How kung fu and Modi might change the future of Bollywood in China

It is Bollywood’s turn now.
It is Bollywood’s turn now.
Image: AP Photo/Greg Baker
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Bollywood has made its presence felt in several countries around the world—from Pakistan to Kenya to Canada. But the globetrotting and much-loved film industry has failed to make any meaningful impact next door.

The Chinese film industry is the second largest in the world, and till recently, India—whose film industry is worth less than half of China’s—had failed to make any inroads into that $4.8 billion market.

But after decades of separation, the film industries of the two countries seem poised to begin a journey of collaboration.

In the past eight months, the two Asian giants have committed to jointly produce three films.

There’s Kung Fu Yoga, reportedly starring martial art hero Jackie Chan and Bollywood actor Aamir Khan; Da Nao Tian Zhu (Lost in India), directed by Chinese actor Wang Baoqiang; and Da Tang Xuan Zang (Monk Xuanzang), a film about a monk who travelled to India to study Buddhism in the sixth century.

This filmy union of the two Asian countries was initiated in September 2014, when a co-production agreement between India’s information and broadcasting ministry and China’s state administration of press, publication, radio, film and television—in charge of the country’s media industry—was signed during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s state visit to India.

In October, Kung Fu Yoga, a project from India’s Viacom18 Motion Pictures and China’s Taihe Entertainment Corporation and Shinework Media, was sealed.

And as prime minister Narendra Modi visited China last week, the Chinese Film Corporation and India’s Eros International announced the co-production of Monk Xuanzang.

Bollywood in China

As things stand, Bollywood barely has a presence in China’s massive entertainment ecosystem. Instead, Hollywood—comprising 90% of all foreign films released in China—dominates its film market.

In China, the government regulates the film industry, allowing only 34 foreign films to be released in theatres every year. These account for 15% of China’s film market, with only about 1.5% ending up to be non-Hollywood releases.

India can screen up to five films, though the country has failed to provide as many films to China in the last few years. That’s because the regulator has strict criteria of good content, technology and culture for selection of films.

So, what will joint productions change?

For one, a joint production would be given a local production status in both countries, thus bypassing the permission required by a foreign film to release in China. “An Indian co-production will hopefully mean better distribution opportunities, too,” Tula Goenka, filmmaker and professor at Syracuse University, told Quartz.

Also, this cultural exchange could eventually open up lucrative commercial opportunities between two of the largest film markets in the world.

“Hollywood’s hegemony is not going to disappear any time soon, but Indian presence in what is likely to become the world’s biggest box-office market will increase, as communication between the two Asian giants grows,” Daya Thussu, professor of international communication and co-director of India Media Centre at University of Westminster, told Quartz.

“But the key is to first learn about each other’s culture and history,” Thussu added. “There is extraordinary levels of mutual ignorance, despite thousands of years of relationship.”

Buddhism to kung fu

This deep cultural chasm has meant that Indian filmmakers have typically either ridiculed the Chinese, or portrayed them as rivals. Bollywood productions, for instance, are replete with crass, stereotypical depictions of the Chinese.

And that’s probably why the themes of the films so far have to do with yoga, kung fu and Buddhism.

“It is understandable that the thought is to treat historical religious subjects, but (it is) quite unambitious. However, kung fu has promise perhaps wedding to big budget superhero formulas,” Richard Allen, professor and chair of cinema studies at New York University, told Quartz.

“I would have thought the historical in general might be a bet, especially one that treated the relations between the countries,” Allen added.

But here’s the flip side of this government-backed cinematic collaboration.

“I doubt that there would ever be a film about things that really matter to both countries—Tibet or the northeastern border,” Syracuse University’s Goenka said.