The Aamir Khan-starring movie Dangal is poised to become the highest-grossing non-Hollywood film in China ever. This despite being a Hindi language film set largely in rural India with an all-Indian cast, simply dubbed or subtitled in Mandarin. Who would have thought that a Bollywood blockbuster about female wrestlers could do even better in China than it did back home?
The film tells the true story of former wrestler Mahavir Phogat and his daughters, set in rural Haryana. Forced to quit wrestling to get a “proper job,” he swears that one day his son will win India a gold medal. But his wife gives birth only to girls. Determined to somehow achieve his unfulfilled dream, he finally decides to train them instead.
Together, they defy all odds. His daughter Geeta Phogat became India’s first female wrestler to win a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth games, and the first female wrestler to represent India at the Olympics. Her sister Babita too has won multiple international accolades.
During its release last December in India, Dangal grossed approximately $60 million USD. Since its release on May 5 in China, it has already exceeded this figure, having made more than 487 million yuan ($70.7 million USD) at the box office, according to state news agency Xinhua. That makes it the highest-grossing Indian film ever in China.
What makes this an even more intriguing feat is that until recently, China wasn’t considered part of the “traditional” foreign market for Indian films–which includes regions such as the United States, United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates, all of which are home to a significant Indian diaspora.
So why is the film so compelling to Chinese audiences?
For many of the same reasons it was a huge hit in India, it would seem. Several of the film’s most important themes struck a strong emotional cord with Indian audiences. The status of women in society, particularly rural society, and a bias toward male children for example, are issues China also battles with. The importance of filial piety, the ambition of those that live in villages, cut off from opportunity and so all the more desperate to triumph, and the patriotism associated with sport, similarly appear to have resonated with Indian and Chinese audiences alike, pointing to the fact that the two countries have several shared social concerns and aspirations.
Dangal’s success also validates beyond doubt what many industry analysts have been hinting at for a while now–that the massive Chinese market holds a lot of potential for Indian films–and Aamir Khan for one, seems to have been listening.
Aamir Khan capitalizes on social media
In fact, even back in 2011, his mega-hit film, 3 Idiots, was released in China to massive fanfare after breaking multiple box-office records in India. It too dealt with an important social issue–the severity of academic pressure faced by students in engineering schools–a matter that young audiences in both countries immediately related to.
With Dangal, Khan has magnified his appeal. He embarked on an extensive publicity tour across China before the release, and has even made his mark on Chinese social media. He’s among the only Bollywood stars active on Weibo, having created his first-ever post in April to promote Dangal. Now, after its tremendous success, he has over 450,000 followers, more than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who with under 200,000 followers, used to be the most-followed Indian on Chinese social media.
With Bahubali 2breaking records in North America, and Dangal breaking records in China, Indian films are increasingly proving their global marketability. Bollywood is on its way to achieving the sort of international appeal that was once the domain of Hollywood alone.