How Bollywood Became a Force in China

Courtesy of UTV Motion Pictures
'Dangal' proved Indian films can pack a punch.

The Middle Kingdom has embraced Indian cinema, and the blockbuster trend shows no sign of slowing any time soon.

When Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan’s family sports drama Dangal pulled in $190 million at the Chinese box office last year — vastly more than any foreign film has ever earned in North America — it came as an absolute surprise to most international industry observers. But the record-breaking result, in fact, was the culmination of many years of careful cultivation of the Chinese theatrical market for Indian cinema, an effort that has only accelerated in Dangal’s wake.

Khan’s next film, Secret Superstar, opened nine months later in January 2017 and earned $119 million, besting the China total of Marvel juggernaut Black Panther ($108 million). Both of the Indian titles were distributed in China by Beijing-based distributor E Stars Films, headed by industry veteran Alan Liu, a rare early advocate for Bollywood’s box-office potential in the country.

“This second success proved that Indian films in China are no joke,” says Prasad Shetty, a producer on Secret Superstar and a partner in Strategic Alliance, which promotes ties between Bollywood and Beijing. “Everyone in the industry has woken up to the fact that this phenomenon is here to stay for a longer period of time.”

The new wave of Indian cinema in China arguably got its start back in 2009 with the coming-of-age comedy 3 Idiots, co-written and directed by Rajkumar Hirani. The film was never released theatrically in China, but it became a sleeper hit in Hong Kong ($3 million, a big total in the city for a non-Hollywood, non-local film), which generated positive word-of-mouth in the mainland and led to it gradually becoming a widely pirated fan favorite.

China’s Film Bureau then gave Bollywood a boost in 2014 when it signed an official co-production treaty with India. The agreement generated considerable press in both countries, encouraging Indian filmmakers and distributors to consider the surging Chinese box office as a viable market for the first time. Around the same time, Jackie Chan made a high-profile visit to New Delhi, and Khan’s satirical sci-fi film PK scored India’s first wide theatrical release in China, earning a then-record $19.4 million. Chan soon signed a deal to star in the first official China-India co-production, Kung Fu Yoga, which would later pull in $255 million in the Middle Kingdom in early 2017. Chinese comedy superstar Wang Baoqiang’s co-production Buddies in India came out the same year, grossing a healthy $110 million. 

India and China were now officially in business, and Indian scenes and stories were beginning to occupy a small but enduring niche in Chinese popular imagination.

Shetty believes broad cultural similarities and shared values partially explains China’s receptivity to select Indian films. “There is a shared Asian value system, to some extent, such as the central importance of family, education and career,” he explains. “And they are both countries with very deep cultural histories, whose people have gone through rapid changes of economic growth, struggle for money, changes to traditions, discomfort and disparities.”

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 13 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.