Indian cinema is making its way into China like never before, with a string of successful films, notably Dangal, Hindi Medium, and Andhadun. Indian producers salivate at the prospect of a market as large and prosperous.
When renowned Chinese film director Zhou Maofei watched the veteran Indian actor Raj Kapoor’s 1950s film Awaara (Vagabond), the theme song Awaara Hoon haunted him so much that he went on to use it in his film Platform (2000).
“I was touched by this song in the film when I was young. The singing and dancing in Indian films are really helpful in driving the plot,” Zhou Maofei, chairman of the board for Beijing Cultural Investment Development Group, said at the recently concluded 9th Beijing International Film Festival.
From Awaara to Andhadhun, the graph of Indian cinema in China has been climbing. Andhadhun, a thriller about a blind man, proved to be a big hit not just in the domestic market but has also left the Chinese viewers enamoured. In China, the film, featuring Tabu, Ayushmann Khurrana, Radhika Apte, and Anil Dhawan in key roles, has already reached box office collection of nearly USD 44 million.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, have bonded over Indian films and last year at an event in Wuhan city both were seen enjoying an instrumental rendition of 1982 Bollywood song, Tu, tu hai wahi dil ne jise apna kaha.
Bollywood scoring big numbers in China
Indian cinema is definitely good with the number games with most of its movies trying to get an entry into the one billion dollar club. When 3 Idiots, a 2009 blockbuster comedy, released in China it was nothing less than a breakthrough. Even though the film could earn only INR 160 million (USD 2.5 million) in China, it opened up the Chinese market for other Indian films.
The results were there soon enough. In 2015, when Aamir Khan, the star of 3 Idiots, went for his promotional trip to China for PK (2014), he received an adulation similar to what he gets from fans back home. Little wonder then, that PK grossed INR 1 billion (about USD 16 million) at the Chinese box office, a first for Indian cinema in China. Khan’s subsequent venture, Dangal (2016), a biographical drama about three young girls overcoming social challenges to turn professional wrestlers, proved to be even a bigger hit, reaping about INR 12 billion (about USD 185 million) in China alone.
A succession of massive hits has made Amir Khan the face of Bollywood in China and developed a large fan base, comparable to the popularity of top Hollywood heroes. So much so that his last film, Secret Superstar (2017), earned more than INR 7 billion in China, compared with just INR 630 million in India.
The list of successful films is already long and getting longer. As a result many producers now make a beeline for a Chinese release, soon after India. The list is already impressive. Happy New Year, Dhoom 3, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Hindi Medium, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Sultan, and Hichki.
It is not just the Hindi films that have made waves in China, even films from Hyderabad and Tamil Nadu, other major film production centres in India, have appealed to the viewers across the Himalayas. For instance, both the films of the Baahubali franchise, Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, have an impressive record in China. The latter, released last year in China, displaced Dangal as the biggest Indian film in the Chinese market.
Even though there is a quota system in China that allows only 34 foreign films annually, Bollywood managed to outsell Marvel’s Black Panther (USD 108 million) at the box-office in numbers with Dangal and Secret Superstar. This despite the fact that in China, the US has more slots than India. Despite the quotas, foreign films outperform local productions in China. In 2017, of the total box office collections of USD 8.53 billion, foreign films, only 34 in number, accounted for 46 pc of revenues. According to entertainment magazine, Variety, theatrical revenues in China during the first quarter of 2018 were USD 3.17 billion, compared to USD 2.85 billion for North America. Also, China has the largest number of screens, standing at over 60,000, of which 9,300 opened only last year.
“The Chinese market offers a great opportunity, but not for every other Indian film. It takes a unique film to connect with the massive audience,” Ajit Andhare, COO, Viacom18 Studios, told an Indian news agency.
Why do they love Indian cinema?
India has recently moved from its clichéd genre of dance and romance and is investing more in content-oriented films. Movies that deal with serious social issues, such as women’s empowerment, domestic violence and education, have fared well in China.
In an interview conducted in Beijing, R Balki, the director, producer of Padman (a real-life film based on the struggles of a man to make affordable sanitary pads for poor women), said that Indian movies, which often pack a powerful emotional punch, appeal to Chinese audiences. “The culture of India and China is similar in a lot of ways,” he says. “The emotions of Indians and Chinese are similar. They connect with the Indian characters.”
“That the popular Indian movies often focus on conservative practices also helps them appeal to the Chinese who, having their own share of traditional values hindering progress, are accustomed to films with a social message,” added Balki.
The fact that both the countries have a similar socio-cultural background might be a major reason of Indian films doing well in China. “Movies with a social message have made the impact with the Chinese audience. Movies like 3 Idiots, PK and Dangal give so much more perspective into the Indian society. Real life issues of the pressures of an engineering student, to the high-held religiosity and unlikelihood of a female wrestler, gives a different view from the mainstream Bollywood front,” says Karen Chung, a third generation Chinese living in India and a student at St. Xavier’s, Kolkata, while talking to India&You.
Collaborating through cinema
During the Beijing International Film Festival in April this year, Chinese and Indian filmmakers announced three film co-productions. The three key Sino-Indian projects include Like Stars on Earth (Taare Zameen Par) a Chinese adaptation of Aamir Khan’s film; Siddharth Anand’s action film The Jewel Thief, produced by China’s Peacock Mountain Films with Han Sanping as executive producer; and Kabir Khan’s comedy The Zookeeper about a young Indian man’s incredible journey to China.
The two governments have already signed an agreement, in 2014, to promote Sino-Indian co-productions and three films have already been made under this agreement – Kung Fu Yoga, Buddies In India and Xuanzang. Kung Fu Yoga, an Indiana Jones-style adventure film, starring Jackie Chan and Disha Patani, was successful in creating quite a hype but was panned by the critics. Nonetheless, the film managed to rake in an impressive USD 254 million in box office collections worldwide.
They all love Mishu
Back in 2009 when 3 Idiots was released in India, soon enough its pirated versions were available in China. As the film, about India’s terrible education system, hit a chord with the audience, film distributors took note and in December 2011, the movie was released, first in Taiwan. With this and his subsequent films, Amir Khan became popular in China and earned the sobriquet of Mishu or Uncle Mi, (Mi, a shortened version of Aamir and shu, for shu-hu or uncle in Chinese).
The importance of the Chinese box office is known to Khan and therefore he leaves nothing to chance in promoting his film there. Last year in December, Khan aggressively promoted Thugs of Hindostan with a seven-city tour across China. His influence now stretches far beyond China’s cinema screens. I’ll Do It My Way, a biography on Khan can be found at bookstores across China, and also his television talk show Satyamev Jayate has been dubbed into Mandarin and is widely available on Chinese streaming platforms.
Also last December, Aamir Khan went for the inaugural ceremony of Hainan International Film Festival, where he was seen sharing the stage with Jackie Chan, Johnny Depp, French actor Juliette Binoche, Mads Mikkelsen and Turkish actor-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Zhihu, a Chinese website, says the reason ordinary Chinese people love him so much is that he is handsome, a good performer and committed to his work. “Aamir Khan is God’s gift to India. We can’t help but love him,” wrote a Zhihu user.
“In China, the name Aamir Khan has been put on a lookout sign and in a good way. I think with Khan’s popularity, it is evident that the Chinese audience wants more than the usual Bollywood romance. We are more interested in rich content,” added Chung in Kolkata.
His popularity in China has bagged him many endorsement deals. The latest one is Mishu becoming the brand ambassador for Vivo, a Chinese technology company. “Aamir Khan has acted in some highly popular cinema in Bollywood like Taare Zameen Par, 3 Idiots, PK, Dangal and so many more. His popularity is very high both among Chinese Cinema critics and viewers. Therefore, Vivo has chosen him as the brand ambassador in India,” John Huang, product head of Vivo told India&You.