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December 06 2019
China’s affair with Bollywood is now more down than up. But everybody loves Mishu
18 February 2019

It was during the pre-Cultural Revolution era, when Raj Kapoor’s classic Awaara was released in the middle kingdom in the mid-50s, that China’s interest in Hindi cinema began

Some 10 years ago, Three Idiots, a satire on India’s structured education system, made its way into China through the pirated DVD route. Within weeks it became a talking point in the entire greater China region (which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong), enough to make its producers sit up and take note. The movie released in Taiwan in December 2010, in Hong Kong in September 2011, and in mainland China in December 2011.

A few years later, Happy New Year and Dhoom 3 (also starring Aamir Khan) were also released here, but they didn’t make quite such an impact. Then in 2015, Khan made a maiden promotional trip to China for PK, the first film to gross ₹100 crore at the Chinese box office. It was then that China’s legendary adulation for ‘Mishu’, as Aamir is fondly known here, (mi short for Aamir and shu short for shu-hu or uncle in Chinese) really began. Mishu soon became synonymous with Bollywood across the greater Chinese-speaking region.

PK was a fun movie, and yet came packed with a message we found interesting,” says Wancheng Gu, Shanghai-based partner at Peacock Mountain Productions, and an expert on the China film market. “The Chinese audience knew Aamir Khan from his Three Idiot days. Wang Baoqiang (a famous movie star) dubbed for Aamir, and that was a big draw for the audience too.”

When Dangal, (Shuai Jiao Ba! Baba or Let’s Wrestle, Dad) released in China in May 2017, it worked magic again. “We all knew that Dangal was a great film, and that Aamir was popular in China; but nothing prepared us for the extent of its success,” says Beijing-based Prasad Shetty, a producer of Secret Superstar and partner in NPRG Partners, a company that represents the interests of various Indian film studios in China. Dangal grossed a whopping $193 million at the Chinese box office and Secret Superstar, which released here in January 2018, came close with an impressive $118 million.

Common thread

“Everybody knows Mishu,” gushes Tina Lin, a sprightly executive from Xiamen, a tier-3 city in China. Secret Superstar released less than six months after Dangal and beat even the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther at the box office. “With both Dangal and Secret Superstar there was something we Chinese could relate to,” says Wang Yung Cheng, a Beijing-based teacher. “Family ties, aspirations of the young, gender stereotypes and the rigours of our education system are common to both countries.”

Dangal was a case of a deliberately crafted and phased promotional campaign that initially built on Khan’s popularity and his reputation as an actor passionate about cinema with a conscience. It was first shown to the who’s who of Chinese cinema — actors, producers and directors — who loved the movie. It was also actively promoted on social media sites like Sina Weibo and in widely-followed film review sites like douban.com.

 

Posters of Dangal dubbed into Chinese

Posters of Dangal dubbed into Chinese   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangmenet

The movie started relatively modestly, pulling in $13 million in the opening weekend. Cinema managers however began to notice the movie’s traction on social media. They decided to increase the number of shows across screens, and within a week the film touched $44 million. It was the biggest non-Hollywood foreign movie release in China that year — it ranked #9 in the 2017 Chinese box office list — and was the film’s biggest release outside India.

The Awaara days

But China’s interest in Bollywood began decades earlier, during the pre-Cultural Revolution era, when Raj Kapoor’s classic Awaara was released in the middle kingdom in the mid-50s. The socialist theme of the movie, along with Kapoor’s boyish charm and the movie’s memorable music captivated Chinese audiences that had been largely deprived of movies from outside.

Wang recalls how his parents’ generation’s loved Awaara. “My father and his friends still remember the movie... They saw it at a time when they had limited access to movies from around the world, and it made a deep impression on them.”

Awaara was re-released in China in the late 70s, again to packed audiences. By the 80s, the Chinese film industry was finally coming into its own and banned Hollywood movies began to be widely watched. During this time, barely a trickle of Indian cinema came into China, though Lagaan, another Khan-starrer, had a multi-city release.

Too many, too soon

“For a long time Bollywood movies were ignored in China because producers and distributors were not ready to take the risk. The back-to-back successes of Dangal and Secret Superstar reversed that,” says Shetty.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan was a reasonable success (earning the highest revenue for a non-Aamir Khan movie in the region) with audiences attracted to the endearing story of the little girl and her cross-border journey. Baahubali 2Hindi MediumToilet: Ek Prem KathaSultan, and Hichki followed in quick succession. Bollywood moved from being the flavour of the season to the flavour of the day.

Rani Mukherjee even made a whistle-stop tour to promote Hichki, which got a good rating on Douban. “I watched Ge Ge Laoshi (The Teacher with Hiccups) on TV. These issues are relevant in China as well,” says Wang. But there have been Bollywood films that have bombed too. Amitabh Bachchan’s 102 Not Out flopped. “Audiences were beginning to get a bit tired of too much of the same thing,” says Shetty.

 

Toiet Ek Prem Katha

Toiet Ek Prem Katha  

Last December, Khan aggressively promoted Thugs of Hindostan with an unprecedented seven-city tour across China. The movie was edited by 40 minutes to cater to Chinese audiences. But not even Mishu’s charm could lift it. It sank at the box office making only $9 million. Padman and 102 Not Out jointly couldn’t cross $15 million.

“We definitely need to manage our expectations and break out of this ‘100 crore mindset,’” says Wancheng emphatically. It’s equally important that the cost of acquiring a movie be controlled. After Bajrangi Bhaijaan, costs began to spiral out of control. “Not all movies released are blockbusters. Some are small, more art-house, while others, even if targeted at a mainstream audience, are made on modest budgets. They can’t all be promoted the same way.”

The Chinese economy as a whole has had a sluggish start this year, with the slowest growth projections in over three decades. With the cost of a cinema ticket anywhere between 50 to 100 RMB (₹500-1,000), the audience will be cautious about where it spends its money. “Now that the number of movies from Bollywood has grown, so will the number of movies that don’t make a big impact,” says Wancheng. Thugs, for instance, was the third Bollywood film to be released in a span of three weeks.

Getting greedy

So is China’s romance with Bollywood waning? Has there been an over-kill? “I would put it down to greed,” says Shetty. “Greed on part of distributors on both sides of the border. After the super success of Dangal and Secret Superstar, they got impatient. They didn’t think about factors like audience fatigue or the lack of connect, and went all out to launch whatever they could.”

The Chinese audience is mature, says Shetty. “It welcomes movies from Hollywood and other parts of the world. After DangalSecret SuperstarBajrangi Bhaijaan and Hindi Medium, there was a perception that Bollywood was telling compelling stories. But this manic rush to release movie after movie has dented that perception. We are now back to pre-Dangal days.”

Says Wancheng, “If the story is good, there will be an audience.” As she says, there’s a lesson in this for producers and distributors on both sides of the border: “They should focus on telling good stories.”

Shetty nails it when he says, “After Dangal and Secret Superstar, there was an assumption that Bollywood had arrived in China. Now, we know that it depends purely on merit.”

 

Fans during the release of Secret Superstar in Shanghai

Fans during the release of Secret Superstar in Shanghai   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

E Stars, China’s biggest distributor of Bollywood movies, has reportedly not shown interest in Bollywood’s 2018 hit Andhadhun. It has since been bought by another independent distributor and is expected to release in the coming months.

Shah Rukh Khan’s Zero is also slated for a March release. Their success or failure remains to be seen. But the love for Bollywood is far from over. “Bollywood movies really know how to make you cry,” laughs Wancheng. They are everyday stories, she says, recounted entertainingly and often with an underlying message. “And this is what attracts the Chinese people.”

The Beijing-based writer is a self-proclaimed Sinophile. She writes about people, places and trends in China.

 

 

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