Two weeks ago, Beijing hosted the premiere of Da Tang Xuan Zang (The Monk Xuan Zang), the first movie to be co-produced by India and China, and it was a high-profile event. Hundreds of journalists waited patiently as top officials from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, China’s sombre supervisor and censor of its entertainment and news industries, read out speeches. Actors, including India’s Sonu Sood, spoke about their experience of shooting in both countries.
The movie is based on the epic journey of Xuan Zang from China to India and back. Known as Hiuen Tsang in Indian history books, the 7th-century monk and traveller spent 17 years on the road and was the one who brought Buddhist scriptures to China. His story is the stuff of legend here. At the premiere, a senior Buddhist monk who gave lessons in Buddhism to lead actor Huang Xiaoming during the shooting, talked about Indian and Chinese cultural links and “blessed” the movie.
The movie, of course, had the blessings of both the Indian and Chinese governments; approvals and permissions were faster, the money came in quickly.
Part of a three-film co-production agreement signed during prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China last May, this biopic was wrapped up in less than a year and released in China on April 29.
This joint experiment marks a new meeting point in the two nations’ 100-year celluloid journey.
The neighbouring giants began their forays into cinema around the same time. In 1913, when Dadasaheb Phalke was making what is considered India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, in Mumbai, the director duo of Zheng Zhengqiu and Zhang Shichuan were filming Nan Fu Nan Qi (The Difficult Couple) in Shanghai, arguably China’s first short feature film.
The first ’talkies’ in both countries were made in 1931 -- Ge Nu Hong Mu Dan (The Songstress, Red Peony) in China, and Alam Ara in India.
Reels of diplomatic ups and downs later, the two countries have tentatively come together to make movies. Not that there haven’t been cinematic links before. Back in the 1950s, during the height of bilateral bonhomie, Awara and Do Bigha Zamin were dubbed by the Changchun Film Studio and the Shanghai Film Studio and shown across China in cinema halls and open-air theatres.
Between 1955 and 1961, seven Hindi movies were dubbed and shown in China but it was Awara – re-released in the country after the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – which has had a lasting impact on Chinese society; more so after the re-release 20 years later, says experts.
“Re-released Indian romantic movie, Awara had a wide-ranging social influence in the late 1970s, for it was in parallel to historical development in Chinese society, which suited the political needs of the authorities to restore law and order as well as to promote the general legal education, and catered to disadvantaged groups who had lost voices and had been suffering from persecutions and discriminated. The social hierarchy, blood relationships, chasteness and cultural logic echoed with local culture along with affective education at that time. Powerful narrative functions, traditional effects of sad drama, abundant use of singing and dancing, popular presentation skills and subtle psychology are reasons to reevaluate the movie,” author and film expert Yuan Qing-feng wrote in 2014, in the magazine Studies in Culture and Art.
In 1962, nearly midway between the two releases of Awara, India and China fought a war along their long and disputed border. The result was a snapping of ties and Indian movies disappeared from Chinese screens.
“The war triggered disastrous consequences for Sino-Indian cinema-relations,” says Li Daoxin, a film scholar and professor at Peking University. “The Chinese public developed an adverse feeling towards Indian people, culture and of course films.”
The war also had an impact how Indian cinema viewed China and the Chinese.
“India made films on the subject such as Haqeeqat . Chinese characters made appearances in negative roles as in Prem Pujari ; they were enemies and spies,” says Sidharth Bhatia, a senior journalist and author of several books on the Indian film industry.
With China’s economic reforms and gradual opening up from the late 1970s on, Indian films found their way back into the open-air theatres; Awara was re-released, Caravan became a huge hit, and so on.
“These movies had an emotional resonance with the Chinese masses. Often the plots reflected the confrontation of the lower and upper classes. Their plots moved people. Also, they were musicals and looked different from Chinese films,” says Tan Zheng, editor of the influential Diangying Yishu, a Chinese magazine on movies.
There followed a couple of unremarkable decades, during which China’s love affair with Hollywood began, with the Harrison Ford-starrer The Fugitive (1993) marking the first-ever countrywide release of an American movie.
Then came the countrywide release of the Aamir Khan-starrer Lagaan, in 2002, and a whole new Chinese generation got a taste of Hindi cinema. After a bit of a lull, Shah Rukh’s My Name is Khan appeared on screens here in 2010. The following year brought Aamir back with 3 Idiots, which became a talking point among younger Chinese audiences. By 2012, 35 Indian movies had been dubbed and released in China.
The relationship between the mostly indifferent and suspicious neighbours has now progressed to co-productions, but will these open up the huge movie markets of China and India to each other? Improbable in the short term, say insiders.
While there is interest, there is also uncertainty about co-production, says Beijing-based Prasad Shetty, who works with a company that promotes Sino-Indian movie ventures.
“Indian private companies have not jumped in because there is no existing market [for such movies]. It will take time to work that out. No one is sure what could work. PK [the first Indian movie to make Rs 100 crore in China] worked. But who knows whether it was a fluke,” Shetty says.
Huo Jianqi, who directed ...Xuan Zang, is confident that more Sino-India co-productions could work for both markets.
“In the next five to ten years, there is a bright future,” he says. “For now, two more joint productions are being made. In the future, I believe such collaboration will be more frequent. Without one party, the other could not have made this movie. The tie has become closer and closer.”