Bollywood Tames the Dragon

Despite China’s domination in most sectors of the industry, Bollywood films have made a deep penetration into the Middle Kingdom, not just by selling films but also by luring them with technology

By Geeta Singh

THE Chinese, they say, are like the crow. Wherever the crow goes, it relentlessly runs out most other birds and becomes the sole bird of prey. Think about it: toothbrush, tongue cleaners, alarm clocks, trash bags, room fresheners, shoes, stationeries, kids’ diapers to electrical and electronic items like mobiles and even our pet’s accessories, everything we are using is Chinese. We may not like them, but they are here to stay. Naturally, with its USD 10 trillion economy being five times the size of India’s!

So it would seem foolish to say that there is one industry where the Dragon is following us. Bollywood’s dream-makers have knocked on China’s doors, and how! One film entering China, showing in 9,000 screens and pulling in more than Rs 1,000 crore is no mean achievement. That is Dangal for you. And now Baahubali 2 is going to hit the screens from September 17. The difference is that Baahubali is getting just 4,000 screens, but one never knows what rage it might become.

Dangal, or Shaui Jiao Baba, is the highest grossing non-Hollywood movie in China. It was released in 9,000 screens, whereas Baahubali 2 will get only 4,000 screens. But Baahubali 2 will be showcased as a Make in India mode for its outstanding technology. The Baahubali series may be able to establish India as a destination for low-cost, high technology like visual effects and computer-generated imagery. With such advanced technology costing less in India, it can easily be used to our advantage. Before the commercial release, however, the film was screened at the second BRICS Film Festival in Chengdu (June 23 to 27). The screening of Baahubali series internationally had been on the mind of the Indian government. The union information and broadcasting minister M. Venkaiah Naidu had indicated this during the 64th National Film Awards. 

LET’S WRESTLE, DAD

Shuai Jiao Baba – Dangal’s Chinese name which means Let’s Wrestle, Dad broke all the records of earnings in China and became an unprecedented turning point in the history of Chinese cinema. Its gross earnings in China put it in the list of 33 most remarkable films in the country’s history – the earnings crossed 1.2 billion Yuan Renminbi. One billion Yuan amounts to more than Rs 1,000 crore in Indian currency. A popular Chinese ticketing website, Maoyan stated that it is among the top 33 films in China.

Released on May 5, Dangal rocked China and had earned Rs 116 crore in less than five days. It retained the top position in the box office for more than a month, till Hollywood film Pirates of the Caribbean 5 was released. The real life story of wrestler father Mahavir Phogat and daughter Geeta Phogat has become a rage with the Chinese and is being seen by the usually repressed Chinese women as an expression of their own desire to fight patriarchy. The popularity of the movie is so high that even President Xi Jinping could not stop himself from watching it. He later told Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a business summit that he had liked it. 

Endless posts about the film on Chinese social media platforms like Wechat and Weibo discussed a determined father who trains his daughters to become world-class wrestlers. Unfortunately, the distribution company Wanda, which has a near monopoly in sub-urban and rural cinema chains, did not give the film much weightage and many in the hinterlands have missed it.

THE AAMIR FACTOR

In India, there may be a constant contest for the Numero Uno Khan, but in China only one Khan rules – Aamir. He is the most popular Indian actor. Chinese movie buffs’ honeymoon with Aamir’s films started with Lagaan. But it was 3 Idiots that made Aamir Khan a rage. The film was released in 2009 and earned approximately Rs 16 crore. Through 3 Idiots Chinese youngsters could connect the pressure of a good job and higher education, and how one man beat it. 3 idiots ranked 12th most popular film. Not only has it made Aamir popular but also became a gateway for Indian films’ market in China.  After 3 Idiots Aamir’s films Dhoom 3 and PK were also hit. Dhoom 3 earned Rs 24 crore but the popularity of PK actually changed the revenue narrative in China, grossing more than Rs 123 crore. 

Aamir has beaten all Hollywood stars in popularity in China. When Aamir Khan was in China after Dangal’s release, fans showed up at airports to welcome him with banners and posted photos of him on social media.

Significantly, in 50s Raj Kapoor had introduced Hindi films in China with his socialist and secular theme stories. But then came a disconnect after the Raj Era ended, as Chinese audience was never interested in the routine song and dance Bollywood masala films. Given that kind of choice, it is natural that Aamir Khan’s films with its strong social messages would hit the ceiling in China. His films started becoming commercially hits. And he gained same respect and popularity in China, which Raj Kapoor received in Russia and Amitabh Bachchan in African nations.

With his movies, 3 Idiots and Dangal Chinese people relate themselves more as both films have real life stories. Aamir has gone to China many times for the promotion of his films and received thundering reception. At a promotional event, Aamir said, “There is a lot of similarity in our cultures. I’m comfortable with Chinese people. I feel closer to people in China than to those in the West. I can feel the emotion when I come to China.” 

Aamir’s popularity in China is surprisingly vast. According to the BBC’s monitoring service, Aamir’s followers on Weibo are more than 675,841. No Indian has those figures. #Let’s Wrestle, Dad hashtag has received 110,000 messages on Weibo. The Chinese social media platform functions similar to Twitter. “It is an unprecedented success for an Indian film and an important landmark, making Dangal a super hit Indian film,” said Prasad Shetty, partner of Strategic Alliance, a Chinese firm promoting Indian films.

RAVE REVIEWS

Many Chinese newspapers and social networking sites post various types of comments about Dangal or Shuai Jiao Baba. Observers are enthralled by the tale of a father’s love and dedication to his daughters and his decision to fight patriarchy in a male dominated society like Haryana. They say the film appeals to the Chinese reverence for family. 

Chinese state media has also taken note, suggesting that Chinese filmmakers might learn from the success of Dangal. Xinhua News Agency stated that it is hard to find any recent local film to compete with Dangal from the perspective of art and realism. The film industry should reflect on why Dangal –which has no romance, no song and dance routine item girls swaying their hips, could still touch people and could harvest such unexpected success.

Tan Zheng, a deputy director with film art centre of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, said, “Many audiences would relate to their own relationship with their fathers.” One fan on social media platform Renren (it is considered the Chinese Facebook) wrote about film: “inspirational and touching”, noting that the dance routine of Indian films has been kept at a minimum. 

Dangal rocked China, earning Rs 116 crore in less than five days, and retained the top position for more than a month

Twenty-year-old Lansy Tong posted on Dauban, another popular social network platform, “His sense of social responsibility has made him more than a movie star… someone dedicated to the society that wants to awaken India through his works.”  “I have not cried like this for years,” said one web user on Weibo, who advised people to come to the theatre equipped with tissue. 

He Wei, the general manager of E Stars Entertainment, which bought the film’s distribution rights for China, said he had thought it might at best pull in 200 million Yuan. But the film broke the record of 1 billion Yuan mark. “How much the local audiences understand and appreciate this film is really beyond my expectations”, He Wei said. 

DOMESTIC LOWS

The critical assessment of local media for their domestic films also gives noticeable insight into the declining business of Chinese film industry.  India produces around 1,500 films per year whereas our neighbour China produces less than 700. But Chinese market for exhibiting films is four times larger. As per the data of KPMG screen ingress is also higher in China. In India, there are only six screens per 1 million, while in China the figure goes to 23 screens per million.

The Chinese government added 27 screens per day in 2016, whereas in our country single-screen theatres are closing down rapidly. Still, Chinese films were not making business because of various reasons. According to the US-China Economic Security Review Commission 2015 report, from 70s through 90s, Chinese films were just propaganda stuff or were made on the unsaid guidelines of the communist government.

Afterwards, the Chinese government changed its foreign film policy in the 90s and Hollywood films got an entry in the country. The first big US film released in China was The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. Nevertheless, the market is still not easy to grab for foreign films. The body that governs the entertainment industry.

The China State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has capped the number of overseas releases in the country at 34 per year, so that local films are encouraged. Still, in the foreign films scenario, 90 per cent releases are from Hollywood only 10 per cent is Indian.  

Recently, Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, whose mega production The Great Wall tanked at the box office – especially in international markets like the US, and the filmmaker took responsibility for its failure.

The Great Wall was a US-China co-production and China’s biggest budget film till date. “Probably the story was a bit weak, or the timing wasn’t right, or we didn’t do a very good job in making the film. There could be many reasons,” Zhang told the China Daily. The budget for The Great Wall, a 3D fantasy film that centers around the idea that the famous Chinese monument was built to defend the empire from bloodthirsty monsters – was made at USD 150 million.

In the US, known to be the biggest film hub, it earned only USD 45 million. In China, despite extensive promotion and marketing, the film earned only USD 171 million. The film is also one of the first China-US co-productions (Universal, which fronted 25 per cent of the budget and Legendary, China Film Group and Le Vision Pictures).  Director Zhang hoped the failure of the film would not affect future US-China film collaborations. 

ENTER ‘BHAI’

With Tubelight, the upcoming film of Salman Khan, Indian viewers will be introduced to the Chinese actress Zhu Zhu, whereas China will know more about the “Bhai” of Bollywood Salman Khan. Tubelight will be Salman’s first film, to enter the Middle Kingdom.

Considering Salman himself is the producer too, the actor would want to make sure that Tubelight gets the best of market value in China. The film’s director Kabir Khan says that the film’s team is looking at every possibility to strike it big in China. “We are currently working towards the release,” says the director.

Interestingly, Salman, who doesn’t do city tours anymore in India to promote his films, may promote Tubelight in key Chinese cities. Kabir Khan became a co-producer of Salman’s home production. With the Chinese actress as a female lead, Salman is expecting a grand opening in China. Tubelight will be released on more than 5,000 screens. The film is inspired by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s 2015 war fantasy film Little Boy.

Meanwhile, Kabir Khan will be extending his China connection. He will shoot his next directorial venture Zookeeper, a travel-related drama film, in the western Chinese city of Chengdu and in the mountains of the region. Zookeeper is the latest entry of Indo-China collaboration. The Chinese state-owned firm Huaxia Distribution and China Peacock Mountain Culture & Media along with Eros International’s franchise company, Trinity Pictures will produce it.

Shekhar Kapur is set to direct Little Dragon, an authorised biopic of the martial arts legend and actor Bruce Lee

Chinese government censors have approved the screenplay. Peacock Mountain Culture & Media and Huaxia Film Distribution have roped in another young director Sidharth Anand (of Bang Bang fame) for cross-cultural romantic comedy, Love in Beijing. It is a story about an Indian girl who falls in love with a Chinese man.

Both films are expected to go on the floors in 2018. On his collaboration, Kabir says, “Yes, China has a great market,” he adds, “and I would love to release my films there. Why just me? I’m sure more and more Indian filmmakers would love to release their films in China.” 

He is right. Noted Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, who has the Oscar-winning film Elizabeth to his credit, is set to direct Little Dragon, an authorised biopic of the martial arts legend and actor Bruce Lee. The story is a contemporary dramatisation of the 1950s Hong Kong social and political forces that shaped Bruce Lee into the most famous martial arts star and a significant modern day philosopher. 

“It is important that audiences today can relate their own lives to the journey of Bruce Lee, who manages to tap into his inner wisdom and harness his true destiny before it was too late,” said Kapur. Production of the Bruce Lee project is by Bruce Lee Entertainment, a company operated by the late star’s daughter Shannon Lee, along with US studio Convergence Entertainment.

Bollywood is ready to take China by storm. Now US films are also losing their grip on China, therefore Indian films can fill that space slowly. The size of the Chinese population makes the country so profitable and ticket prices are also three times more compared to India, and this can give growth to the business for Indian films. 

“With an average ticket price of $8, any traction that our Hindi films see in this market is going to see a significant spike in the international collections,” said Priti Shahani, president of Junglee Pictures, whose Dil Dhadakne Do, with Excel Entertainment, will be the next Hindi film to release in China. The film will be distributed by Eros International under the agreement they recently signed with three Chinese film companies. 

RED SIGNALS

But we have one major barrier. In our country, we have a dominance of Tamil, Telugu and Marathi films too besides Bollywood’s Hindi. So for release in China, we have limited options. The rules of the Chinese market are complicated in structure, and that acted as a barrier for most Indian films until now. Breaking into the distribution model will be vital. 

UTV, the company that released PK in China, worked directly with the China Film Group and Huaxia Film Group for seven months to release the film. 

“We engaged with the apex distribution bodies in China to choose the right film for a debut. Given the love for Aamir Khan, Rajkumar Hirani and 3 Idiots in China, PK was a strong choice,” stated Amrita Pandey of UTV. Hirani was on the jury of the Beijing Film Festival in 2013 and has, in fact, a very special place in the hearts of Chinese audiences.

SALMAN KHAN, RAJKUMAR HIRANI, SHEKHAR KAPUR AND OTHERS ARE ALL PLANNING TO ENTER THE CHINESE FILM MARKET BIG TIME

The first Bollywood film under Indo-China collaboration was Chandni Chowk to China. The Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone starrer Chandni Chowk to China was shot on different Chinese locations. But the film did not do well in the Indian market, nor in the Chinese market. The Sonu Sood and Jackie Chan starrer Kung Fu Yoga, another co-production, also bombed. 

In the past 10-12 years, however, some films have had a peek at the China market. 

Starting with Lagaan, released in China in 2002, Bollywood entertained Chinese audiences with films such as 3 Idiots, Dhoom 3, My Name is Khan, Chennai Express and Krrish 3. However, the scale of these movies was modest,   playing at a small number of screens across 12 to 15 cities. But after Dangal the scenario is completely changed. Now Bollywood films are getting more than 4,000 screens. 

“Larger-than-life and content-driven films will do well in the Chinese market,” says trade analyst Komal Nahata. “Films that have done well in India would do well in China. Their sensibilities and tastes are pretty similar to Indians. Even films having not-so-popular actors would do well if they have good content. But I think the market will take some time to grow.”

In fact, China’s film market, growing at 34 per cent, is expected to surpass the US in the next five years. While China produced over 650 films in 2014, largely local, its screen density has quadrupled since 2010 taking the count to over 23,600. This offers a huge theatrical opportunity for any film. In China, the movie business is more than just production so, after Hollywood,
Chinese companies are eyeing Bollywood as the new market for their business expansions. 

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