You can spot a Chinese character in a Hindi movie with your eyes closed. Just keep an ear open for “ching-chong-choo-waka-maka-cho”.
When they’re not speaking, the Chinese in Hindi movies get their facial muscles to perform gymnastics. Or they wave their hands about wildly like characters from an Asterix comic.
In dragonland: Akshay Kumar plays a cook in Chandni Chowk to China.
For years, film-makers have been avenging the humiliation of the Sino-Indian war in 1962 by lampooning the Chinese. From Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani to Tahalka, we have been churning out movies that portray the Chinese either as smiling simpletons or malevolent villains while acknowledging the martial arts artistry of Hong Kong cinema. Next Friday’s release, Chandni Chowk to China (CC2C), goes several steps further. It cheekily puts its head into the dragon’s mouth and suggests that the saviour of the Chinese people is a cook from Delhi—and he looks like Akshay Kumar.
One of the first Hindi movies with a China theme was V. Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946). Dr Kotnis attempted to charm the Chinese into submission by drowning them in the saccharine they had brought into India (hence the Hindi word for sugar, cheeni). Shantaram’s biopic is based on the true-life story of the good doctor who was part of a five-member Indian National Congress delegation that was sent to China to treat victims of the second Sino-Japanese war. Dr Kotnis married a Chinese woman (played in the movie by the very desi Jayshree) and died soon after his son’s birth due to illness, all along healing war victims and getting converted to communism.
A new chapter in villainy and buffoonery was opened in the 1950s, a decade of the assertion of national identity. In Chetan Anand’s Funtoosh (1956), his brother Dev Anand plays a mentally challenged inmate of the “International Mental Asylum”. Other inmates include Africans, Caucasians and Chinese. A line in one of Anand’s songs goes thus: “Chong Ching Beijing Nanking Chow Chow, King Kong Pinni Pinni Pong Sing Song Dao Dao”.
Mainstream cinema has always trafficked in broad characterizations—the rapacious landlord, the large-hearted prostitute—but historical events have helped create villains who have a wider resonance. Communist China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama’s escape to India in 1959 erased Shantaram’s earlier comradely spirit. In Shakti Samanta’s noirish thriller Howrah Bridge (1958), Ashok Kumar’s character Prem attempts to trace a family heirloom—a Chinese dragon— that his brother has sold to a crooked antique dealer, Chang. Madan Puri, Hindi cinema’s regular China hand, plays Chang by painting on false eyebrows and narrowing his eyes.
Samanta’s next movie, Singapore (1960), anticipated movies like Raj Kapoor’s Sangam that would be shot in foreign locations. An Indo-Malay production, Singapore is designed as a tourist brochure and is an excuse to show off rows of smiling women in short and close-necked silken dresses. Next was China Town (1962), set in the Chinese quarter of Kolkata and featuring waterfronts, opium dens and dance clubs swinging to jazz. Puri played a Chinese bad apple yet again, named Wong, while stunt director M.B. Shetty played a Chinese shoemaker named Ching Lee. The half-British, half-Burmese actor Helen was perfectly placed to perform dances in these movies—in Howrah Bridge, she played the Chinese maiden who danced to Mera Naam Chin Chin Choo.
The knives came out in 1964, two years after China and India went to war over disputed territory in the region of Ladakh. Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat is a dirge to the soldiers who died in Ladakh defending border outposts. Although the Chinese are portrayed as marauding monsters, the movie is equally a subtle critique of the then Nehru government’s inability to anticipate the war. Anand emphasizes India’s sense of betrayal by including documentary footage of Chinese vice-premier Chou En Lai’s visit to India shortly before the hostilities and by making Chinese soldiers mockingly and repeatedly say “Chini-Hindi bhai bhai”.
A combo meal of the Chinese gangster and the Chinese destabiliser appeared in the spy thriller genre of the 1960s and 1970s, influenced as much by the Bond movies abroad as by a string of wars and self-determination struggles back home. The paranoia prevalent in the Indira Gandhi government of the time—wonderfully expressed in the term “foreign hand”—played its own part in creating a conglomerate of villainy simply called “videshi taakat”. Foreign powers, notably China and Pakistan, were challenging India’s sovereignty, and Hindi film-makers dived deep into the trenches. In Prem Pujari (1970), Dev Anand directs and stars as a peacenik soldier who refuses to guard his Nathu La post and gets court-martialled. He is then trapped in an international spy network wired together by Pakistani, Chinese and French agents.
“Videshi taakat” were attempting to tear India asunder as late as 1992. In Anil Sharma’s jingoistic Tahalka, Amrish Puri plays Dong, the dictatorial ruler of a fictitious northern kingdom named Dongrila. Dong’s eye make-up and pigtail give some indication of his ethnic descent as does his bad Hindi—his refrain is “Dong kabhi wrong nahin hota”.
His eventual defeat helps restore some of the geopolitical balance of power in the region, at least within the four corners of a cinema screen.
CC2C releases on 16 January.
Nandini Ramnath is Film Editor at TimeOut, Mumbai. Write to her at email@example.com