All discords aside, one thing that is being highly celebrated for a while across the borders of India and China is the Bollywood blockbuster Dangal. No other Bollywood or even Hollywood film, other than Transformers 5, has topped the record of Dangal, which has surpassed the bar of a thousand crore rupees by the end of year 2017. It is the 33rd film in Chinese film history to exceed the landmark of one billion RMB.
The Chinese name of the film translates to “Wrestle! Dad” tells the true story of the Phogat sisters- two women wrestlers who received training from their father/wrestler/trainer Mahavir Singh Phogat to win titles for their country in the Commonwealth Games. Directed by Nitesh Tiwari and starring the legendary Bollywood star Amir Khan as Mahavir, Dangal is the story of the sisters Geeta Singh Phogat and Babita Kumari Phogat struggling to achieve a daring feat in a society that does not allow women to do so. The film might have a predictable plot, but Tiwari’s careful handling of the suspense, and the occasional relief through crunchy Hindi songs, is what keeps the audience intrigued till the very last moment.
Though having significant cultural differences, the film ultimately managed to connect to the Chinese population through its incorporation of themes such as an emotional father-daughter relationship, struggles against gender discrimination and the spirit of nationalism. The Chinese audience responded widely to the torrent of multi-layered emotions Dangal managed to evoke among its viewers.
Perhaps what resonated most within the minds of Chinese audience is the parental connection depicted in the film. It is a well-known fact that the Chinese were imposed with a strict one-child policy as part of a family planning plan-caused by the overpopulation inside the country-back in 1979 that was only relaxed in 2013. However, 56% of the population had been exempted from the policy when the first child was born a girl. Such deep-rooted patriarchal values faced a challenge in a film such as Dangal, where Mahavir (Amir), even though ‘burdened’ with the birth of 4 consecutive daughters, ultimately trained his daughters to bring success for the country.
In Dangal, a wrestler and a father Mahavir, is determined to make his son a world famous wrestler. But his dreams seemed to be at an end when instead of a son, he was left with four daughters. Undaunted, he fulfilled his dreams by training his daughters, in absence of a son, to wrestle. The Chinese audience connected deeply to this story of a father taking up the responsibility of his daughters, something not common in their own families or acquaintances.
The drastic physical changes Amir Khan went from his role as a young engineer in 3 Idiots, another blockbuster that had found success in China, to a bulky palwan in Dangal also compelled the Chinese audience. They had never experienced such extreme physical transformation on-screen before.
Women empowerment is another key theme that found popularity among the Chinese. The concept of a woman emerging victorious in a society ruled by men sent ripples through the minds of the Chinese.
At one point in the film, the sisters Geeta and Babita lose their enthusiasm to wrestle after facing constant bullying by the people around them. Then a friend, a victim of an early childhood marriage, reminds them of their good fortune: unlike her father who had abandoned her at such an early age, their father was thinking of a future. The sisters start thinking with a new perspective and promise to fulfil their father’s dream with a passion.
Besides, the theme of filial piety has found strong grounds in the land of Confucius. The Chinese are well known for respecting their elders and revering their ancestors, thus, the theme of parental affection and sacrifices struck a deep emotional chord. As Amir Khan himself said, “The reason it (Dangal) has become so huge in China is because people connected on an emotional level with the story, the characters and the moments...it made them realize what their parents went through. Many of them, especially the daughters, called up their parents and cried. It’s a very emotional reaction. This is what made the film really work.”
Dangal was also a refreshing change from the usual drudgery that the Chinese audience have to face in their local media. The Chinese showbiz has been going through a vast lack of quality content for the last couple of years, something that has been heightened by the Chinese government’s ban on the wildly popular and culturally relevant Korean films and tv shows as a retaliation for South Korea’s acceptance of the US THAAD missiles. Dangal made its way to receive an overwhelming response right at the opportune moment.
Dangal’s success in China has unlocked a new arena for Bollywood films. It is perhaps high time for the Bollywood filmmakers to start focusing on producing quality films with a universal appeal rather than participating in the domestic rat-races.