THE AAMIR OF CHINA
Inside the cult of the Bollywood superstar in the middle kingdom
Inside the cult of the Bollywood superstar in the middle kingdom
WHEN JING JING, A 30-YEAR-OLD
manager working in a state-owned Chinese company, heard Aamir Khan was about to land in Beijing, she stopped everything she was doing. Jing frantically looked up flight schedules, called a cab, and dashed to Beijing airport in the middle of a work day. “It turned out the crew meeting him were late,” she recalls, “so I actually spoke to him face to face for a few minutes. I will never forget that day for the rest of my life.”
That was the summer of 2015, and Aamir was about to make his first visit to China to promote the release of PK. He was, at the time, not a household name in China, but had begun to acquire a dedicated following among a small but passionate crowd of young Chinese who follow Indian cinema. For the generation of Jing’s parents, Raj Kapoor and Indian films from the ’50s and ’60s were huge hits, but for their children, it was the stars of Hollywood, Hong Kong and South Korea—not India—that caught their imagination as China began to open up to the world. The release of PK was to be a modest event—little was spent on promoting the film—and, given the hitherto niche following for Indian movies, somewhat of a trial balloon. Could Aamir become, for China, the next Raj Kapoor?
Once the Chinese craze for Indian films faded with Raj Kapoor in the ’70s, few Indian films made a mark, let
alone secured a release in China, which reserves its 30-odd annual quota of foreign films for Hollywood blockbusters. That changed with 3 Idiots, which became a cult hit, resonating with China’s stressed-out students. It was that film that captivated Jing and millions of her generation, who had begun to follow Aamir’s work passionately. It was that film that prompted her to start China’s first Aamir Khan Fan Club. Today, her modest club has 500 active members and more than 100,000 fans.
The PK experiment was an unqualified success—it would become the first Indian film to earn Rs 100 crore in any foreign market. This was followed by the runaway success of Dangal two years later, which became China’s highest-grossing non-Hollywood foreign film in history, crossing Rs 1,330 crore (1,291 million RMB), and underlining Aamir’s rise as an unlikely Chinese phenomenon.
Uncle Aamir, as he is widely known in China, has in three years become a household name in China—like Raj Kapoor then. Dangal became such a phenomenon that screenings were even arranged for the top Chinese leadership in their Zhongnanhai leadership compound, and President Xi Jinping told Prime Minister Narendra Modi when they met last year—the first meeting since the 72-day border stand-off in Doklam—that he had watched the film.
“PK was the turning point, when Aamir’s following here went from niche to mass,” says Jianbin, 40, who by day works for a Chinese company acquiring copyright for foreign media content mainly from South Korea and the US, and by night, is an active member of the Aamir Khan Fan Club.
Ask him about his cult following in China and Aamir says, “I am absolutely thrilled that people in China like my work so much. I feel Chinese and Indians have a very similar emotional key, and are also very similar culturally.”
“I’M THRILLED CHINESE AUDIENCES LIKE MY WORK SO MUCH. I FEEL THE CHINESE AND INDIANS HAVE A VERY SIMILAR EMOTIONAL KEY” —Aamir Khan
“The biggest reason for this connect is the emotion in his films, whether Dangal or 3 Idiots,” says Jianbin. “Lack of this intense emotion is a big problem for the Chinese industry, as are simply good stories, and we found that in Dangal or Secret Superstar.”
Aamir’s success comes at a time when the increasingly sophisticated Chinese audience is craving for something different. Hollywood blockbusters sell—and more often than not rake in several thousand crores per release—but they are perhaps reaching saturation point.
Chinese actor and Kung fu exponent Wang Baoqiang, a widely popular star who helped PK’s success by lending his voice to the main character in the Chinese version, says he was taken aback by the film’s box-office success, which was an indication that “the change is really big” in moviegoers’ tastes. “There is more interest in new places like India,” he says, which prompted him to make his directorial debut by shooting the first major Chinese film set in India, called Buddies in India, which released with commercial success in China in 2016, netting over Rs 700 crore. “More Chinese films will be set in India, which is full of beautiful scenery and surprising stories. This will help people know more about India and attract them to travel there.”
Chinese interest in India is today perhaps coming full circle, notwithstanding the difficult political relationship. Chinese cultural fascination for India has always appeared immune to tough ties. This was especially evident in the 1970s, where years after 1962, a national Chinese obsession for Indian films grew against the incongruous backdrop of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
What does Aamir’s success mean for the Indian film industry? It has finally turned Bollywood’s attention to the world’s secondlargest box office, long ignored by Indian directors and distributors who believed overseas success was directly proportional to the size of the Indian diaspora in a country. Aamir’s shattered that logic.
Does Aamir’s success mean Bollywood will succeed in China? His fans don’t think so. “Most of the audience who chose to watch Dangal are fond of Aamir and his acting, not because of the brand of Indian films,” says Jing. “For instance, because I’m an Andy Lau [Hong Kong actor] fan, it doesn’t mean I like all Hong Kong films. From my understanding and speaking with his fans, it’s because of what Aamir as an individual represents, that he is always willing to concern himself with problems within society, loves his country and wants to make it a better place. That appeals to us.”
The Dangal wave, however, still appears to carry with it a boost for Indian films. The latest major success is Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which released in China on March 2. Although the film released more than two years after it first came to Indian screens and was this time widely downloaded on China’s internet, it still became a boxoffice success, making 285 million RMB (around Rs 293 crore), and becoming the third-highest Indian release after Dangal and Secret Superstar, ahead of PK.
Even prior to its success, the film’s director Kabir Khan has long been interested in the Chinese film industry and, in fact, visited China last year to begin work on a project that would be the first-of-its-kind of a major Indian director filming in China.
“I went to China and explored possibilities, and I am working on a project that can possibly become an India-China collaboration,” he
says. “It is a story that has found resonance there and in a certain sense they have officially commissioned it. I’m really looking forward to it. It is also in a certain way liberating for me. I’ll always have the Bollywood language. In addition, there will be a Chinese actor, and it will be set there.”
Khan believes Indian sensibilities resonate more in China than Western ones. “I actually feel our sensibilities will work much better there than Hollywood ones. We stand a better chance—our cultures are more similar. We connect because of the basic family values, gender equations, the entire structure is still similar. There is a modernisation that it is ongoing.”
In 2014, India and China signed a first-ever co-production agreement that will pave the way for more films to release in China, by avoiding the quota for around only 30 foreign releases a year. Signed during President Xi ’s visit to India that year, the agreement was another major turning point, says Prasad Shetty, director of the Beijing-based China Peacock Mountain Group, a company that has been bringing in Indian films as well as investing in Indian productions. “A lot of credit should go to the China film bureau as they wanted to bring in different content. We should also applaud the maturity of the Chinese audiences; this is perhaps the only country where they are so receptive and open to Indian, Japanese, Korean and American content,” he says.
The success of Dangal, Shetty says, has been a game-changer. “In China, Dangal is no longer a movie. It is a concept now. You can’t even say cult following because it is so widespread. You have Chinese people now quoting dialogues from it. In my eight-year experience in China, I haven’t seen any movie, no American movie, Iron Man or Star Wars, having that kind of influence. We saw 60-year-olds, who hadn’t come to a cinema in ages, even for a Chinese film, queue up for tickets.” The big lesson, he says, is “how important the concept is, and this one resonated so closely with Chinese culture, from the mentality to the girls and their father relationship. The cultural resonance worked the most, as did the Aamir factor, and this was no fluke. Post-PK, there has been a continuous effort to build him up.” Aamir even has a Chinese social media account on Weibo with more than a million followers, and has made annual visits to China to meet fans. It’s perhaps a matter of time before others follow suit, but Shetty cautions that thought and care should go into the kind of Indian films that are released in China, rather than a scatter-gun approach to merely make money.
THE FIRST FEW COproductions, such as the Jackie Chan-starring Kung Fu Yoga, were boxoffice successes in China but panned by critics in India, seen as a lazy effort to squeeze in as many Indian stereotypes as possible. Rather than push contrived India-China concepts with the sole aim of raking in money at both box offices, the success of Dangal shows that stories that resonate don’t need to have forced themes. On the contrary, it’s honesty that connects.
“Even if Dangal’s success is extraordinary, we have to be very cautious,” says Shetty. “We can’t spoil the market and we should be selective about the films we want to show here. The success of Dangal was not a fluke, it was the result of years of building a systematic, step-by-step process. When PK broke records, people said it was one of a kind. We’ve shown that’s not the case. I’m sure the next Aamir film will work as well.” His legion of Chinese fans would concur.
PK WAS THE FIRST INDIAN FILM TO GET Rs 100 CRORE IN A FOREIGN MARKET. DANGAL BECAME CHINA’S HIGHEST GROSSING NON-HOLLYWOOD FOREIGN FILM
INDIAN IDOL Aamir at the Secret Superstar press conference in Beijing
STAR STRUCK Aamir Khan Fan Club members waiting to receive him at Beijing airport