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Bhai-bhai, a sequel

Bollywood, a powerful vehicle of China-phobia can be converted into a stakeholder in Sino-Indian peace, writes Debasish Roy Chowdhury.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2008 03:44 IST
Debasish Roy Chowdhury
Debasish Roy Chowdhury

I had my


moment in Shanghai. “Yindu?” asked the cheerful owner of the hole-in-the-wall restaurant I stumbled across after a heavy day of sightseeing. Reassured by my nod, he broke into a monologue, which, punctuated as it was with the word Yindu, I figured was something about India or Indians. And, judging by the approving looks of the other diners in the small room, nice things too. That happens to me all the time in China.

But then it came, slowly at first, then the beat picking up… Abalagu, u uu, abalagu. Seeing that I wasn’t quite getting his point, he presented the final proof of his familiarity with India, the title song of Awara, which was a runaway hit in China.

I wasn’t exactly taken aback. I had read that Raj Kapoor, or Li Zhi, as the Chinese call him, is a household name in China. I had also heard the Chinese of a certain generation can all hum awara hoon, albeit as ‘abalagu’. Still, the magic of that moment left an indelible spell on me, a first-hand proof of the soft power of a juggernaut called Bollywood.

The story of India and China is similar to the plot of a standard Bollywood flick: love, separation, reunion. And, crazy as it may sound, cinema may play a large role in making these two live happily ever after, à la Bollywood endings.

Allow me to justify my script.

The 1962 ‘war’ has had a very different impact on the Chinese and the Indians. India’s foreign policy toward China prior to the ‘war’, as Indians call it, was defined by the slogan of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’, a policy on which it had invested much of its geopolitical capital. The reaction to the conflict was thus complete disappointment with China and everything Chinese, an impact manifested in Indian popular culture as well. Subsequent generations thus grew up on a staple of demonisation of China and the Chinese in Hindi films. More so because we, till recently, were squeamish about portraying Pakistan as the ‘enemy’ in films. China was a much safer punching bag.

This China-phobia has marked much of India’s politics ever since. Remember George Fernandes’ statement justifying the nuclear test in 1998 by citing China as the No 1 enemy? The same China-phobia — with allusions to the Indian communists’ extraterritorial loyalties — reared its head in the Indian media when the Left threatened to block the US-India deal on nuclear power. The general acceptability of such anti-China rhetoric is high in India because of the scar that the 1962 conflict left on the popular psyche and its perpetration through the most powerful popular medium, cinema.

The ordinary Chinese, on the other hand, barely know, or care, about 1962. Most Chinese are not even aware of the conflict. And the handful of those who are, know it as a border ‘skirmish’, not ‘war’, for which neither India nor China were responsible. Instead, they have been taught to see it as a legacy of the machinations of imperial powers. India-bashing thus doesn’t sell in China, nor are there any visible traces of it in its political or cultural spheres.

If the Chinese have anything for India, it’s sheer fascination. The handful of Bollywood movies that landed in China since Awara and Do Bigha Zameen have been huge hits, sometimes bigger than in India itself. Caravan, a modest commercial success in India, ran to packed theatres in China in the 1980s, under the name of Da Peng Che. Noorie also had a theatre release in China and did remarkably well. I know at least one Chinese who lost his teenage heart to Noorie: my night editor.

Bollywood movies slacked off a bit thereafter. It’s not clear if it was because of the flagging interest in the song-and-dance routine and formulaic story lines or general apathy among Indian distributors vis-à-vis China, or a combination of both, but the next theatre entrance for Bollywood took place as late as 2002 with Lagaan, and Krrish last year.

Chinese channels have screened




since, both drawing a lot of interest. Soaps like



Koshish ek Asha

have a large fan following. Aishwarya Rai sets hearts aflutter with the same ease here as she does there. People pay big bucks to learn ‘


dance, or Bollywood-style gyrations. In short, Bollywood is the most successful Indian export to China though India hasn’t even been selling it hard enough.

Films didn’t specifically figure in the talks during Manmohan Singh’s trip. There were weightier things to discuss, like the thorny border issue and trade. What chance did cinema have against politics and money? None, apparently. But the fact is, China and India have a lot to gain on both counts from films. China now allows 20 foreign films for theatre release each year on a revenue-sharing basis, and most of these are from Hollywood. In a good year, an odd Bollywood film slips into this quota. That’s a huge market lying virtually untapped. India’s film business grossed over $ 2 billion worldwide in 2006. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study, it will cross $ 4 billion over the next five years. But it is still a fraction of global cinema revenues. Prising open the vast Chinese market will give Indian films the much-needed dollar muscle.

As filmmaker Shekhar Kapoor argues, ageing North America has 65 million people in the category of entertainment demographics, which is population in age groups that are the highest consumers of entertainment. Young China and India have some 700 million in the same group. These two heavy entertainment spenders will increasingly demand their representation in global popular culture. Hollywood realises it, that’s why Harry Potter has a Chinese girlfriend. James Bond has had one, and is now looking for an Indian date.

Unlike China and India, Hollywood has realised the potential of joining these two mega markets. That’s why Warner Bros is making its first foray into Bollywood with a movie named Made in China about a Mumbai cook mistaken for a kung fu master. It will be the first Hindi-language film ever to be filmed in China, which, incidentally, is the third-largest movie producer after India and the US.

In return for allowing more Indian movies, China can directly push its own films into India, not through Hollywood, as it now does. This will open up a market of 1.3 billion people for Chinese films, and help Indians see the Chinese minus the Hollywood prism.

But how in the world will cinema ease political tensions between the two countries? Once Indian filmmakers wake up to the potential of the Chinese market, they will incorporate Chinese tastes, faces and sensitivities in their movies, maybe Chinese plots even, like Made in China. A powerful vehicle of China-phobia will thus have been converted into a stakeholder in Sino-Indian peace. Watching the same movies, the Chinese and the Indians will laugh together, cry together, fall in love together and, at some point, fall in love with each other. I’ll wager that no bilateral problem will look that insurmountable then.

Here’s to the hope for another typical Bollywood ending: the long-lost bhais, Hindi and Chini, going to the same movie and rediscovering each other some day.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is a senior editor with China Daily, where a version of this article appeared on January 15.