with Indian bodies?

For now really we haven’t had much interaction.

Any plans to go aggressive?

We are aggressively shooting overseas because of the tax credits and the advantages. I have a UK office, we have many films under development with a lot of shooting overseas.

The fact that you go to X country? Is that expense worth it?

Yes, still worth it. So for instance if you go to UK, you hire the local talent, the cast, the crew and do the post production there, they give you back an X% of your budget. Even in the US, there are amazing benefits. In fact every state is competing with each other for the benefits they offer. So basically the intent needs to be there. It will massively promote tourism into the country. 

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