China’s in love with a Bollywood movie about a Muslim girl’s struggle to live her dream

Bringing India’s conscience to China.
Bringing India’s conscience to China.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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A film about a burqa-wearing Muslim teen who dreams of becoming a pop star might seem like an unlikely hit for China, where online comments often decry efforts to acknowledge the country’s Muslims.

And yet, Secret Superstar swept the box-office when it opened Jan. 19, taking in more than $27 million, pushing aside a period Chinese drama, and outpacing months of India earnings in just three days. After its second weekend, its take was over $66 million (link in Chinese).

It’s the latest success for Indian movie star and producer Aamir Khan, who is besieged by fans every time he shows up in China. Khan’s films have resonated deeply with young people in China, despite being grounded in the angst of growing up in India. His last movie, Dangal, also about young women struggling for their dreams in a male-dominated sport, was one of the best-grossing foreign films in China last year.

Chinese audiences are reacting to the films at a symbolic level, says Enoch Yee-Lok Tam, program director for the bachelor’s in film writing at Hong Kong Baptist University.

For them, “this is a story about individualism vs. authoritarianism,” said Tam, where authoritarianism is represented by patriarchy.

Skewed sex ratios and female defiance

Secret Superstar tells the story of Insia Malik, or Insu, a Muslim teenager whose dreams of being a famous singer are snuffed out by her domineering, and sometimes abusive, father. Unable to let go of her love of music, Insu dons a burqa, picks up her a guitar, and takes to YouTube, where, as the film title suggests, she becomes an anonymous sensation. Khan plays the role of music show director who discovers Malik.

During the movie, Insu also learns that her mother Najma struggled to keep her alive when her father was pushing for an abortion because he didn’t want to have a girl—a common phenomenon in India, and one to which audiences in China, which has 30 million more men than women, can relate.

Both Secret Superstar and Dangal center on conflicts women face in a patriarchal system, wrote Dream Stealing Detective (link in Chinese) on Douban, China’s IMDb-esque film portal. The films also carry on Khan’s recurring themes about the importance of pursuing dreams, and female empowerment, said the post, which was in response to a question comparing Khan’s films that received more that 33,000 views.

“When Malik finally reveals her face in the public, she threw away not only the niqab, but also numbness, submission, humiliation, inferiority,” commented another (link in Chinese) Douban user.

Another aspect that likely appealed to audiences in China in the new movie was the idea of turning to the internet to bypass the parental firewall, given the popularity of live-streaming, a huge phenomenon in China among everyone from young women to farmers.

Last year’s Dangal starred Khan as a former Indian wrestling champion who trains his two daughters to be world-class wrestlers after his wife gave birth to four daughters but no son. The movie is set in the Indian state of Haryana, where the newborn sex ratio skews heavily toward boys.

Dangal became the top-earning Indian film of all time in China, after India-China co-production Kung Fu Yoga, according to box-office data research firm EntGroup. Those achievements come even as China only allows four Indian movies in its annual quota of three dozen or so foreign films—which Hollywood films usually dominate. To many Chinese moviegoers, Aamir Khan is the ambassador for Indian movies, wrote Dream Stealing Detective.

Tam, of the film writing program, said that there are well-known Chinese movies focused on similar themes, but they don’t always strike a chord with city audiences.

“These stories mostly are set in rural China as if these oppressions do not happen in the urban cities. In the recent film industry, filmmakers mostly produce romance and love of the middle class, to provide the romantic fantasy for Chinese audiences, ” said Tam. “I would say if China filmmakers can produce their stories of that kind, the Indian counterparts would not have this scale of impact.”

The young and restless

Chinese fans have nicknamed Khan “Uncle Mi,” taken from his first name Aamir. During Khan’s five-day visit to China for the promotion of Secret Superstar, fans from Shanghai and Beijing surrounded him with neon signs of his name. On Weibo, China’s Twitter-esque social platform, Khan’s official blogging site has gathered over a million followers (link in Chinese) since the first post in April 2016.

Deng Junyi, a sophomore from Hainan Normal University in southern China, said she became a fan of Khan in high school, when she watched Three Idiots, which depicted academic pressure at an Indian engineering school and screened in China in 2011. Deng said the movie touched her because she felt China’s education system also needed to be challenged, yet she found few domestic movies touching the same topic. “His movies changed my concept of Indian movies—most of the ones I had watched were filled with dancing and singing,” says Deng.

Set at a fictional college modeled on one of India’s most competitive higher education universities, the Indian Institutes of Technology, Three Idiots tells the story of how three engineering students suffered under and fought against the strict college principal, nicknamed “Virus” who drove one of them to attempt suicide after threatening to expel the student. The movie is ranked the 12th most popular movie (link in Chinese) of all time on Douban.

To others, the 52-year-old is “the conscience of India,” because his themes are able to cross national differences, and because he’s taken his fight to change social norms beyond the movies. Satyamev Jayate, a talk show Khan hosted a few years ago, discussed social issues prevalent in India such as domestic violence, rape, and discrimination in the caste system. On Douban, the average rating of the show’s three seasons is around 9.6/10 (link in Chinese).

“China seems to have every problem that India faces, such as gender discrimination, archaic practices, religious problems, medical malpractice, class discrimination… ,” said a user called Chen Hao on Douban (link in Chinese). “You can see India as a China with all the social problems amplified but China doesn’t have an Aamir Khan.”