Kung Fu Yoga: Why Indian film industry can't forget Jackie Chan-starrer in a hurry
Early reports indicate Kung Fu Yoga is not doing well commercially, in spite of Jackie Chan’s popularity. A newspaper article states that just 14 viewers watched the film on its release day (3 February) in a Mumbai multiplex. According to a film industry representative, it is expected to do better in south India than the rest of the country. However, its overall performance is unlikely to be impressive. The impact of Kung Fu Yoga on India’s film trade is going to be limited. At worst, the importer and his distributors stand to lose money. Small change, for an industry that routinely fails to recover production costs from the box office. Nevertheless, Kung Fu Yoga is not a film which the Indian film industry can afford to forget in a hurry. Because it was a part of an ambitious — and potentially game changing — plan by the Chinese and Indian governments.
The film has been panned by Indian critics too. Kung Fu Yoga’s failure on critical and commercial fronts in India is a pointer to a larger problem that Indian and Chinese film industries face all the time. Ironically, this film was meant to address the very problem that it now stands as the latest example of. A majority of Indian and Chinese films earn their revenues from viewers who are of Indian or Chinese origin, as the case may be. Both industries struggle to realise value from markets beyond the overseas markets where there is a significant presence of expatriates. Of course, we need to expand our understanding of the expat to include the South Asian diaspora and “Three Chinas” (Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong) plus Singapore, with reference to Indian and Chinese cinemas respectively.
Kung Fu Yoga’s poor showing in India is not for the want for effort. Apparently, Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif were approached, but were unavailable. As a result, the final lineup of Indian actors, which includes Sonu Sood, Disha Patani and Amyra Dastur, is not exactly stellar. Undaunted, Jackie Chan charmed his Indian fans and local media representatives alike during his much publicised promotional tour in the run up to the film’s release. I do not wish to go into why it didn’t work — several reviewers have done that already. Instead, I would like to draw attention to two points. First, the film worked for Chinese audiences and critics alike. Second, this is a failed Indo-Chinese co-production.
Kung Fu Yoga earned US $ 138.8 million (around Rs 940 crore) at the box office in China alone during the first week of its release. That is double the estimated cost of the film. Notably, the film’s takings are already way higher than the worldwide collections of India’s most successful film, Dangal. More importantly, it reminds us of the size of the Chinese market and the drawing power of Jackie Chan.
Released during the Chinese New Year (CNY) weekend, which usually witnesses the highest footfalls in theatres during the entire year, Kung Fu Yoga emerged as the second highest grosser of the season, after Journey to the West. The success of this year’s CNY releases is said to have cheered up the Chinese film industry, which had a dull year in 2016. Incidentally, Journey to the West is directed by Tsui Hark and produced by Stephen Chow (of Kung Fu Hustle fame), both of whom are Hong Kong industry stalwarts.
China’s quota system ensures that access of foreign companies to its enormous film market is severely restricted. At present, only two Indian films can be released in China annually, according to the website China Film Insider. This number is unlikely to increase in a hurry. In 2016 the quota for foreign films, a bulk of which are Hollywood productions, stood at 34. The only other way Indian production companies can enter this market is by making co-production deals with Chinese companies. Everyone in the film business knows this but, as always, the devil is in the detail: whom to work with, with what stories, and so on.
After the success of 3 Idiots in China in 2011, an Indo-Chinese co-production titled Gold Struck was announced. Hong Kong action specialists Tony Cheung and Cory Yeun were supposed to direct this film, which was is said to have roped in both Amitabh Bachchan and Jackie Chan. Shooting was expected to begin in 2013 for a 2015 release. This project has either been delayed, or quietly shelved.
The biggest development on the Indo-China entertainment front occurred in September 2014, during Xi Jinping’s state visit. Both countries signed a co-production treaty which, among other things, would allow Indian companies greater access to the Chinese market.
The first Sino-Indian co-production to have been completed in the wake of this treaty was the biopic Xuanzang (directed by Huo Jianqi, 2016). Co-produced by the government owned China Film Group Corporation and Eros International, Xuanzang was based on the travels of the eponymous seventh Buddhist monk (Hiuen Tsang in Indian textbooks) who left behind a valuable record of Indian history and culture. It is produced by the award-winning Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-Wai and was China’s official entry in the category of Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Unfortunately, the film did not make it to the shortlist. As with Kung Fu Yoga, the most prominent Indian actor in Xuanzang is Sonu Sood.
Kung Fu Yoga is by far the most prominent of the three co-productions announced in the wake of Xi Jinping’s visit. The second to be completed, the film has several ingredients that, in theory, would make it an ideal crossover film. It was shot partly in India and the story too is centred on Indo-Chinese collaborations, past and present. The film is “about” the importance of History (yes, with a capital). And it is a Jackie Chan film through and through. It is woven around the nostalgic recall of Chan’s older vehicles and multiple layers of intertextual references to his own and Hollywood adventure films. In this film we see the star replaying his own roles in classics like Armour of God. Once again we see him in play the non-white, not-so-macho and tongue-firmly-in-cheek Indiana Jones type explorer. Then as now, nobody dies in the fight sequences.
After all the high power diplomacy preceding its announcement, this is not an Indo-Chinese co-production. Viacom 18, the Indian arm of the American media giant Viacom Inc., was to partner Chinese production companies Shinework Media and Taihe Entertainment in the making of Kung Fu Yoga. However, for reasons that were not made public, Viacom 18 pulled out of the project in October 2015, shortly after principal shooting for the film began in Dubai. As I said, the devil is always in the detail.
While the success of the film in China is good news for film buffs and governments on both sides, the withdrawal of Viacom 18, and the Indian reception of the film, are clear indications that progress, if any, will be painfully slow.
Initial reports of the film’s run USA suggest that it has had a limited release and is not exactly making an impact there either. Like most Chinese films, including the big CNY season hits, Kung Fu Yoga too will fail to travel beyond audiences of Chinese origin. How much like our very own Diwali, Sankranti and Eid hits this film has turned out be!