By Dr. Sudha Ramachandran
Rivals in real life, India and China are set to start a new romance in reel life. Besides the growing popularity of Bollywood films in China, the Indian and Chinese film industries will be collaborating in production of films.
On May 22, PK, a Bollywood satirical comedy that tells the story of an alien visiting Earth, opened in Chinese multiplexes and set cash registers ringing immediately; in its opening weekend, it sold a million tickets and in its first week it collected $10 million to become the highest grossing Indian film in Chinese box office history.
What is more, PK’s earnings in China are poised to overtake what it grossed in the North American market. This is significant as unlike North America, China does not have a large Indian and South Asian Bollywood-watching diaspora. Those who watch Bollywood movies here are local Chinese. Chinese tickets sales, therefore, reflect the rising popularity of Bollywood among the Chinese people.
Bollywood films have a massive following in South Asia, Central Asia, the Gulf and Africa. Audiences here enjoy its song and dance routines and connect easily with its family and community oriented themes. While Bollywood’s popularity outside India goes back several decades, it was only in the 1990s that its overseas market expanded exponentially thanks to the impact of globalization.
Bollywood’s trajectory in China was different; its movies entered China in 1979 only when Awara (The Tramp) was screened here. It became a major hit as did its title song, ‘Awara hoon’ (I am a tramp), which struck a chord with the Chinese. A few other movies like Caravan were popular thereafter. However, a long dry spell followed and it was only in 2003 that a Bollywood movie — Lagaan — captured the attention and hearts of Chinese film buffs again. And since then, things seem to be looking up for Bollywood. In 2011, 3 Idiots stormed the Chinese box office as did Dhoom 3 in 2014. PK’s stunning performance now signals that Bollywood’s fortunes in China are on the upswing. It has triggered hope in the Indian film industry.
At present, Bollywood’s presence in China is small. Chinese government rules limit the number of foreign films for release each year to 34. Of these, almost 90% are Hollywood blockbusters. Non-Hollywood foreign releases are just 1.5% of the Chinese film market.
It hasn’t been easy for Bollywood films. They have to compete against hugely popular Hollywood movies and also films from other countries. Besides, to be selected for release in China, foreign films have to meet certain criteria with regard to good content, cultural appropriateness, etc.
An agreement signed by India and China during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014, which envisages collaboration in film production could pave the way for improving the market for Indian movies in China and vice versa.
Beijing and Delhi have announced co-production of three movies, including Kung Fu Yoga, starring martial art hero Jackie Chan and Bollywood actor Aamir Khan; Da Nao Tian Zhu (Lost in India), directed by Chinese actor Wang Baoqiang; and Da Tang Xuan Zang (Monk Xuanzang), a feature film about a Buddhist monk who travelled to India in the sixth century AD.
Film industry analysts have said that joint productions provide multiple benefits. For one, a jointly produced film will get the tag of a local production in both countries. These films can circumvent the quota system and the criteria that a foreign film needs to meet to be screened in China. Besides, it paves the way for greater cultural and other exchange. This, in turn, would dilute the rather crude, negative stereotypical representations of Chinese characters in Indian films, for instance.
There are other spinoffs that India is eyeing. In 2013, when the low-budget Chinese slapstick comedy Lost in Thailand met with unprecedented success at the box office, not only did it provide a boost to the Chinese film industry but also it prompted Chinese tourists to flock to Thailand. India will be hoping that the upcoming Sino-Indian joint production Lost in India will boost Chinese tourist arrivals in India.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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