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On a fine, clear-sky May afternoon, gorging on some of tastiest dumplings in Beijing, my Chinese colleagues started talking about the film they were going to watch in the evening. “Which one?” I asked. “Shuai Jiao Ba! BaBa (Dangal’s Chinese name),” one of them replied. I couldn’t believe what I heard.
Despite the great hype around the film back home, I wasn’t able to watch it during the Chinese New Year holidays in January. And it didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything big, as Dangal for me was like any other Aamir Khan film – trying to address a big social issue through humour and entertainment, and making a somewhat obvious attempt to please the larger audience at the same time. But now that it had travelled thousands of kilometers from home, crossed many boundaries and reached my social circle, I had to find out what the hype was all about. Why a country awash with Olympic golds care about a story set in rural Haryana, featuring the struggle of Geeta and Mahavir Phogat trying to get a gold medal for their country, in an international competition little known to them?
It touched an emotional chord that isn’t captured in numbers. While watching the film with mostly Chinese audience, I tried to notice what moments evoked a reaction from them. I also went through countless online comments on social media and review sites and talked to my Chinese friends, trying to decode what catapulted this film to an unimaginable success. While I understand it could be attributed to numerous factors, including the immense popularity of its lead actor Aamir Khan in China (I’m yet to meet a person who hasn’t seen 3 Idiots), there were three big ones, I thought, could explain this cultural phenomenon.
Being born in either India or China is an everyday realization that there are millions like you who are competing for the same scarce resources and opportunities, and the only way out is through backbreaking hard work and discipline, even if it comes at the cost of pleasure. Right from an early age, the whole system consisting of parents, teachers, institutions and the society, doesn’t see anything wrong with pushing the kids to win (and not just compete) in a domain that may or may not be of their liking. We’re all familiar how intense the competition is for board/IIT/medical exams at home; imagine its nerve-racking equivalent across the border called ‘Gaokao’ which decides the future of almost 1 crore participants. Same goes for sports – Chinese academies are well-known for pushing extremely young kids to their limits in everyday training. Even though the parents know the pain their kids endure every day, they also believe it could also be their only chance at a good life. So, no one bats an eyelid when Mahavir Singh Phogat subjects his daughters to a gruelling regimen as an instrument of his ambition, earning the title of being ‘swasthya ke liye hanikarak (dangerous for health)’ in return, from his own kids.
In both countries, the family takes precedence over the interests of the individual. The elders, especially the parents, command a certain respect. Their advice must be followed like an order, although things are changing very quickly with the modern influences. This behavior in the Chinese society is driven by the Confucian philosophy of ‘filial piety,’ wherein the young members are supposed to obey the parents and engage in behavior that brings a good name to the family. Transgressions are traditionally not looked upon favorably by society. There’s a moment in the film when Geeta Phogat (played by Fatima Sana Sheikh) confronts her father over his technique and is eventually proven right after a fight. Her younger sister sees this whole incident as a matter of respect for her father, as opposed to recognising that a national team coach is quite likely to know a better technique than a player who retired many years ago. Towards the end when she wins the gold medal following the instructions of her father all along, the Chinese audience also feels validated about their long-held beliefs about parents-children relationship.
Above everything else, both China and India are deeply patriarchal societies, with a clear preference for the male child. China’s sex ratio of 121 males per 100 females (2004 census) is much worse than that of Haryana (114 males per 100 females, 2011 census). While the one-child policy has clearly played a role in skewing the ratio, the wish for a male child pre-dates the controversial ruling. On my recent visit to the Capital Museum in Beijing, I discovered a piece of embroidered children’s clothing from the Qing dynasty expressing the wish for a quick arrival of a son. Even now the parents wish the newly-weds by saying ‘Zao Sheng Gui Zi’ meaning ‘hope you give birth to a son soon.’ Though China has a done a better job in female emancipation compared to India, the discrimination is still deeply rooted in the Chinese psyche, especially the older generation. So, when the young Chinese, especially the girls, see Geeta Phogat on the podium after a long, hard-fought battle against the prejudiced social norms, they see a bit of themselves in her and recognise the hardships their parents have experienced in the process.
Driven by this strong connection, the Chinese have continued to throng the 7,000 odd theatres across the country, making Dangal one of China’s highest-grossing films of all times. The viewers have given it a rating of 9.2/10 on Douban (a Chinese review site), with a whopping 67% users giving it full 5 stars, in spite of it being a Hindi/Haryanvi/Western UP dialect film with Chinese subtitles. Compare this with a Hollywood blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, released at the same time and barely managing 8.2/10, with only 35% giving it full 5 stars.
Though China has made great economic, technological and political strides, it often struggles with projecting soft power abroad. One of the country’s most famous directors — Zhang Yimou, recently noted that they need to make better films. His $150 million blockbuster ‘The Great Wall’ with Matt Damon in the lead role was a dud at the box office and was roasted by the viewers. The success of Dangal against this backdrop is a solid proof of our storytelling capabilities, and how we can use it to bridge the gaps between two countries, too large to be filled politically.
(The writer is an advertising professional, working, living and enjoying in China for the last 3 years. His Twitter handle is @nagendrasp)