India may not be a part of China’s megabucks baby, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But it does find itself ensconced in the prestigious Beijing International Film Festival, scheduled between April 13 and 20. The popular film fest, organised by the Beijing municipality, has selected for screening Indian movies in the “Belt and Road” category. The films include Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar), Love per Square Foot, the thriller Ittefaq, the Rohena Gera-directed 2018 film, Sir, and, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s Zero.
Ray’s Pather Panchali offers a snug metaphor for the occasion: The title’s translation is Song of the Road. Shah Rukh Khan’s popularity across multiple countries has also ensured that not only do Indian films make sound economic sense in foreign markets, it is a low to no-risk diplomatic manoeuvre as well. Aamir Khan has been an immense crowd-puller in China, especially post-Dangal, which also did excellent business there. The legacy of such soft power can be traced to the 1950s, when Indian cinema was popular in the Soviet Union. Reportedly, close to 800 prints each of Dev Anand’s Rahi and Raj Kapoor’s Awara were released in all the languages of the 15 Soviet republics at the time. Whether it is Amitabh Bachchan in Egypt — he launched the three-week India By the Nile festival hosted by the Indian Embassy in Cairo in 2015 —- SRK in Germany or the stars of yesteryear in Russia, India has been a constant fixture globally when it comes to its cinema.
From a Nehruvian era when the marker of soft power seemed to be cinema, the emphasis has shifted to yoga and Buddhism. As India gingerly navigates relations with China at multiple fora, even beyond the BRI conundrum, perhaps, it is time to reinforce its soft-power arsenal with what has stood it in good stead always: The movies.