Indian Action Heroes in China

A scene from Bahubali: The Conclusion
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Since Dangal’s success, the makers of Bahubali have been itching to release their film in China

SINCE ITS RELEASE, the magnum opus that is Bahubali: The Conclusion has been swallowing up film markets like none other. In its muscular embrace, it has left a trail of shattered records and crushed competitors. At a time when most of its Bollywood contemporaries remain besotted with the Rs 100-crore mark, Bahubali crossed the global box office threshold of Rs 1,725 crore, according to Forbes, by June 21st, although some reports show collections crossing Rs 1,760 crore.

At some point, however, the Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal sneaked in. Dangal is still behind Bahubali in the Indian market and has so far made an estimated Rs 374 crore as compared to the latter’s estimated Rs 510 crore (the two are now India’s top grossing films of all time). But with both the Indian and international markets taken into consideration, the wrestling drama has done staggeringly well—even beyond the figure of Rs 2,000 crore. The reason is that the film had an unprecedented run in a market rarely taken into account for Bollywood films: China. Dangal opened across 9,000 theatres there and grossed over Rs 1,235 crore, more than any Indian film has ever done back home. The film beat not just local-cinema competitors, but also Hollywood blockbusters such as The Fate of the Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

There were reports about how young Chinese viewers were watching Dangal more than once, how a fan following had begun to grow for Indian film stars, and even on how Aamir Khan had emerged as China’s favourite Indian actor. He is affectionately referred to as ‘Uncle Khan’ there.

The Chinese film market is exceptionally large, second to only the US in the world. And Hollywood studios have been wooing this market for years, sprinkling their films with Chinese- origin actors and tailoring content in ways as to not offend the Chinese government or audience. For instance, in the Benedict Cumberbatch-starrer Doctor Who, Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One, a character who is Tibetan in the Marvel universe.

Indian films haven’t made much of a wave in China in the past. The success of Dangal has shown that there is a shared culture between the two Asian countries: a similar value system and an importance accorded to familial bonds, which makes Indian films cut deeper than those of Hollywood.

Since Dangal’s success, the makers of Bahubali have been itching to release their film in China. The country’s enduring love for epics and special effects-heavy films would help make this action fantasy film a big success there as well. There were reports that the film would be re-dubbed and re-edited for a Chinese release. Its backers told reporters that they would release the film sometime in July. It was released in Taiwan in June, where it continues to do well, its producers say, hoping that the island nation would serve as a testing ground before the film’s release in mainland China. But July is over. And the release is still pending. What gives?

Breaking into this new and volatile market for Indian films— as the makers of Bahubali are beginning to realise—can be tricky. The release of the film has been stalled because of the current diplomatic standoff between India and China. “It might be delayed looking at the Indo-China relations at this juncture. We are waiting to have a detailed meeting with our local distributors [in China]. At this point, we will wait till mid next month. Then we will get some clarity,” says Kishore Kedari, head of business development and trans-media marketing of Arka Mediaworks, the production house behind the Bahubali franchise.

Kedari claims Arka Mediaworks would like to release the film as soon as possible and insists the decision has not been forced upon it by the Indian or Chinese government and that the Chinese market, given how well Dangal performed, is likely to respond well to another quality Indian film. “The value of the content depends on its freshness. However early we release the film in [that] territory, the [more] advantage there is. [But] looking at the relations, our Chinese distributor has confirmed it might be delayed,” says Kedari.

The release window for the film in China, he says, had yet to be confirmed. And there were other issues such as the delayed work on a new cut for a China release. “Now,” he says, “it might be further delayed because of this [standoff].”

The first Bahubali film was released in China in 2015. Back then, the film opened on around 6,000 screens. Bahubali: The Beginning didn’t do as well as expected, according to Kedari, because it suffered from piracy issues and also faced competition from several large local films. “[But] this time, it is going to be after Dangal . There is more anticipation for Indian films. And this is also a quality Indian film.” Not only is the film’s release delayed for now, but the production house, given the impasse in the Himalayas, has little clue about when it can even expect to start preparations for its China release. “Even we don’t have confirmed clarity on the [exact] reasons,” Kedari says.