Dangal in China: How Aamir Khan became India's most popular export to the land of the dragon
"Thank you for always being concerned about social events, rights for girls, medicine, education… [You have] enlightened me in many ways.”
Such reactions to Aamir Khan’s films are familiar, and to a great extent even expected from Indian fans — but since the release of Dangal in China, this has become a near-standard feature the moment someone mentions the actor. Released across 9,000 screens in China as Shuai Jiao Baba, which translates as “Let's Wrestle, Dad”, Dangal has been setting the cash registers ringing in China and with a collection of over $60 million in under two weeks, it could very well become the highest non-Hollywood film in China’s box office history. But more than the astonishing commercial success, it is the manner in which Dangal has struck an emotional chord with the Chinese audiences. The 52-year superstar — whose 3 Idiots broke what was the called ‘China’s Great Bollywood Wall” — has come to be affectionately known as Uncle Khan in China and is today, one of the biggest brands there when it comes to making a socially relevant cinema.
While globally India and China are often pitted against each other across many spheres, and especially when it comes to the potential as well as the power of their domestic markets, there are also many parallels between the two countries. It is here, in the midst of the cultural similarities between India and China — be it the family system or the stress on education — where Aamir Khan’s films have managed to hit the sweet spot, both critically as well commercially.
In 2009, Khan’s 3 Idiots resonated deeply with the millennials in China who could identify with the excessive pressure faced by students and it’s hardly surprising then that the film now stands ranked as the 12th most popular film in China ever. If it was the depiction of the high-pressure education system in 3 Idiots that endeared Khan to the Chinese and sowed the seeds of a revival of their love for Hindi cinema that originated with Raj Kapoor in the 1950s, Dangal has gone a few steps ahead. The fact that it outdid Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, Hollywood’s big summer release, in the local market is one thing but dominating the minds of the local audiences and critics as well as some filmmakers is something else. Since Dangal’s release the hashtag #LetsWrestleDad has been trending on Weibo, a Chinese mircro-blogging and critics such as Yin Hong have even gone to the extent of saying that it puts Chinese movies “to shame.”
It is interesting that the manner in which we often deride popular Hindi films or ‘Bollywood’ as escapist or rarely willing to look beyond commercial interests, Dangal’s female empowerment theme has made critics in China say the same about Chinese films. The manner in which Aamir Khan has built his brand of ‘social cinema’ where the narrative — despite being accused of appearing superfluous when it comes to social comments it makes — has somehow managed to strike a fine balance between varying factors such as the commercial feasibility, the need to entertain, and at the same time highlight the need to make a social change is now being talked about in China as well. The true sports story, Dangal has made the Chinese observe that it could very well have been a Chinese story and moreover, critics have asked Chinese filmmakers to reflect why despite having many champions in sports they have “failed to make a decent sports movie”.
Aamir Khan’s increasing popularity in China where he is seen as a global brand, is the next chapter in the growing influence of Bollywood as a soft power. If in the 1950s, the local population in Communist countries — especially the erstwhile USSR — could identify with Raj Kapoor’s brand of cinematic socialism, or as Roopa Swaminathan mentions in her book, Bollywood Boom- India’s Rising Soft Power, the unreal following that Amitabh Bachchan enjoyed among African men in the 1970s and 1980s or the fascination with Mithun Chakraborty and his Disco Dancer avatar, Aamir Khan in China is more than just great timing or marketing or positioning. It has something to do with Khan presenting stories whose facets can be found in China’s cultural history.
Take for instance, the social impact of China’s One-Child policy or the foot binding custom. The former — between 1979 and 2015 — had almost 13 million children born in contravention of family-planning regulations that came to be known as the Lost Generation and the latter where women’s feet were bound to stop growing that resulted in lifelong disabilities is a social evil that continued till the early 20th century. Perhaps this is why the Chinese have taken to Dangal in a big way as the issues the film tries to address such as patriarchy or empowering the girl child in a state (where the story is set, Haryana) that was infamous for high prevalence of gender inequality (119 boys to 100 girls according to 2011 Census) and female infanticide echo with them. China’s One-Child rule also resulted in men outnumbering the women as the preference for the male child was very strong and therefore the reactions such as Dangal making them cry and laugh or Aamir Khan never letting the Chinese viewer down, outdoes the criticism.
A few newspaper reports have mentioned that feminist groups in China have put Dangal ‘on the mat.’ In an online debate in China on the film, two groups took extreme stands — one accused the film of reeking of “patriarchy and male chauvinism” and mentioned that the film was far from being pro-woman but an equally strong retort came from the other side that championed Dangal breaking gender stereotypes. A Beijing-based student Sophia Zhu believed that the many would see Aamir Khan’s character of the father as “an expression of patriarchy” but as a viewer, she believes that was not the point of the story. Debates surrounding popular films that make any kind of a social comment such as Pink or Dangal often metamorphoses into something else but if a Chinese student, Zhu, left Dangal with the thought that Aamir Khan’s Mahavir Singh “taught his children to be brave” then rest assured ‘Uncle Khan’ won’t mind.