It takes more than a film to build trust and cooperation
Chinese and Indian cultures are markedly different; making a movie that can be appreciated by audiences from both nations is challenging
The soft power of culture is one way of increasing understanding between nations. On paper, Kung Fu Yoga, the second of three movies to be jointly produced by the Chinese and Indian film industries, had all the elements to help attain that goal: an ethnically diverse cast that included Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan and a plot conceived around and shot in both countries. But when the Mumbai-based partner inexplicably pulled out, the project lost balance, as evidenced by the production’s box-office success on the mainland and lacklustre showing in India and elsewhere. What suits Chinese cinema-goers obviously does not easily translate to other cultures.
Kung Fu Yoga has brought in box-office returns on the mainland several times the production costs. The Indian audiences have been minuscule by comparison and the country’s film critics have been scathing, panning the plot and ridiculing its Indian stereotypes. There have also been accusations that Beijing has used the film for propaganda purposes; at one point, Chan’s character is asked by an official to “help the belt and road initiative”, a reference to China’s pan-Asian development plan that is perceived by New Delhi as threatening its regional position.
China is India’s biggest trading partner and their economic ties are ballooning. But those links are often overlooked when the broader relationship is considered, being framed in terms of a long-standing border dispute, a war in 1962 and Beijing’s close ties to rival Pakistan. The film agreement President Xi Jinping (習近平) signed when he visited India in 2014 was in part aimed at capitalising on the market potential offered by the world’s two most populous nations, but also set sights on producing movies that could help build trust and understanding.
Chinese and Indian cultures are markedly different; making a movie that can be appreciated by audiences from both nations is challenging. Soft power is most successful when it spreads organically from a culture rather than being directed by a government. Kung Fu Yoga offers a lesson of the difficulties in building trust and cooperation.