An Indian film that addresses social themes and stars actor Aamir Khan has captivated audiences in China. The film is thriving, despite the fact that India was the only major country to boycott Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum earlier this month.
But the irony and sharp contrast of those two developments was largely lost on the millions of Chinese viewers who have helped keep the Hindi language film land in the top slot, despite the fact that it has subtitles and no voice-over dubbing.
Analysts, film critics, and social media pundits are still debating what drove hordes of Chinese viewers to this movie, which is not your standard Bollywood mix of songs, dance and bloodletting violence.
Breaking new ground
According to industry sources, this is the first time a movie that was not made in Chinese or English has emerged as the top seller in the world's second-largest movie market. China imports very few foreign films a year, and non-Hollywood movies make up an even smaller portion of that share.
A wide range of reasons are being forwarded as explanations for the success of Dangal, which has grossed $124 million since its May 5 release in 9,000 theaters across China. On Friday, three weeks after its release, the movie finally slipped from the first to the second highest selling slot. The runner-up, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy 2, has brought in $98 million in China over the same period.
Perhaps an important reason for Dangal's success is the celebrity status that Aamir Khan, the star and driving force behind the movie, has enjoyed in China for several years with his previous movies, PK and 3 Idiots, which did very well with Chinese movie-goers. Even before Dangal arrived on the Chinese scene, Amir had a bigger following on his Sina Weibo social media account than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His following now stands at 600,000 fans compared to Modi's 165,000.
Deft marketing including personal canvassing by Khan, who spent a week traveling across Chinese cities, also played a part.
But critics and social media pundits in China see an altogether different reason. Thousands of reviews, articles and social media posts have focused on the peculiar connection between patriarchal society in China and India.
Patriarchy vs feminism
The film revolves around a wrestler father who forces his reluctant daughters to take up the sport.
His authoritarian and strict parenting style is something audiences in China can easily relate to, said Edward Chan, a sociology professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
“I think the father role portrayed by the movie in India is quite similar to the culture, especially the traditional culture in China,” Chan said.
Tansen Sen, professor of history and Asian studies at the City University of New York said, "It has a story that resonates with the Chinese, both with regard to parent-child relationship as well as the fascination with sports."
And while some feminists see the father’s behavior as problematic, they also see much to applaud in the story. For those that do, the movie is seen as empowering women.
Two feminist groups, Jianjiao Buluo (Screaming Pepper Tribe) and Cheng Yusan (Orange Umbrella) treated a group of 120 people to a free screening of the film in Guangzhou.
Lu, a 20-something entertainment industry employee, says the movie piqued her curiosity towards India, a country with a population as large as China. Lu says that many young Chinese like her want to follow their own dreams and have the support of their parents.
“I feel the father’s support for his children was especially moving and that parent’s strictness toward their children is for their own good,” Lu says.
The party-backed tabloid, the Global Times, slammed the movie for celebrating the values of a domineering father, who pushes his two reluctant daughters into wresting as a career choice. The paper said the film has sparked off a major controversy over different aspects of feminism in China, and whether modern day girls should completely reject the values of patriarchal society.
But the paper also quoted viewers who had a different viewpoint. "It made me think of my father," the Times quoted one person as saying. "His reticent love for us. I wanted to call him, say nothing, just cry, and cry like a river to release myself from my deep regrets."
Cao, a fan who says he has been watching Aamir Khan’s movies for years said there are not enough films like Dangal in the Chinese market. He said he admires Khan for his dedication to his profession (how he lost and gained weight) and the effort he put into addressing a social cause through the film.
“Just like people are saying online, he is influencing all of India as a country and all of its people,” Cao says “And I think that’s really great!”
Next Bollywood blockbuster?
Another Hindi movie, Tubelight, is waiting to access the Chinese market. It features Chinese actress and singer Zhu Zhu, and the story revolves around the 1962 India-China war. Analysts are asking if Beijing will allow its entry given its reluctance to discuss this war publicly.
"The two governments should just let the people know each other through free-flowing exchanges and interactions. Sometimes this will result in negative perceptions and misunderstandings, but it will eventually lead to a more nuanced and balanced views of each other," Sen added.