In China, they call it the ‘pee spot’. It’s the bloated part near the middle of a movie, the boring section when the villain’s droning on or the hero’s mouthing pointless exposition and everyone fidgets and scratches and shuffles off to pee.
When Draco Guan went to watch Dangal in a Beijing suburb earlier this year, he knew there was going to be a pee spot, and armed with liters of soda, he was prepared to make full use of it. After all, it was an Indian film. In China, that means it’s an overly long drama full of sudden and nonsensical dance sequences that are just perfect for emptying your bladder.
Only this time, in Dangal, there was no pee spot. One hour passed. Two hours passed. When the third hour was rounding up, Draco Guan – and the theater full of Chinese audience members – were still sitting in their seats, knees clenched, feet moving restlessly, unable to take their eyes off the screen. “It’s quite a long movie,” he recalls, “But I think it was worth every second.”
No in-depth research has been conducted on this of course, but one imagines theaters all across China witnessed similar scenes in the summer of 2017, when Aamir Khan’s massively successful family drama about women’s wrestling, based on the real-life Phogat sisters, swept through the country and amassed a wave of popularity that made it the highest-grossing Indian film of all time in all international markets, and one of China’s 20 highest-grossing films ever. The film’s outstanding success in China stunned even critics back home, where all summer, a thousand keyboards tap-tapped in unison as they churned out thinkpieces and business features, trying to wring some sense out of this strange phenomenon – that a country so alien in history, government, traditions, language and thinking, so divorced from the Indian way of being should embrace a film so rooted in its culture.
But that’s just it, says Draco. India and China are not so alien after all, and the popularity of Dangal in both countries shows how similar the two societies are. “I think it really reflects a lot of issues in Indian society which have equals in Chinese culture as well.”
To start with, there’s the pressure that both Indian and Chinese parents put on their children to succeed, to fulfil their dreams. In Dangal, Aamir Khan’s character pushes his daughters into wrestling because he had to give up his own career as an amateur wrestler. Draco says he, and a whole generation of Chinese young adults, can relate to that because of his country’s one-child policy. “I’m the only child in my family, (I have seen) – it leaves most families with no choice. If the family wants to accomplish a dream, this child is their only chance. So an entire generation in China is experiencing what those sisters are going through.”
There’s also the patriarchal nature of both country’s societies, says Margie Feng, who watched the movie with her friend. She says she admires the fact that Dangal revolves around the lack of awareness of woman power and the low social status of women in society. “It’s a really serious issue in China too and this movie is not afraid to expose what’s really at stake. I know that Aamir Khan really cares about social issues and wants to make society aware of them.”
As the topic touches on Khan, something changes in her stance. There’s a frisson, almost electric. Her eyes sparkle, her smile turns more private, and she talks about the first time she saw the actor on the big screen six years ago, during the release of his movie 3 Idiots. That movie too found remarkable success in China, although not on the scale of Dangal.
Margie says a sort of cult of Aamir Khan began to build up in China after 3 Idiots, which became extremely famous. Khan began to be revered for what many in the country saw as his passion for social change, his method acting and, as Margie puts it, “because he’s so handsome, even though he’s old” (Khan was 46 when 3 Idiots released; now he’s 52).
“If you show pictures of him in China, I think 80 percent or 90 percent of people will recognize him,” she says.
In China’s popular social media platform Weibo, discussions often revolve around what is seen as Khan’s superiority to younger Chinese actors in dedication and sincerity. “I’ve watched a documentary about Aamir Khan. He refused to fake his belly so he actually ate so much that he became really, really fat and then after he shot the scenes where he need to be really fat, he went to the gym and worked out for one or two months and became really muscular and skinny and handsome and then went back to shoot,” Margie says.
“This is a very hot topic on Chinese social media. People are saying, ‘look at this actor, how professional, how hardworking he is, and looking back to our Chinese actors, especially the young and cute actors who don’t want to put in effort in their roles. Just look at them and look at us.’”
He Wang, another Chinese student, echoes this. “To make this movie and gain weight and lose it, Aamir Khan suffered a lot. He’s like a hero to me. Whenever I face difficulties, he gives me inspiration. In China, they know about only one Indian actor and that is him. They know about Indian films through him.”
Khan may be one of the reigning Bollywood actors but he’s certainly nowhere close to the most famous or most powerful in the thriving Mumbai-based film industry. And yet his ability to wield this kind of influence over the youth in India’s powerful neighbour can’t be ignored, says Nitin Govil, an expert on Bollywood and international cinema teaching at the University of Southern California.
“Indo-Chinese coproductions and co-ventures are often linked to diplomatic initiatives around border resolutions and nuclear agreements, so film plays an important role in linking the two countries’ strategic futures.”
It’s no surprise that even in the midst of the worsening of relations between New Delhi and Beijing, when Chinese President Xi Jinping met India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi after last month’s Doklang border standoff, the two leaders exchanged remarks about Dangal.
Khan’s power lies in his ability to sway the next generation of China’s citizens, who absorb culture and use it as a lens to view the world, but know little and care even less about the geopolitics between the two countries.
“We don’t think of India as our enemies at all. For us, the young generation, India is a very mysterious and charming country. Especially when there is a volunteering project, everybody wants to go there, because we’ve heard very little about it and it has a rich culture and history. All those political, border things, for the young generation it’s not a big deal. Why should we think ill of the country because of some little conflict?” Draco says.
The sentiment is echoed by He Wang: “Let the politicians think about all that. We are not concerned by the war. It does not matter to us. We love India a lot.”