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After ‘Dangal’, Indian films wrestle for space in China

With both countries looking to expand their markets, several India-China film collaborations are now under way

Chinese actor Zhu Zhu with Salman Khan on the sets of ‘Tubelight’.
Chinese actor Zhu Zhu with Salman Khan on the sets of ‘Tubelight’.

Since its release in China on 5 May, Dangal’s earnings there (Rs757 crore as of Tuesday) have surpassed its box-office collection in India (around Rs387 crore). To most, this would be unthinkable: the idea that the highest-grossing Indian movie before Baahubali 2: The Conclusion could collect more than its India earnings in just 12 days, that too in China—unlike the US or UK, not a traditional overseas market for Indian films.

However, Shailesh Kapoor, film trade analyst and chief executive officer and founder of Ormax Media, isn’t surprised. “It is easy (for an Indian film) to surpass the India numbers, and maybe even double them, because of the number of screens China has," he says. With 42,000 screens—three times as many as India—China is likely to overtake the US as the world’s largest movie market by 2019. And the phenomenal run of Dangal (which was a commercial and critical success in India) at the Chinese box office will probably encourage more of our studios to release films there.

Indian movies are already being made with an eye on the Chinese market. Salman Khan will be romancing Chinese actress Zhu Zhu in his next movie, Tubelight, which releases on 25 June. Set against the backdrop of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict, the film, directed by Kabir Khan, carries an anti-war message.

In 2015, at a more formal level, three Indo-Chinese co-productions were announced, with memorandums of understanding (MoUs) being signed between Eros International and Chinese film production companies. The first co-production, Xuan Zang (2016), a biopic of the monk who is said to have brought Buddhism to China, had Sonu Sood playing king Harshavardhana and also featured Suhasini Mulay and Ali Fazal. It was China’s official entry to the Oscars that year. The second film, tentatively titled The Zookeeper, will be helmed by Kabir Khan; it is about an Indian zookeeper who travels to China to find a panda. The third co-production, which has the working title Love In Beijing, is a cross-cultural action movie.

Yet another co-production, the Jackie Chan-starrer Kung Fu Yoga, released in India in February. Appearing alongside Chan were Indian actors Disha Patani, Amyra Dastur and Sood.

“We are delighted that Dangal has been such a success. This is great news for our co-productions in China, as the market for Indian films and actors is growing," says Ajit Thakur, chief executive officer, Eros International’s Trinity Pictures, which is co-producing The Zookeeper and Love In Beijing with Chinese production houses Huaxia Film Distribution Co. Ltd and Peacock Mountain Culture & Media Ltd. The MoUs mandate collaboration at every level for both films. While the lead actor in Love In Beijing is Chinese, the Indian actress has been selected keeping in mind the Chinese audience. Both are yet to be named. “We initially suggested five-six names to our co-production partner. They have zeroed in on an Indian actress after a face-mapping process to ascertain what kind of look would work best in China," Thakur told PTI last year.

Hollywood too has been trying to tap the Chinese film market, which grew by 34% in 2016, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. Whether by tweaking content (in Red Dawn, the Chinese villain was changed to a North Korean) or showing China in a positive light (in The Martian, Chinese scientists save the day by getting Matt Damon’s astronaut back from Mars), Hollywood is doing its best to make the list of 34 non-Mandarin films per year. Other big-budget films, like Damon’s recent release, The Great Wall, set in medieval China, are exempt from this list by virtue of being co-productions.

So Indian films hoping for a China release will face stiff competition. Allen Liu of Estars Films, which “imported" Dangal to China, has a word of caution: “Dangal has succeeded because it is a great film. There is no formula."

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