Why Indian films like Dangal and Toilet are so popular in China: similar problems

  • Indian director R. Balki says recent successes are because Indian and Chinese cultures, especially their conservative rural values, can be very similar
  • ‘Dangal’ especially sparked a wave of Indian-movie fever
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 10:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 7:23pm

Indian director R. Balki first came to Beijing to shoot an advert for an LG television at the Great Wall in 2002. How things have changed.

His latest visit to Beijing last month was to promote his new film Padman, an aspirational movie based on real-life Indian entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham who invented a machine to make sanitary pads cheaply for poor women who would otherwise use old dirty cloths.

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After attending public screenings for Padman in Beijing, Balki said he was overwhelmed by the response of Chinese audiences. “They were touched by the story of true love [between the entrepreneur and his wife],” he says. “They cried.”

Like many rural Indian women, Muruganantham’s wife insisted on using dirty cloths during her period to save money. It was out of love for her that Muruganantham, from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, overcame all obstacles – including derision from rural neighbours, poverty, his family disowning him and long separation from his wife – to invent the machine.

Whether Padman, which will be released in China on December 14, will follow last year’s Dangal in being another hugely successful Indian film in China is yet to be seen. Dangal, a film about Indian wrestling directed by Nitesh Tiwari, chalked up nearly 1.3 billion yuan (US$190 million) in China ticket sales. It sparked a wave of Indian-movie fever that has seen Chinese distributors bring a series of Indian films to the country’s big screens.

That includes Secret Superstar , released in January this year, about a talented girl pursuing her singing dream through the internet against all the odds. The film took in over 700 million yuan in China ticket sales, accounting for 60 per cent of its global box office and eclipsing the 80 million yuan in ticket sales it chalked up in India. (Box office numbers are much smaller in India than China due to the low price of a movie ticket. An average ticket costs the equivalent of 12 yuan in India, but in China a ticket can cost from 50 yuan to over 100 yuan.)

Other popular Indian movies released in China this year include Bajrangi Bhaijaan (in March) and Hindi Medium (in April). Bajrangi Bhaijaan, about a devout Indian man who helps a mute Pakistani girl reunite with her parents, racked up 283 million yuan at the China box office. Hindi Medium, about an Indian couple’s quest to give their daughter the best education, grabbed 208 million yuan.

While fans of Crazy Rich Asians , which was released in China on November 30, blamed the film’s terrible performance in the country on its belated release and the widespread availability of its pirated version, the release of popular Indian films in China are also delayed – often more severely.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s release in China was three years later than its India release. Secret Superstar’s release was three months after its debut in India, and again the pirated version was widely available in DVD stores and online. That didn’t stop Secret Superstar from hitting cinematic gold.

In an interview conducted in Beijing’s Forbidden City, Balki told the Post 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 hugely popular Indian movies often focus on conservative rural practices also helps them appeal to the Chinese who, having their own share of traditional values hindering urban progress, are accustomed to films with a social message, Balki says.

He adds that it is good to use the medium of film to draw public attention to bad rural practices the two countries share.

“[City people] lack knowledge of what’s happening in [backward rural places]. They don’t know that people there don’t have money to buy essential things. Even in [fast-developing countries] like India and China, people are so shy to talk about sanitary pads,” he says.

“Films can start a conversation. Like the movie Toilet, [about an Indian woman who threatens to leave her husband unless he installs a toilet in their home] which drew the public’s attention to open defecation in rural India. Chinese people think they also have the same problem [of widespread unhygienic toilets].”

Star power is another factor driving China’s recent interest in Indian films. Toilet, released in China in June, stars popular Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar who plays the Indian man who builds an indoor toilet to win his wife back. Kumar also plays the rural inventor in Padman, and it is his portrayal of Muruganantha’s persistence, perennial optimism and revolutionary vision that wins over audiences.

While Kumar is a bankable Indian star in China (Toilet took in 94 million yuan), the real Indian superstar in the country is Aamir Khan, a national treasure in India who is also a household name among the Chinese.

Chinese audiences first came to know Khan through Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001). But it was not until 2011 when 3 Idiots, a coming-of-age drama satirising the severe pressure of the Indian education system, was released in China that he registered on the wider Chinese radar.

More Chinese and Indians will get together [to make movies]. It’s just the beginning. Bollywood has a lot to learn from the Chinese
R. Balki

He Wei, general manager of Beijing Chuangshixing International Film and Television Culture Company – which promoted Dangal in China – told The Beijing News last year that 3 Idiots’ total China box office of 14 million yuan, while looking small compared with today’s standards, was at the time the most an Indian movie in China had ever grossed.

“In 2014, [Khan’s action thriller] Dhoom 3 took in nearly 20 million yuan,” Balki says. “Another movie of his, PK, [a 2015 comedy about a humanoid alien stranded on Earth], achieved 118 million yuan at the China box office. He is the most bankable Indian star in China.”

Khan’s position as the top Indian money-spinner in China was further cemented with the release of Dangal two years later. His portrayal in Dangal of a determined father who trains two of his daughters to be wrestling champions led to widespread glowing reviews on Chinese internet forums.

Chinese audiences were amazed by his ability to portray the real-life farmer and ex-wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat as both a 19-year-old muscle-bound pugilistic youth and a washed-up 55-year-old dad with a large paunch – without the need for make-up, a body double or special effects. The drastic fitness and diet regimen Khan underwent to achieve such fluctuation in body shape made an impression on the country’s film critics.

The trajectory of Dangal at the China box office shows the importance of word of mouth among Chinese moviegoers. Its first-week figures were only 87 million yuan, but as news spread of the film’s quality, it eventually reaped 1.3 billion yuan, making it the most successful Indian movie in China so far.

But other Indian stars who are big in India do not enjoy the same popularity in China, according to He. “Movies starring Shahrukh Khan, who enjoys the same stature in India as [Aamir] Khan, were not well received in China, such as Fan (2016) and Happy New Year (2015).”

China’s love affair with Indian films can be traced back to 1971 when Caravan was the first Indian movie to be screened in China. But due to the vagaries of India-China relations and the unpredictable nature of China’s cinema industry, the import of Indian movies to China has traditionally been little more than a trickle, with only around 30 Indian movies shown in Chinese cinemas from 1980 to 1999.

Like Hollywood movies, Indian movies are also subject to China’s quota system which restricts foreign movies’ release in China in support of local productions.

Foreign releases are handled by state-owned distributors China Film Group and Huaxia Film Distribution. In recent years, due to the lessening of the quota system and rising number of foreign movie imports, the two companies have subcontracted some promotion and distribution work to private companies like Beijing Chuangshixing.

In recent years, India has produced an annual average of over 1,500 movies. Beijing Chuangshixing’s He told The Beijing News last year that his company does not choose films that are too “Indianised” for China release as local audiences won’t understand them. But he does say that it has helped many Indian movies enter the China market over the last few years. “We help popularise them among Chinese audiences who no longer think that Indian movies are just big song-and-dance productions.”

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He added that his company has set up a joint production company with India, which since 2016 has taken part in the shooting of Chinese movies in India including Buddies in India and Xuan Zang.

Balki also believes that there will be more Indo-China co-productions in future. “More Chinese and Indians will get together [to make movies]. It’s just the beginning. Bollywood has a lot to learn from the Chinese, like the scale of production and how they shoot films,” he says.

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