Watching the same movie six times, traveling to attend promotional events and learning a new language are among the things Zhao Jiacheng has done to get close to his favorite film star.
Film star Aamir Khan is changing what China thinks of India
But instead of local celebrities or Hollywood superstars, Zhao has become an ardent fan of Indian actor and filmmaker Aamir Khan.
To the 22-year-old, apart from superb acting skills, Khan’s social conscience and activism are his most appealing qualities.
“India is lucky to have Aamir Khan. Not every country has personalities like him who are influential and unafraid of the rich and powerful,” says Zhao.
He is just one of the many Khan’s fans in China. It is difficult to put a number on how many he has: but Khan’s official account on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, has more than one million followers.
His five movies have made an approximate $348 million in China. The nation is the world’s second-biggest box office, and it’s set to overtake the US this year.
Idiots in China
Khan first made his name known in the country with the 2009 movie Three Idiots, which raises questions about the Indian education system.
“Three Idiots became popular in China, I believe, through pirated websites, because it was not released there [at first]. A lot of young people watched the film and it went wild,” Khan told reporters. “I think the entire credit of that goes to the Chinese audience, because they had seen my films and they have embraced my work even before I knew that my films were popular in China.”
Khan’s biggest success came last year, when Dangal, a tale about a retired wrestler who trains his daughters to become international champions, hit screens in China.
The movie grossed about $200 million and was rated the best foreign film of the year on Douban, a film review site similar to IMDB. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping counted himself as a fan.
Calling him “Uncle Mi,” Chinese fans have been impressed by how Khan uses his movies to address a plethora of social issues in India, such as gender inequality, the education system and superstition.
Movies critical of Chinese society exist, but most of them are indie, arthouse films.
“In the past years, there have mainly been a few types of films shown in mainland China: Hollywood blockbusters, patriotic movies and adaptations from classics,” says Enoch Tam, a film scholar with Hong Kong Baptist University.
Tam thinks that Aamir Khan’s success in China shows that there is a huge demand for mainstream movies discussing social issues, and suggests that some Chinese moviemakers may follow in Khan’s footsteps.
Reintroducing Indian movies
Even though Khan has been humble about his success in China, observers credit Khan as the key figure who reintroduced Indian films to Chinese audiences.
“Indian movies in China have a very long history,” says Indian journalist Pallavi Aiyar, who worked in China from 2000 to 2009. “For the demographics in their 50s-70s in mainland China, Indian movies were the staples they grew up on.”
After 1966 Cultural Revolution, all foreign movies, except a small number of films produced by other socialist countries, were forbidden in China. The ban was only lifted after the revolution ended in 1976, and Indian movies were among the first to be allowed in the country.
Indian movies such as Awaara and Do Bigha Zamin were re-screened in mainland China two decades after they were released in India, but that didn’t stop them from becoming classics.
“After the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, there was a major swing towards Western movies, then Korean movies. Now we are seeing the pendulum swing back to Indian movies with Aamir Khan,” Aiyar said.
Many Chinese people see India as a dangerous, inferior country which lags behind China in economic development. According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2016, only 26% of Chinese respondents held a favorable view of India.
China and India have not enjoyed close relations, as China has been a close ally of India’s arch-enemy Pakistan. Things were even rockier last year, as a border dispute at the Doklam Plateau led to a 73-day standoff between Chinese and Indian troops.
Aiyar thinks that Khan’s movies help break down the stereotypes surrounding India and Indians by reminding the Chinese audience that the two countries are “in a similar point in development and face similar social issues.”
Some fans have moved beyond Aamir Khan’s movies. Many of them mentioned during interviews with Inkstone the star’s talk show “Truth Alone Triumphs,” which discusses serious issues like abortions of female babies and the caste system in India.
Khan fan Zhao Jiacheng says that after following Khan’s work, he has a better understanding of India. “Apart from movies, I have been paying more attention to the local culture of India,” Zhao says. “I think that India and China are facing similar issues like gender inequality, and discrimination against the disabled and homosexuals.”
Khan has said that creative people bring those from different cultures together – and he’s accomplished just that with his movies.