Chin Chin Choo!

Despite producing the largest number of films in the world, India's movie industry has yet to make a dent in the Chinese market. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi have warmed over the past few years, but the benefit of better ties has accrued almost entirely to trade in other products. China's strict quota on imported films, coupled with the strong appeal of American culture to Chinese youth, means that Hollywood – not Bollywood – captures the hearts, minds, and money of Chinese movie-goers. Yet there is a push to open China to more Indian films. "Unless there is a broad understanding of each other's customs and traditions, including food, clothes and films," says an official with the Confederation of Indian Industry, "we are not going to be able to do business easily. We (the Indians and Chinese) need to be friends." If an exchange of popular culture is key to building international friendship, however, India faces a tough road making nice with China. – YaleGlobal

Chin Chin Choo!

Bollywood films, once a big draw in China, seem to have missed the beat
Pallavi Aiyar
Thursday, March 18, 2004

"The first Indian film I saw was Awara. I watched the songs, the dances, the beautiful actress Nargis; and I thought to myself then, 'how wonderful the world is,'" says Ge Su, his eyes crinkling up. A director of a multinational consultancy firm in Beijing, Ge Su begins to drum his fingers on the polished table of the swanky conference room, and hums "abala gu...hmmmm."

I nod my head encouragingly and join in, "awara hoon...hmmm." It's a familar moment. One that repeats itself with soothing regularity: in taxis, over jasmine tea sipped in courtly tea houses, and while wolfing down Big Macs under gleaming golden arches. Hindi films are the only association that the average Chinese person has with India.

Yet, over the last few years, there has been little noise and virtually no action to actively promote Indian cinema here. The 21st century has witnessed the ripening of Sino-Indian relations. The new emphasis has been on economic pragmatism, so that even as talks to resolve the touchy border disputes saunter along at a cautious diplomatic pace, trade volumes between India and China are predicted to touch $10 billion by the year-end. However, as Tarun Das of the Confederation of Indian Industry puts it, "Unless there is a broad understanding of each other's customs and traditions, including food, clothes and films, we are not going to be able to do business easily. We (the Indians and Chinese) need to be friends."

Indeed, Hindi films can be effective diplomats, exploiting the reservoir of goodwill and nostalgia that Bollywood has created. In the immediate aftermath of the cultural revolution (1966-76), when China began its "reform and opening up" process under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, Indian movies were amongst the first foreign films to be screened in Chinese theatres. Movies such as Awara and Do Bigha Zameen became instant classics, despite being shown two decades after their release in India.

Explains Zang Tong Tao, associate professor of film studies at the Beijing Normal University, "Films like Awara had a totally new aesthetic. We had never been exposed to movies with the fantastical song and dance sequences that Indian films have." Agrees Ge Su, who during the last three years of the cultural revolution was sent to work in rural China as a peasant. "At the time of the cultural revolution ordinary people only had access to a handful of films, mostly from the ussr or other communist countries like Albania. They were all identical in theme. And then, suddenly we had these wonderful new Indian films. They were so fresh," he says.

Prof Zang says Hindi films were popular also because of their themes of social justice. "Indian films shown after the cultural revolution were about the common man fighting for justice. The poor man was good and rich man evil. This fitted in well with the Chinese mentality then. They loved the idea of a rich woman falling in love with a poor man, especially as in Awara, the woman was so beautiful!"

Then, in the eighties, came Caravan, or Da Peng Che as it was called in Chinese. It played to house-full theatres for years. "The movie halls were packed. We couldn't get tickets for days," recalls Wang Bing, who cooks and cleans for expat households in Beijing. Brandishing a vacuum cleaner in one hand, she launches into a passable rendition of "Piya tu ab to aja," making up in enthusiasm for what she lacks of the actress Helen's oomph. "The colours and the exquisite clothes" were the attractions Caravan offered for journalist Qin Liwen. "At the time, we all wore either blue, black or grey. The colours were something dazzling for us," she says.

Ge Su, Wang Bing and Qin Liwen all belong to the not-so-young group of 35-55-year-olds in China. For this age group, the turmoil of the Maoist era is more than mere national folklore.They continue to associate "good" cinema, somewhat wistfully, with the grand old days of Hindi films.

The era of Indian cinema in China has thus acquired a sepia tint, surviving only in the nostalgia of a greying demographic. From 1994 a quota system was established, which limited the number of foreign films to be imported to 10 annually. This quota was later expanded to 20 films in 2001, after China joined the wto. According to Weng Li, deputy general manager of the film exhibition and distribution corporations, over 80 per cent of the foreign films screened in the mainland today are American.

The quota system has deprived the Chinese from viewing latest Bollywood productions. Repeats of old classics on television hasn't pulled in those youngsters who have grown up amid rapid economic growth. Explains Prof Zang, "China today has changed and it is considered desirable to be rich. America provides inspiration to many young Chinese. With globalisation, Hollywood is popular everywhere. To do well here now, Indian films will have to be able to compete with the best movies from around the world and moreover, they need to be relevant to modern times."

That Indian cinema too has transformed from its socialist, rural-oriented messages to the celebration of urban wealth is little known here. The first Bollywood feature to be screened here since the establishment of the quota system in 1994 was Lagaan, released in select Chinese theatres last year by Columbia Tri Star. It met with modest success and as a period film was hardly representative of the modern face of India.

However, the Indian embassy doesn't seem to have any active plans to promote Hindi cinema here. China's state broadcaster CCTV had evinced interest in buying the rights to several Hindi films around two years ago, but nothing seems to have come of it. This is surprising considering the annual box office potential of the movie market in China is estimated to be around $1.5 billion per year. Last year, the American film Pirates of the Carribean earned $1.2 million in its very first week. In this huge and profitable market, Bollywood, the much touted producer of the largest number of films in the world, has yet to make a dent.

The embassy says the visit of the minister for radio, films and television, Xu Guangchuan, in February this year to explore the possibility of importing Indian films was a step in the right direction. Discussions on joint productions of films and television programmes were also undertaken.

The chord that Hindi films from the past seem to have struck with the middle-aged Chinese means there is a large nostalgia-based market here that may well set the cash registers ringing, were it to be exploited. "You see," expounds Lao Wang in the deliberate, sage manner peculiar to Beijing taxi drivers, "The reason I love Indian films is that our culture is the same. I feel no connection with all these American films. Who are all these blonde people? In Indian films, there is genuine romance and proper cultural values."

Of course, the teenybopper segment in China does not suffer from the same inability to connect culturally with the West. "Films like Awara will not do well here anymore. Times have changed," says Prof Zang. Now Bollywood would have to compete against not only the might of Hollywood but cinema from the world over. Scores of outlets selling pirated dvds in Chinese cities have helped popularise European cinema. Not to mention, Korean films too are a big hit these days.

In this scenario, Indian films need to reinvent themselves. "If Bollywood can produce something modern and relevant, then I think the bright colour, songs, dances and beautiful women that made Indian cinema so popular earlier, will still prove a big draw," Prof Zang concludes.And, perhaps, even bring the two countries closer.

© Outlook Publishing (India) Private Limited 2004. Reprinted from the March 22, 2004 issue of Outlook Magazine.