United Colors of Cinema: Bollywood's love affair with China
Updated 22:50, 08-Apr-2019
Khushboo Razdan
Ai Dianshu, a retired education official, from Pingdu in east China's Shandong Province loves to hum his favorite song "Awara Hoon…" from the 1951 Indian classic "Awara." 
The 62-year-old gets nostalgic while talking about the movie starring the legendary Indian actor Raj Kapoor. "I watched the movie with my wife in a nearby theater; it was in the 1980s soon after China launched the reform and opening-up policy. Back then, the film genres were quite limited but 'Awara' was a widely loved movie," Ai told CGTN Digital. He said that apart from the touching storyline and social message, the melodious songs of the movie appealed to him the most.  
His daughter Ai Yan recalled how she grew up listening to the songs being sung by her parents. "The music is familiar to me as well, even though I never watched the film… I remember my father singing it often when I was a child," she said.  
But what made "Awara" and its songs so universal? "The promise of hope," answered Shubhra Gupta, a renowned film critic from India. Calling Kapoor a cultural ambassador, she told CGTN Digital, "It was the time of nation-building, people did not have too much money and his films and music offered the idea of light at the end of the tunnel, a promise of rainbow in the sky after a long struggle along with seriousness and fun. He was very much like Charlie Chaplin. His songs 'Mera joota hai japani, yeh patloon englishtani… par dil hai hindustani…' (My shoes are from Japan, my trousers are English… but my heart is Indian) was a huge hit worldwide because it was deep-rooted in culture; everyone wanted to hold on to their culture but become an international traveler at the same time."  
Professor Arun Gupta of India's National Institute of Design, who taught Indian cinema in China's Xiamen University said, "The fact is that we share a 3,000-kilometer border with each other and we have had historical connections, the British got tea from China and Indians got addicted to it. Today we can't imagine Indians without tea. During my classes in China, I realized that our history is so similar with China in the 20th century. During Raj Kapoor's time, India was also trying to be a socialist country – he himself was a quasi-socialist." 
But after "Awara," it took almost four decades for an Indian movie to knock on China's doors. Growing up in Changsha City in China's central Hunan Province, 26-year-old Liang Si's first brush with Bollywood was in 2011 when she watched Aamir Khan's "3 Idiots" during her college days. "I went with a bunch of friends after hearing good reviews," Liang told CGTN Digital adding that she really liked how the movie underlined such a strong message with emotion, humor, dance and music. 
Liang is not alone, 28-year-old Wang Xuejing from Beijing spoke of how she watched "3 idiots" online as she could not afford the tickets from her pocket money in college. Wang said that "English Vinglish" starring veteran Bollywood actress Sridevi is one of her all-time favorites. 
"I was deeply touched by the story of this woman who struggles to gain a position in the society and her family, especially among her children. It showed how women have to walk an extra mile to prove their abilities, said Wang. "I have noticed that Bollywood is actually thinking about people's lives, society and shared values of humankind. Such surprises make these films more enjoyable."
Victor Ning, 34, from Tieling City, northeast China's Liaoning Province, moved to the U.S. at age 15, but his first encounter with an Indian movie was in Beijing in 2017. Ning who calls himself a diehard Aamir Khan fan remembered how he watched "Dangal" after reading rave reviews of the movie. "The film carried a great message about gender equality; Khan's portrayal of a loving father was incredible," he told CGTN Digital. 
Asked why Indian movies are striking a chord with Chinese, Shubhra Gupta said, "Because both Indians and Chinese believe in the idea of family, we all work together as a family to become what we are. The whole thing about the family being a source of inspiration and encouragement is very Indian and very Chinese."
But apart from big budget movies like Dangal, small-and-medium-budget films are also getting the opportunity to connect with Chinese audiences. Films like Hindi Medium, Secret Superstar, and Hichki (Teacher with Hiccup) with an investment of three million U.S. dollars, six million U.S. dollars and 20 million U.S. dollars respectively, were wholeheartedly welcomed in China.
Last year, Aamir Khan's "Secret Superstar," a story of a 14-year-old Indian-Muslim girl striving to become a singer, managed to beat popular Hollywood franchise "Star Wars': The Last Jedi" by a huge margin. And the profits too are attracting other Indian filmmakers toward their next-door neighbor. 
Annie Fung, a Chinese film distributor based in Beijing, told CGTN Digital that a lot of Indian filmmakers are now willing to export their movies to China. "The selection process really depends on the topic rather than the stars. Films with a good message work well in China, Chinese don't really like movies with just good sets and actors jumping from location to another. Chinese are looking for good content-driven films," she said.
Aamir Khan and Zaira Wasim during the trailer launch film "Secret Superstar" in Mumbai, India, August 2, 2017. /VCG Photo

Aamir Khan and Zaira Wasim during the trailer launch film "Secret Superstar" in Mumbai, India, August 2, 2017. /VCG Photo

But is this love affair one-sided? The fact remains that despite Indian movies receiving a red-carpet welcome in China, Chinese movies do not get similar response in India. Jackie Chan is the only Chinese star that Indians have a significant memory of even now. Several China-India co-productions, like "Kung Fu Yoga" and "Xuan Zang," also failed to woo Indian masses in the past.
Chinese superstar Jackie Chan with Bollywood actor Sonu Sood during the shooting of "Kung Fu Yoga," April 6, 2016. /VCG Photo

Chinese superstar Jackie Chan with Bollywood actor Sonu Sood during the shooting of "Kung Fu Yoga," April 6, 2016. /VCG Photo

Professor Gupta said, "It is true that Chinese mainstream cinema does not do well in India, but Chinese art house films are extremely popular among Indian film students, and one big name is Zhang Yimou. "I would like to congratulate the Chinese audience for accepting foreign movies so gracefully," he said. "I believe Indian moviegoers are still narrow minded when it comes to foreign films, one fact also remains that Indians are not used to watching movies with subtitles."
But Shubhra Gupta said that the business of distribution is very different in India. Two decades back, Hollywood films accounted for only four percent of the Indian market, but has grown to 10-12 percent. "We love our own movie stars and movies too much, I think it will take another two decades for Indian audiences to accept Asian or European films."
A poster for China-India co-production Xuan Zang.

A poster for China-India co-production Xuan Zang.

But this hasn't stopped the Chinese from loving Indian movies, the latest in China's Bollywood fever is "Andhadhun" (also known as Piano Player) starring young Indian actor Ayushmann Khurrana and veteran actress Tabu. The film has already earned eight million U.S. dollars in its first week.
But business aside, there's another important task inadvertently assigned to Bollywood, which is often referred to as India's soft power. "It goes without saying that films including Bollywood films play an important role of a cultural bridge between India and China" Aquino Vimal, India's deputy ambassador in Beijing, told CGTN Digital. "2020-21 will be the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. We are planning series of events. Reciprocal film festival and co-production will be part of the celebrations."
A poster for "Andhadhun," also known as "Piano Player."

A poster for "Andhadhun," also known as "Piano Player."

This year, the China-India Film Co-Production Dialogue will be held at the Beijing International Film Festival on April 18 where renowned film professionals from both sides will engage in meaningful dialogue with the aim of creating a better Indo-China partnership in the film industry. 
(CGTN's Vikram Gopinath contributed to the story.)