Some old Indian films were very popular in China. Raj Kapoor’s films (especially "Awara", "Sangam" and "Mera Naam Joker") were hugely popular in China in the 1950s.
If we think of a Chinese character in Hindi films, a caricature is most likely to flash in the mind. It may be a villain with a long thin moustache and slanted eyes or a Chinese girl speaking broken Hindi in a squeaky voice.
Just recently, we saw a slapstick on the Great Wall of China against the backdrop of martial arts blended, with Bollywood’s favourite lost-and-found formula and romance in “Chandi Chowk to China”. The film, despite popular songs and some great display of Chinese martial arts, didn’t click with the audiences.
Unlike western European countries and later Pakistan, China has little presence in Hindi films. “It has a lot to do with the India-China relationship that has seen very little development,” says Professor Patricia Uberoi, honorary fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.
Uberoi recently read her research paper on the portrayal of China in Bollywood, especially with reference to “Haqeeqat” directed by Chetan Anand, starring Balraj Sahni, Dharmendra, Priya Rajvansh, Sanjay Khan and Vijay Anand. The film was released in 1964.
“Haqeeqat”, says Uberoi, was the only film that featured the Indo-China border war. However, she feels it was “the ultimate pity” that after it, no filmmaker authentically tried to depict the relationship between the two countries.
But the 1946 film “Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani” by Rajkamal Kalamandir, based on a story by Khwaja Ahamd Abbas, was “an initiative to create a cinematic experience detailing the organic links between India and China,” notes Uberoi. The title role played by V. Shantaram, who also directed the film, was widely appreciated. It was made both in English and Hindi.
So, why did Bollywood filmmakers stay away from China though we shared a bigger border with that country than Pakistan — a country that has figured regularly in Hindi flicks? Reasons Manoj Kumar, famous for making patriotic films, often with anti-West hints, “After the 1962 War, when the Peace Treaty was signed with China, filmmakers began to stay away from the issue. The Censor Board restricted us from portraying China as a villain. I was making a film on the subject but the Censor Board asked me to scrap some important scenes, because of which I stopped making it.”
Part of history
However, Kumar feels filmmakers should have been allowed to make films on China. “We make films about and with Pakistan, because that’s a part of our history. Similarly, China is a part of our history too. When I was making ‘Shaheed’, I was unofficially asked to cut significant scenes that had something to do with England. That’s how our Censor Board works. America and England made lot of films on Nazis but the Nazis had no strength by then, so they were allowed. We filmmakers are peace-loving people. We shouldn’t have been dragged into ‘political’ affairs,” he asserts.
Yet another yesteryear veteran, Dev Anand, differs. “‘Haqeeqat’ was certainly a great film on the India-China border issue but I wouldn’t like to talk about it, as it was my (late) brother who made it. It suits India to have good relations with its neighbouring countries. So why explore something that amounts to political debate?”
Adds John Mathew Matthan, whose film “Sarfarosh” was a tale on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims from India and Pakistan, “Primarily Hindi films focus on entertainment that includes pulp romance. They don’t want to ‘touch sensitive issues’. The film world is like a ship in the water without a radar. Even if there are some old producers who wanted to make films on the India-China relationship, they were discouraged by the Censor Board’s rules. I can’t tell you what hardship I went through when ‘Sarfarosh’ went to the Censor Board.” Matthan also feels that India, for the past 15 years, has been too preoccupied with itself. “Pakistan held us with issues like jehad, etc., so obviously many of our films capitalised on that to garner patriotic votes. Moreover, we don’t have a cultural policy, no directions on filmmaking, and China has also started opening up recently. Before the Olympics, no one knew what China was, despite its rich history and culture. That may be one reason that we didn’t go ahead in uncharted territory.”
But Uberoi feels that the Indo-China War of 1962 changed the portrayal of Chinese characters in Hindi films. They started appearing more as caricatures or villains. She cites examples: “Dev Anand had used Chinese characters more as harmless sidekicks in many of his films. In fact, it was Dev Anand who had the courage to shoot a film in Sikkim (‘Himalaya Ki Goad Mein’) when it was still a matter of dispute between India and China, and surprisingly, though the backdrop had a Chinese touch, the villain was not a Chinese character,” says Uberoi.
But again in “Prem Pujari” (Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman) the India-China border was shown presumably in the North East. In the film, notes Uberoi, “The Chinese were shown as nasty people who shoot a dog from the Indian side, who run across, laughing and sarcastically declaring, ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’”.
Vinod Khanna, former ambassador of India to China, assesses, “India has definitely done its bit to stereotype the Chinese and their names. “In the song that Helen sings in ‘Howrah Bridge’, she says chin chin choo, which is rather funny.” Adds film distributor Kothari, “In Gemini Film’s ‘Shatranj’, Rajender Kumar also dons the role of a funny Chinese spy in certain shots with typical long thin moustaches and slanted eyes.” Uberoi adds that Deepa Mehta ‘s “Fire” shows Javed Jafri’s Chinese girlfriend in a streotypical style. “The girl’s father insults Jafri and he takes it in his stride,” she recalls.
But some old Indian films were very popular in China. Raj Kapoor’s films (especially “Awara”, “Sangam” and “Mera Naam Joker”) were hugely popular in China in the 1950s. Says Lalit Kothari, a distributor for most Raj Kapoor films in Delhi, “Raj Kapoor’s ‘Awara’ was enormously popular in China because it was closer to Communist ideology. The film propagates that poor people should be given equal opportunity. The film’s popularity had more to do with this philosophy than its songs.” A 75-year-old R. Kakkad, a collector of old Hindi film audios, claims that there is only one Hindi song on China so far which was penned by Madan Mohan. “To my knowledge, it wasn’t used in any film”, he says.
Uberoi maintains that “Chandni Chowk to China” made an attempt to show the great Chinese martial art Kung-Fu but in Bollywood style. “The film couldn’t produce contemporary China well,” she adds. Answers Rohan Sippy who produced this film, “Our intention was to show China’s rich and fascinating culture.”
Even if an Indian cook (Akshay Kumar) defeats the Chinese villain Hojo (Gorden Liu) in the film, Sippy maintains that he didn’t intend to portray China negatively. “It was a comic take on old feudal mentality,” he quips. He however agrees that the 1962 War had lot of negative repercussions and hence a few Hindi filmmakers might have portrayed villains as Chinese.
“Due to the war, the population in Calcutta’s China Town dwindled. It may have had its impact,” Sippy adds. War or no war, Hindi filmmakers are still not thinking of touching China in their films.
Asserts director Anil Sharma, “I make films on India-Pakistan ethos as people from both sides connect to it. My ‘Gadar’ was a super success in Pakistan despite some people claiming it had anti-Pak tones. I was never fascinated by China whether it shares a border with us or not.” Actor Rishi Kapoor sums it up aptly: “China is not a part of our ethos, so we didn’t make films on it, so what’s the big deal?”