THE AAMIR OF CHINA

Inside the cult of the Bol­ly­wood su­per­star in the mid­dle king­dom

India Today - - INSIDE - By Ananth Kr­ish­nan in Bei­jing

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.

SE­CRET SU­PER­STAR

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.”

REDISCOVERING IN­DIA

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.”

DIS­COV­ER­ING CHINA

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

VCG/ VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES

STAR STRUCK Aamir Khan Fan Club mem­bers wait­ing to re­ceive him at Bei­jing air­port

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