Pallavi Aiyar

There is a large market for Hindi films in China that can be exploited.

THE CENTRAL shopping district of Wangfujing in China's capital Beijing is set to tap a foot to the beat of Hindi film songs for an entire week, from August 25 to 31. During this week the Indian embassy in Beijing will hold a film festival as part of the ongoing Indo-China Friendship year, screening 10 Indian films in the city's most up-market cinema halls.

Attempting to represent the full diversity of Indian cinema, the festival will showcase movies in a range of languages, including Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam, Assamese, Bengali, Telugu, and Hindi.

For the average person in China, movies are the primary association with their southern neighbour. The Middle Kingdom's love affair with Indian films and music in fact stretches back to the period just after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when the country began its "reform and opening up" process. Indian movies were amongst the first foreign films to be shown in Chinese theatres, their socialist themes being deemed suitable.

Movies from the Raj Kapoor era such as Awara and Do Bigha Zameen became instant classics, acquiring a massive fan following, despite being shown some two decades later here, than in India. By the early 1980s, Awara finally had some competition for the title of the most popular Indian film in China, in the form of Caravan, or Da Peng Che as it was called in Chinese. This song and dance threaded quintessential road flick, played to house-full theatres for years and even today most Chinese above the age of 35 can give word perfect rendition of songs from the film on demand.

However, from the mid-1980s onwards, as China liberalised its film market, movies from Hollywood gradually came to dominate the foreign film market. According to Weng Li, deputy general manager of the Film Exhibition and Distribution Corporation of China, over 80 per cent of the foreign films screened in the country today are American. For Chinese youngsters who have grown up amid rapid economic growth and an explosion of commercialism, Hindi films are largely seen as antiquated ghosts from the past; something their parents liked in the "old days."

The annual box office potential of the movie market in China is estimated to be around $1.5 billion a year. In this lucrative market, Bollywood, the much-touted producer of the largest number of films in the world, has yet to make a dent. In 2003, Lagaan became the first Bollywood feature to be screened in cinemas in China in over 15 years. It was a moderate hit but compared to the same year's Hollywood summer blockbusters such as Pirates of the Caribbean, it failed to make much of a mark. Pirates of the Caribbean earned $1.2 million in its very first week of showing in China.

According to Zang Tong Tao, associate professor of film studies at Beijing Normal University young Chinese aspire to the "cool" that America represents. "With globalisation, Hollywood is popular everywhere. To do well here now, Indian films will have to be able to compete with the best movies from around the world and moreover they need to be relevant to modern times. Old socialist themes like in Awara will no longer be popular here," he says.

That Indian cinema too has transformed from its socialist, rural-oriented messages to the celebration of urban wealth, evident in the post-Hum Aapke Hain Kaun epoch, is little known in China.

A corrective?

The selection of movies to be screened at the film festival might go some way in providing a corrective. They include Dil Chahata Hai, Mani Ratnam's Roja, Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and Rituparno Ghosh's Chokher Bali.

Whether contemporary Bollywood can in fact make it big in China if there is more energy spent on promoting it, is a question worth exploring. Hindi films in the early 1980s in China faced very little competition. Now they would have to compete against not only the might of Hollywood but cinema from the world over.

The scores of outlets selling pirated DVDs in Chinese cities have helped popularise European cinema here, and Korean films are also a bit of a hit with the younger generation. Moreover, unlike in other parts of the world where Hindi movies have a significant audience, there is no significant Indian diaspora in China.

But the chord that Hindi films from the past seem to have struck with the middle-aged Chinese demographic means there is a large nostalgia-based market here that may well set the cash registers ringing, were it to be exploited. "You see," expounds Lao Wang a taxi driver with a particularly sage manner, "The reason I love Indian films is that our culture is the same. With all these American films I feel no connection at all. Who are all these blonde people? In Indian films there is a genuine romance and proper cultural values." Glowering at this correspondent accusingly he asks, "Why don't you export Hindi films to China anymore?"