In an era of increasingly big hits and bigger box office returns, Bollywood is undergoing a sea of change. In the last few decades, Indian cinema has seen Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’s symbolic yellow fields and Shah Rukh Khan’s raised arms, to the flashy cars and thrilling action of the Dhoom franchise. But it is now moving into an era characterised by a wide variety of socially progressive and meaningful content, from Dangal to Padman.
Amid these cinematic changes, one crucial development has been Bollywood’s reach across Indian shores. Foreign viewership represented a tiny slice of the pie some years ago, with the audience mostly comprised of desis living abroad. But this is no longer the case.
In recent years, movies like PK (earning over Rs 300 crores in the overseas markets), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (overseas earnings crossing Rs 537 crores), and Dangal (overseas earnings surpassing Rs 1,630 crores) show that Bollywood movies, with song, dance et al, have finally found a large global audience.
But one foreign market stands out: China. Despite heavy controls on the movies shown in cinemas—only 34 movies are permitted in a year—China has a ever-hungry audience.
Many recent Bollywood blockbusters have performed well in the Chinese market: 3 Idiots garnered $2.2 million, while PK created history by being the first Indian film to cross Rs 100 crores in China, Bajrangi Bhaijaan earned closed to Rs 300 crore in five weeks, while Dangal earned four times that in just 45 days.
But just why have these films done so well in China? Is it promotions or the content?
Intersection of social constructs
There are many similarities in the social construct in China and India. One such similarity is the empowerment of women narrative. In recent times, China has made many overtures in support of women’s empowerment, including hosting the 60th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, financing girls’ education and making sizeable donations to UN projects on the same. In India, we have initiatives like ‘Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao’. Many movies that touch upon such issues have done well in the Chinese market, for instance, Dangal.
Another common social construct is religion. In countries like India and China, where religion plays a prominent role in daily life, movies touching upon the topic have an instant connect. No wonder movies like PK and Bajrangi Bhaijaan have done well in China and India.
The themes of parental bonding and familial engagement is also relevant in both countries. While Confucian ideology proclaims its first commandment to be respecting parents and forebears, the Indian concept of family is one that has always paid serious attention to patriarchy. This strong sense of family is well utilised and present in many movies that have done well in both countries: in Dangal we are shown the father’s sacrifices and the changing daughter-father relationship, while in Bajrangi Bhaijaan we see a quasi-father-daughter relationship between the protagonists.
Another common societal construct is the large group of ambitious individuals who are seeking a better future. This means that movies with the road-to-success trope do well, as seen with Dangal.
Perhaps this would help explain why Secret Superstar—the story of a young ambitious Muslim girl, who wants to break free from her conservative family and abusive father to achieve success, all while bonding with her mother—did so well in the overseas market.
Getting the word out
It would be hard to ignore the common factor in PK, Dangal and 3 Idiots, movies that have done well in China. Although Aamir Khan does tend to act in and produce movies that have a social theme, one cannot discount the role aggressive promotions have played in making his movies a success in China. With Dangal, for instance, he embarked on a country-wide promotional tour in China and screened the movie at the Beijing International Film Festival, with a similar 7-city tour for Secret Superstar. He has even been given the very popular nickname ‘Uncle Aamir’ by Chinese fans.
But movies like Bajrangi Bhaijaan had little to no real effort promotional campaign in the overseas market, and yet did very well in China. Surely it was the content that clicked.
Khan evidently, seems to have mastered the two to create the perfect recipe for commercial success with meaningful cinema. There seems to be a fair equilibrium between commercialisation and art, where we respect the core elements that have defined Bollywood for decades while playing with themes that appeal to a global audience. And as long as Bollywood filmmakers continue to hone their craft while keeping the Indian audience in mind, even if they focus on the overseas moolah, it will be a fair balance.
Rishit Jain is a writing analyst at Qrius
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