From the 1950s to the 1980s Bollywood films were popular in China. Audiences liked the music and the dancing, while the government liked the relatively tame, apolitical content.
But since China opened up to the wider world in the 1980s – and Hollywood films began to be permitted in the local market – Bollywood hasn’t been quite as successful. Gone are the days when a well-known song gained popularity in China via an Indian movie – as was the case for the title track from Raj Kapoor’s 1951 film Awaara.
Yet Bollywood has been making something of a comeback thanks to Dangal, a socially-minded film with no special effects, and no romance.
It tells the true story of Mahavir Singh Phogat a talented wrestler who is forced to give up the sport for financial reasons. He returns to his village in the northern Indian state of Haryana, vowing that his sons will win an international title in future.
But Phogat has four daughters and he gives up on his wrestling dreams. That is, until his daughters are caught beating up a local bully and he sees their potential. Despite social opposition – Haryana is one of India’s more conservative states – he starts to train them and they go on to win a host of international medals.
The film focuses on Geeta, the eldest daughter, who won India’s first gold for female wrestling at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. (Her younger sister Babita took silver in a different weight category in the same year.)
The film, whose title means “Let’s Wrestle, Dad!” in Chinese (Shuaijiao ba! Baba), has been number one at the box office since May 10 and is now the highest grossing Indian film in China, taking $75 million in ticket sales. That’s despite Wanda, the largest cinema operator, giving it limited screenings because of a longrunning dispute with its Chinese distributor Huayi Brothers.
The film knocked Marvel Comics adaptation Guardians of the Galaxy 2 off the top slot and it has now earned more in China then it did in India – prompting the Indian media to praise its lead actor and producer Aamir Kahn for seeing the potential of the Chinese market.
“India wields soft power in China with Dangal,” celebrated the Delhi-based newspaper Mint, adding that India has just 9,000 movie theatres compared to China’s 40,000.
Dangal’s achievement is all the “more remarkable considering there isn’t a large Indian diaspora on the Chinese mainland,” wrote India Today.
So why are so many Chinese keen to see the film, which is subtitled in some theatres and dubbed in others? The general consensus is that audiences like the fact that it deals with social issues such as the role of women in modern society and longstanding customs like filial piety.
At first Geeta and Babita don’t want to wrestle, for instance, but their father forces them to compete, cutting off their hair and making them wear boys’ clothes.
However, the sisters change their minds when they attend the wedding of a young friend who is being married off against her will. “My only role will be to look after my husband and bear children,” she cries.
There are some unlikely fans of the film in China too, including the state news agency Xinhua, which has praised it for exuding “positive energy” – a feature that Xi Jinping wants to encourage in Chinese movies.
“Too often domestic [Chinese] films use big name actors or special effects to make up for lack of content,” Xinhua complained. “There are few domestic films that can rival Dangal’s artistry or depiction of reality.”
In fact, the industry is going through a period of soul-searching about the lack of creativity at local studios (a theme picked up in last week’s Talking Point). For example, a popular critic who writes under the name ‘Big Bean on Films’ commented: “In terms of cultural creativity and thoughtfulness, India is definitely above China.”
Similarly, the critic Wang Yanlin liked the authenticity of the wrestling story. “China couldn’t possibly produce a film like Dangal because if Chinese actresses were to play the daughters’ roles, they would have to look for their facial parts on the floor [because most of them have had plastic surgery]… Chinese actresses would rather spend nine months turning their faces into those of Fan Bingbing or Angelababy, instead of training like a wrestler.” The observation was a reference to the actress who played Geeta and trained for six days a week for nine months to be able to play the medallist convincingly.
Wang also bemoaned that no male actor from China would be willing to emulate Kahn’s dedication in playing both a flabby 55 year-old and then losing 25 kilos to play a slim 19 year-old wrestler.
On Douban, a site where the public rates books and films, Dangal gets 9.2 out of 10. “This film is a masterpiece, an explosion. Worth every penny, I am going to see it again,” one of the contributors wrote.
“Never before have I had a cinema experience like today,” exclaimed another. “When Geeta wins the medal, we, a Chinese audience, stood up to applaud as the Indian national anthem was played!!!”
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