Bollywood’s love story in China
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New Delhi: Growing up in the small city of Huainan in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui, Jane Du’s first brush with Bollywood was when she watched the pirated version of the Aamir Khan blockbuster, Ghajini, as a student.
Screening of foreign fare was strictly controlled by a government mandate, and only a few foreign films, mostly Hollywood releases, would make it to the theatre. Bollywood films were rarely screened.
In fact, Raj Kapoor’s Awaara, a film that was first released in India in 1951, was the only Indian movie that the Chinese have significant memory of before Khan’s 3 Idiots opened in theatres in 2011, almost two years after it was released in India.
The film had by then already left a mark on Chinese audiences, who watched the movie—a satire on the Indian education system that encourages rote learning and slavery to exam scores—on pirated DVDs.
“As a student back then, we had great resonance with the movie,” said Du, 30, now an exchange student in Australia. She had grown up watching Hollywood classics such as Forrest Gump and Schindler’s List but Indian movies, slowly finding their way into China post 2010, were promising something else—a connection to everyday life.
In India, 3 Idiots had made more than Rs200 crore. But when the comedy drama made it to Chinese theatres in 2011, the response was unprecedented. Final box-office earnings may have stood only at Rs16 crore, but the impact of 3 Idiots ran far deeper.
Indian films had been popular in China during the 1970s and older folks still have memories of Awaara, but the period thereafter saw a long dry spell.
When 3 Idiots stormed the China market, it was nothing short of a breakthrough, given that video-sharing websites and the pirated DVD market had already lapped it up in the two intervening years since its India release.
“3 Idiots had criticized the education system. I think China and India have similar social backgrounds in terms of college entrance exams being highly competitive in both countries. This is actually the real life in China. In fact, in some kindergarten schools in Shanghai today, they interview the parents before granting admission to the kid. So, a lot of Chinese people found this similar to their real lives,” Du said.
Bollywood has since managed to make far deeper inroads into the neighbouring country.
At last count, Irrfan Khan-starrer Hindi Medium was nearing the Rs200 crore mark in China while its collections in India stand at Rs69 crore. Recently, Salman Khan-starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan made Rs300 crore in China within a month of release, a figure that it had notched up by the end of its theatrical run in India.
A couple of months ago, Aamir Khan’s production, Secret Superstar, had earned more than Rs700 crore there, compared with the Rs63 crore it made in India. To be sure, though, the track record of Khan’s wrestling drama, Dangal, remains unbeaten; it is currently the highest grossing Indian film in China at Rs1,200 crore.
In fact, Bollywood now serves as a glue between the two nations, after several border stand-offs. At the informal two-day summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, a musical version of R.D. Burman’s classic song, Tu, Tu Hai Wahi, was played at the banquet for Modi, and Xi emphasized on the power of films to bring the two countries together.
Industry experts say the phenomenal reception to Indian cinema in China is a combination of several factors. First, logistical. Ten years into its massive screen expansion plan, despite a government mandate that allows only 34 non-Chinese productions to release in the country each year, the Chinese film market is giving industries in every corner of the world a run for their money. And its 41,000-strong screen count remains primarily responsible for that. China has almost quadrupled its screen count in the past few years, from around 10,000. India, on the other hand, works with 9,000-odd cinemas divided between single-screens and multiplexes. A big-ticket Bollywood film typically releases in 4,500-5,500 screens in China, which is also the widest possible release it can get on home ground.
Plus, compared with the US or Europe, where the number of youth is declining, China has a population of more than 300 million under the age of 18 years, according to data from the United Nations Children’s Fund. Ticket prices in the country are $10-12, the same as in the US and Europe.
Second, and more important, is the emotional connect with Indian films.
“I don’t think the Chinese actually like typical Bollywood,” said Hindi Medium director Saket Chaudhary. “What they like are the more realistic, entertaining films from here. Bollywood has become synonymous with a certain kind of cinema, which means it has to have a little bit of comedy, a little bit of music, a little bit of dance. That’s not the kind of film they like. They like specific films that speak about social issues in an entertaining manner, which may be known as ‘middle-of-the-road’ cinema here rather than pure Bollywood.”
When Chaudhary and his co-writer, Zeenat Lakhani, were writing Hindi Medium, which traces a Delhi-based couple’s struggle to get their young daughter into an English-medium school, one of the books they turned to for research was on education and schooling in China. Even in the case of Dangal, experts point out the resonance stems from its narrative that focuses on a father-daughter relationship. There is also said to be a certain bias against the female child in China which was aggravated after China implemented the one-child policy. Secret Superstar, meanwhile, is the story of a young girl fighting to break away from the shackles of Indian patriarchal society, and her own home.
“Chinese audiences have become smarter; earlier, they only recognized popular stars and big-budget films; but now, more and more people have started to learn what a good story is,” said Ming Chow, chief executive officer at Chinese film production and distribution company More High Film Co. Ltd and also a former employee at Chinese multinational Wanda Group, which owns 80% of the country’s multiplexes.
The success of Bollywood has as much to do with the resonance of Indian stories as with the void created by other movie fare available in China. While the Chinese still lap up Hollywood films that have flooded their market for years and remain unmatched in terms of size, scale and grandeur, a lot of those movies end up offering the same story structure and characters. Meanwhile, most local Chinese production companies focus on commercial entertainers, comedies or science fiction flicks. That also stems, as many Chinese locals said on condition of anonymity, from the Chinese mandate to allow their films to only address certain themes and not more pressing issues.
“I feel Bollywood movies are more real. In recent years, Chinese films have liked to work on fantasy and the imagination for youngsters to like them. I feel they are turning kind of distant and commercialized,” said Zijing Niu, an executive with the World Bank in Singapore who moved from Beijing three years ago. “In that sense, my observation is Bollywood is closer to ordinary life and emotions, the storyline is strong and as an audience, you’re fascinated because it’s about everyday life where people will not fantasize or pretend about big cars or rich families but focus on human relationships.”
Some of the high-end Chinese moviegoers are getting tired; they like films that have a touching story. But not many Chinese filmmakers make something like a Dangal or Hindi Medium, Chow added.
That’s where Bollywood filmmakers come in. Three years ago, when PM Modi led a delegation to China, Mumbai-based studio Eros International, also distributors of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, had the opportunity to meet and interact with state-owned entities such as the China Film Group and the Shanghai Film Group.
Kumar Ahuja, president-business development, Eros International Media Ltd, said a detailed and strategic partnership was signed between Eros and the Chinese groups with agreements to look at co-productions, release of Indian films in the China market and Chinese films on Indian digital platforms.
After the success of 3 Idiots, when UTV Motion Pictures took Aamir Khan’s PK to China, things were planned strategically. Robust box-office performance in North America and India drove the distribution deal with Huaxia Film Group, a local Chinese firm. Khanna and director Rajkumar Hirani had become household names after 3 Idiots. Moreover, not only did Khan personally promote the film in China, he was joined by Chinese superstar Wang Baoqiang, who dubbed for his character in the Chinese version of the film and helped him establish a connect with the media and public.
“As of now, there are a hundred Chinese companies who are interested in Indian or any foreign language films. But distribution is key here. You can’t just partner with anybody. They will come, pay you a signing amount to buy the film and then try to get approval from the Chinese government that follows the quota system,” Ahuja pointed out. So, while there is a general quota that any firm can apply to, there are some special quotas for the China Film Group and state-owned entities.
“If you’re able to partner with the right company, the release plan and permissions become easier. But if you are not able to identify the right partner, you could sell your film, but it may never see the light of the day in that market,” Ahuja said.
Finding the right distribution partner is also key to getting the adequate release size for your film. Unlike India, where screen count is the yardstick to measure the release size for a movie, China works on the basis of the number of shows granted to the film per day. The overall capacity of the country being 250,000 shows a day, Dangal had started with 30,000 and gone up to 60,000. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, on the other hand, began with 17,000 and went up to 35,000. With the clout of Indian films increasing, Hindi Medium and Secret Superstar managed 44,000 and 54,000 shows, respectively, this year.
Ahuja added that while the revenue sharing arrangement between the Indian producer and Chinese distributor is complicated, about 20% of the film’s business comes to the producer. All of this would perhaps give the impression that only big, powerful studios with substantial clout, contacts and resources would be able to take their films to China. But industry experts say otherwise. There is an objective analysis of the potential of the film, based on content, size, scale and star cast. Within the quota system, an established name like Aamir Khan will obviously have an edge, given his track record and the fact that the Chinese look up to him as a global star.
“Hindi Medium was, by no means, a big Bollywood film nor did it have a big studio backing it. There were studios from China who made calls and approached us,” Chaudhary emphasized. “In the beginning, there was a very conventional overseas release that we had, like within the NRI market. But once the film started doing well, it got noticed. Now, I think there are producers and studios in China who are looking at films which can be bought from India.”
To be sure, after theatrical release, a lot of Chinese audiences are able to catch Indian movies on Chinese television channels, the most popular of them being China Central Television, commonly known as CCTV, which is the predominant state television broadcaster. Du also mentions websites and apps that can help stream or download a variety of movies at subscriptions of $4 per month, such as iQiyi, an online video platform launched in 2010 with 500 million monthly active users currently.
While the Chinese movie market has thrown up its potential in no uncertain terms, it may not be wise for Bollywood to jump the bandwagon entirely.
“There isn’t a clear design on what kind of film will definitely do well in China, and it would be a little foolhardy to start trying to design films for their market,” Chaudhary said. “I think it’s very simple. If a film connects here emotionally and thematically, it will connect to a certain degree over there, and this will have to be a kind of hit-and-miss scene. I know there have been attempts to design projects for the China market, but those films have come to nothing. The whole mantra is to be global, you need to be local. You need to be authentic to your country and themes, for them to resonate with others. China has a lot of generic films, their action films are better than ours. They also have their own romantic comedies. But the things more specific to Indian context will have appeal,” he said.
The other challenge some industry experts see with building on the China market is that it is a one-sided relationship as of now, with only Indian films being showcased in China.
“What are we doing for Chinese content?” questioned Kulmeet Makkar, chief executive officer, Film and Television Producers Guild of India. “It has to be a win-win model for both, if we can absorb or exploit more Chinese content, then I see more Indian films releasing in China. I truly believe if our films are liked by China, obviously, there will be a lot of stories in China that we will like. These need to be remade, and that relationship has to begin,” Makkar said.
Ahuja of Eros feels flooding the market will only spoil it. The way to take India-China ties to the next level is co-productions. Eros is already co-producing a film, along with state-owned Chinese companies, to be directed by Bajrangi Bhaijaan film maker Kabir Khan. The film that will be available in both Hindi and Mandarin will be written in collaboration with Chinese and Indian writers, and have a star cast of mixed ethnicity.
As Ahuja said, “Between the two countries, there are about 2.5 billion people. If we crack it right, the market can be bigger than Hollywood.”