Grossing 776 million yuan ($112 million) in just two and a half weeks, Bollywood blockbuster Dangal has broken the record for the most successful non-Hollywood foreign film in Chinese history. In the surprise international hit, Aamir Khan stars as a stern father who teaches his daughters to wrestle, breaking gender stereotypes in a country with strict expectations for young women.
This isn’t the first time that Khan has caught the attention of Chinese film-goers. Back in 2009, he starred in the Indian comedy 3 Idiots, which has been credited with breaking down “China’s Great Bollywood Wall.” He also starred in the sci-fi film PK, which came out in 2015 and previously held the record for the highest grossing Indian movie at the Chinese box office.
Until recently, the Chinese and Indian film industries gained little recognition from one another, but Dangal’s rising popularity reveals a shift in interests that could lead to big profits.
Dangal departs from Bollywood’s signature song-and-dance-filled pieces, instead telling the true(ish) story of Geeta Phogat, who, with her father as her coach, became the first Indian female wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. She and her sister, Babita, would go on to win gold medals in the 2010 Commonwealth games.
In China, many have seen the film as a triumph for female empowerment. Like India, China’s fight for gender equality is far from over, and the film’s portrayal of these issues has resonated with female viewers, turning the film into a hot topic of conversation online, as well as a critics darling with an outstanding 9.2 rating on Douban based on over 200,000 reviews.
The South China Morning Post quotes one female moviegoer who said: “We’re not expected to get married at 14 and be tied up in family chores for life as shown in the movie, but just like these wrestlers, women in China need to work much harder to have the same standing as men in society.”
However, others have critiqued the film’s message as anti-feminist. For instance, the Global Times cites one viewer who wrote: “The father’s values make me vomit; he forces his daughters to live a certain type of life with his dream, with money and becoming a champion. You think the movie is about breaking gender stereotypes, but actually it’s knee-deep in prejudice.”
A Weibo user quoted by the BBC agrees: “I think this is a rather male chauvinistic film. Basically, the dad forced his dream on his two daughters. He didn’t teach them to wrestle so that they could avoid being child brides. He taught them to wrestle so he could realize his dream. The girls never had a chance to choose.”
Though it may be controversial, Dangal continues to spark important discussions among viewers, while also bringing in the money. But what does the film’s overwhelming success mean for the future of Chinese and Indian films?
Jack Gao, senior VP at Dalian Wanda which owns more than a thousand movie screens in China, told Variety that he was thrilled by the film’s popularity. “This is such an exciting development,” Gao said. “Chinese audiences these days are informed, interested and seeking out diversity.”
Some studios and stars are hoping to capitalize on this trend. At the 2017 Beijing International Film Festival, Khan (now the most popular Indian on Weibo) announced that he wanted to start co-producing films in China. Meanwhile, upcoming summer releases like the Indian hit Baahubali will further test Bollywood’s popularity in China, possibly saving us from a future where all we’ll have to watch is Vin Diesel.
By Caroline Roy
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