Mr Phogat goes to Shanghai: Aamir Khan film Dangal’s craze has to be seen to be believed in China

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A group of Chinese women take a selfie with a poster of Indian Bollywood blockbuster film Dangal on display at a cinema in Beijing.

It was well after midnight a few weeks ago when my phone pinged. A WeChat message. Another student wanting to know something about the finals, I thought. As a visiting professor in the department of journalism and mass communications at Shanghai International Studies University, I’m often inundated with messages from students needing clarification about their classes.

This one was from Lao Qing. He is a private English language student of mine but more a friend than a student.

“Have you seen Dangle?”
“What’s Dangle?”I wrote back.
“It’s called Let’s Wrestle Dad. That woman wrestler movie from India?”
“Oh, Dangal!” I taught him how to pronounce it by leaving a voice message for him.
“Yeah, okay. Dangal. Have you seen it?”
“Yes. But how do you know about Dangle, uh, I mean Dangal?” I asked.
“Do you know that Dangal has a 9.8 score on China’s Rotten Tomatoes? I’ve never ever seen a score like this before. It’s insane!” Qing wrote back furiously and added a few hundred emojis.
“Well, it’s an insane movie,” I said. “Insanely good.”
“I’m seeing it tonight. I couldn’t get tickets for any of the other shows. It’s running to packed houses.”
“Wow! Let me know what you think!” I told him before I signed off.

That was the beginning of what has been a barrage of text and voice messages, emails, phone calls and personal one-on-one conversations about Dangal — with my Chinese co-workers, friends and my Chinese students.

Other than 3 Idiots and PK, both Aamir Khan films, there aren’t too many Indian films that have done good business at the Chinese box office. That’s not to say that Indian films are not popular. At least, many from the past decade or so are. But most Chinese download our movies online and watch them regularly on their phones. One film that’s extremely popular in this category is Baahubali. It helps that the Chinese believe that other than the song-and-dance sequences, their movies have more in common with Hindi cinema than Hollywood.

While PK made over $16 million in China, the recall value of the movie is very limited. But I am yet to meet a single Chinese person who has not seen 3 Idiots. Given how much of an average Chinese person’s time, energy and money is devoted to the cause of education and how hard, difficult and competitive the school and college system is in China, the film still, very palpably, resonates with them.

Even so, I was sceptical about the Dangal hype. But three weeks in, I admit that the craze for Dangal has to be seen to be believed.

Just in and around the area that I live in at Hongkou (close to downtown Shanghai), there are five malls, with an average of 12 theatres each. Dangal released on May 5 and during the first two weeks, it was on every half hour. In its fourth week now, each of the malls near my home has Dangal showing anywhere from six to 12 shows a day. And this is not just restricted to Shanghai — it’s a countrywide phenomenon. According to a news report, Maoyan, a popular ticketing website in China, has said that the film has done business of over 1 billion Yuan Renminbi or about Rs1,000 crore, playing on 9,000 screens in China.

I gathered a bunch of my students (all between 18 and 22 years old) and asked them what made Dangal so special. What is it about a movie whose language they don’t understand, whose culture is different from theirs, yet they watch it over and over again?

“It’s my story, Roopa,” said Gao Hanya. “It’s the story of every Chinese girl who is told there are things she cannot do because she is a woman. Growing up, my math teacher told me that I should try something else because math is for men and not women. When I saw the movie, it spoke to me. I understood how those sisters felt when they were held back because men think wrestling is for boys only. Who are they to make these rules?” she said.

Ziyu Wu nodded her head furiously and said that when Aamir’s character (Mr Phogat, she referred to him respectfully) moves closer to his daughter and rents an apartment to train her, it reminded her of all the sacrifices that her parents, especially her dad, made for her. Hailing from Mongolia, Ziyu’s father rented an apartment in Beijing, where Ziyu initially went to high school, and cooked and took care of her till she was able to live on her own.

“My dad is like Mr Phogat. A quiet man. Not prone to emotions. But he was there for me. Quietly. Patiently,” Ziyu choked up even as she tried to wipe away her tears.

Ziyu’s reaction was not surprising, given how much of a family-driven society China is, much like India. In the year that I’ve lived here, I’ve lost count of the numbers of stories I’ve heard about Chinese parents doing everything they can for their children and their future. Almost as many stories I’ve heard, are about Chinese kids wanting to do right by their parents and taking care of them as they get older.

Some love the patriotism that the movie showed. For Ye Sicen, her favourite part of the movie was how much Mr Phogat wanted to win a medal for his country. For others, it was the subtle humour that carried a movie with such a strong message. For many others, Dangal is also an aspirational movie. Like Ziyu said to me, “Hollywood is Hollywood. There’s not a lot that connects Chinese culture to them. But Indian films, Bollywood, our cultures are so similar. The thought that ran through my head throughout was if India can make a movie like this, so can China. So should China.”

As a writer, whose newest book is based on the rise of Indian soft power by way of Bollywood in China, I found myself at the right place at the right time. I argue in my book that the popularity of Bollywood can go a long way in leveraging soft power for India.

What do Chinese people think of India and Indians? That’s a tricky question. Unless a person has VPN in China, one cannot access Google, Facebook, Twitter or news websites like that of The New York Times. So much of their impression of India is limited by what they are allowed to see. Unsurprising then, that the average urban Chinese thinks of India as still being very poor and patriarchal — themes that Dangal deals with as well. But what Dangal has done is shown how people can work within the system and break preconceived notions if you work hard — this is what the Chinese admire so much about the movie.

The Aamir Khan film Dangal about an Indian man training his daughters to become wrestlers has become China’s biggest grossing non-Hollywod foreign movie.

India and China may be treading on very thin ice politically but the Chinese are currently riding high on India, Aamir Khan and Dangal. China’s quota on the number of foreign movies allowed to be shown each year (currently at 34 per year, including big-budget Hollywood spectacles) may limit India’s chance of getting more of our films into China in the future. That said, there is something incredible about China’s changing perception of India, and it’s happening because of Bollywood. Our politicians should pay heed to how much goodwill a country can gain by less grandstanding and more soft power.

I checked with Qing the next day. “How was Dangle?” I joked. A fun-loving, 22-year-old young man who laughs more than he should and refuses to take life seriously, wrote this back to me: “Out of the many commercial movies so far, Let’s Wrestle Dad is so precious. It’s such a moving and encouraging movie affecting people in multilevel ways. I really love it!”

And it turns out — so does China.

Roopa Swaminathan is a National Award–winning author of Bollywood Boom: India’s Rising Soft Power (2017).

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