Indian film director Kabir Khan, left, and child actress Harshaali Malhotra attend a premiere event for the movie "Bajrangi Bhaijaan" in Beijing on Feb. 26, 2018.

Indian movies are beating Marvel in China. Here's why.

Dec 19, 2018

China’s appetite for Marvel superhero movies is no secret. Nearly every action flick ends up making millions at the box office and often tops the charts.

But there’s an even greater hunger there for Bollywood movies.

Last year, Dangal, an underdog story about an Indian wrestler who teaches his daughters to become world-class fighters, became one of the most successful films in Chinese box office history.

Still from “Dangal.”
Still from “Dangal.” / Photo: Walt Disney Studios

It raked in nearly 1.3 billion yuan ($190 million) in China, far more than Black Panther’s $96 million and Spider-Man: Homecoming’s $110 million, according to box-office tracker Ent Group.

The movie was such a hit that it spawned videos of Chinese people dancing to its soundtrack.

Dangal sparked a wave of Indian-movie fever that saw Chinese distributors bring a series of Bollywood films to the country this year.

That includes Secret Superstar, released in January, about a girl pursuing her singing dreams against all odds.

Still from “Secret Superstar.”
Still from “Secret Superstar.” / Photo: Zee Studios

That film made over $100 million in China, accounting for 60 percent of its global box office sales.

The recent success of Indian movies in China is remarkable considering the two countries’ sometimes fraught relations.

China and India went to war in 1962 over a border dispute, and as recently as last year, there was a standoff between the two militaries in a border town.

This file photo taken on July 10, 2008, shows a Chinese soldier, left, and Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China.
This file photo taken on July 10, 2008, shows a Chinese soldier, left, and Indian soldier at the Nathu La border crossing between India and China. / Photo: AFP

Politics matters because the Chinese government maintains a quota for foreign movies to promote local productions. That means it can easily prevent any country from distributing there. Between 1980 and 1999, only about 30 Indian movies were shown in China.

Things changed when “3 Idiots,” a coming-of-age comedy about the pressures of India’s education system, came to China in 2011.

Still from “3 Idiots.”
Still from “3 Idiots.” / Photo: Reliance Entertainment

The film was a runaway hit, making over $2 million in the box office, a record for an Indian film in China at the time. It propelled one its stars, Aamir Khan, to celebrity status in China. (In fact, both Dangal and Secret Superstar feature Khan, which partially explains their popularity in China.)

Now, Bollywood films consistently give Hollywood flicks a run for their money in China, one of the most coveted markets in the world.

The Bollywood craze, explained

R. Balki, director of Pad Man, a biopic about an Indian entrepreneur who built a machine to make affordable sanitary pads for rural women, believes Indian films resonate with Chinese audiences because the two countries share similar values.

Still from “Pad Man.”
Still from “Pad Man.” / Photo: Sony Pictures

Many of the hugely popular Indian movies in China focus on conservative rural values and what happens when they clash with cosmopolitan ideas.

It’s a reality that many Chinese face, Balki says, as the country is undergoing unimaginable development in one generation.

“They connect with the Indian characters,” he says.

Other popular Indian movies released in China this year include Bajrangi Bhaijaan, about an Indian man who helps a mute Pakistani girl reunite with her parents, and Hindi Medium, about an Indian couple’s quest to give their daughter the best education possible.

Still from “Hindi Medium.”
Still from “Hindi Medium.” / Photo: AA Films

All of these films convey social messages that might resonate with China’s still relatively conservative society.

And Dangal, the movie that overtook almost every superhero film in China, might have played well there because of its themes of filial piety and parental love.

Even Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been promoting family values as part of his policies, sang its praises when he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year, telling Modi that he was a big fan of the film.

Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.

FilmChina-India relationsAsian cinema: BollywoodChinese movie go-ersGlobal box office sales