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How Bollywood sees China

Nikihil Ranjan / cd
October 19, 2012

It's a difficult relationship, even in film. India produces more movies per year than any other country. Yet Bollywood sometimes distorts, rather than reflects, India's complicated relationship with China.

The Indian Film Chandi Chowk to China on a theater marquee Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Image: Getty Images

The 1964 Film "Haqeeqat," or "Truth", from director Chetan Anand, is one of the only Bollywood films to deal explicitly with the India-China border war of 1962. True to its title, the director attempts to follow the fate of soldiers who, in October of that year, engaged on the world's highest battlefield. The film gives its analysis from an Indian perspective.

In 1970, Dev Anand, the brother of Chetan Anand, filmed "Prem Pujari", again brought the war back to life. In it, the Chinese come across as irredeemably awful, shooting dogs when they wander onto the Chinese side of the border or making fun of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Up to that point Nehru had worked hard toward reconciliation between the two countries and had designated the Chinese as India's "brothers".

Former Bollywood star Dev Anand, 88, looks on at the inauguration ceremony of the 'Mumbai Festival' in Mumbai, India, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2007. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh)
Bollywood filmmaker Dev AnandImage: AP

Parodying China

In 1958, the Burmese-born Bollywood queen, Helen, found fame in the film "Howrah Bridge", in which she played a Chinese dancer. She also sang a song, "Mera nam chin chin chu" ("My name is Chin Chin Chu"). The voice, however, wasn't hers. The song was a hit in spite of the fact - or perhaps because of the fact - that its lyrics made little sense.

Almost 50 years later, the 2009 kung fu comedy "Chandni Chowk to China" was released, another parody of China. The film had little success. Superstar Akshay Kumar played a kitchen hand who works in the well-known Chandni Chowk quarter of old Delhi. Two Chinese see in him the reincarnation of a hero from their homeland and take him deep into China, where Kumar endures the adventure - and a happy ending.

A poster advertisement for Chandni Chowk to China showing. Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images
The 2009 Bollywood flop: Chandni Chowk to ChinaImage: Getty Images

So near, and yet so far

If Bollywood directors use settings from other countries, they usually go to Switzerland or London. China, by comparison, is not as well received, both as a film location and as a subject, says film critic Ajay Brahmatmaj, who lived in China in the 1980s.

Historical personalities such as the Chinese monks Xuanzang and Faxian, who visited India a few hundred years after Christ's birth, are sometimes offered as a template for future projects. "But historical films are extremely expensive. Bollywood films want dancing, music, action and fun," says Brahmatmaj. "Movies that grapple with historical themes or characters just don't fit in."

At the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards event, in Singapore on June 7, 2012, the lead actor and actress wave at the crowd . Photo: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/GettyImages
Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin and actor Abhay Deol attend the premierImage: Getty Images

Even if they had the opportunity to film in China, Indian directors might have a difficult time actually doing so. "First of all the language is a big problem, and then there's the weather. And finally, for Indians, Chinese faces are an unusual sight. By comparison, European faces are far more common."

By the same token, in Chinese movie theaters, hardly any Indian films are shown. Each year approximately twenty foreign films are shown in China. In the past they numbered even fewer. Hollywood films account for most of them, or films from South Korea, which is closer culturally to China.

Shared histories (and stories)

Still, China's economic take-off in recent decades has fascinated Indian filmmakers. In the 2012 political thriller "Shanghai" from Indian director Dibakar Banerjee, the rapidly booming Shanghai metropolis is presented as both a dream and paragon. A fictive Indian city, full of corruption and criminality, is contrasted to it and is shown trying to emulate Shanghai's success.

Also making cultural headway was the student comedy "Three Idiots," directed by, and also starring, superstar Aamir Khan. The film was hugely successful in both India and China. Its path to success was paved by Raj Kapoor's 1951 "Awaara" ("The Vagabond"), the first Indian film to triumph in China. To this day there are elderly people in China for whom all Indians must be named either Rita or Raj, the two main characters in the film. Part of the film's success in China wasdue to its hymns of equality in human beings, whether poor or rich, a theme that dovetailed with communist ideology.

Indian actor Raj Kapoor smiles at the camera in a portrait Mary Evans Picture Library
A face many elderly Chinese know well: Raj KapoorImage: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

Politicians should lend a hand

Jayprakash Chowkse, the biographer of actor/director Raj Kapoor, sees in cinema a medium through which to bridge the void between the two countries and improve relations. "To that end we need political support. Our films have to be shown in China. At the same time, India has to open its doors to Chinese movies." Chowske emphasizes that both countries, with millennia of culture, have to emphasize their similarities. One example? "Mahatma Gandhi is also revered in China."

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