I recently met Julia, a young Chinese girl, at a dinner party in Singapore. Julia told me that she had an Indian boyfriend and that she had recently visited Mumbai along with him. She had come back impressed with India’s colors, culture, and cuisine. That was not surprising. But then she told me something that struck me strongly: “We Chinese know so little about India. We are so close to each other as neighbors but we know so little about each other’s culture.”
Quite true, I thought. India and China may be trading partners, but culturally we know next to nothing about each other. I wondered if this gap could be bridged through cinema.
The Days of Awara and Caravan
I asked this question to Pallavi Aiyar, who has spent more than six years in China writing for the Hindu and the Indian Express. She was, at a time, the only Chinese-speaking Indian foreign correspondent based in China. Now based in Belgium, Aiyar has also served as advisor to the Confederation of Indian Industry on China-related issues.
In her book, Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, Aiyar provides an account of her life in China. Before going there, she knew that Raj Kapoor’s films, especially Awara (1951), were well-known in many parts of the world, from Russia to Peru. But she didn’t know that the Chinese too loved that film and people of an older generation still remembered it. When I met her at a literary soiree in Singapore in July, she told me that even now some Chinese people knew “Abala Hoon” (“Awara Hoon,” the film’s title song) by heart.
“Film imports have always been controlled in China,” Aiyar explained. “In those days, Awara was perhaps considered socialist enough to be allowed a release in China.” The film was seen widely from the late 1950s till the late 1970s.
Another film that has stayed fresh in the memory of the Chinese people is the Jeetendra-Asha Parekh starrer, Caravan (1971). According to Aiyar, Caravan was shown in China only in the 1980s, after the end of the Cultural Revolution. People still have VHS copies of the film, she said.
But after Caravan, no Hindi film was released in China in the last century. After a gap of nearly three decades, Aamir Khan’s Lagaan became the first Indian movie to be released in China in 2002. At its release, Joe Zhang, an official from the Columbia Tri Star Film Distributors International said, “Continuing with its international success and now reaching here, Lagaan brings us a great chance to break the wrong idea that ‘good movies are the American ones.’”
Despite these films, the Chinese don’t know much about Indians. According to Aiyar, the Chinese think that India is a very crowded country (which it is) and all Indian women can sing and dance like Bollywood heroines (which they surely can’t)! She told me how she often gets requests from ordinary Chinese people to perform similar dances for them.
Hunger for India’s culture
Clearly, there is a hunger for Indian culture, including its song and dance, among the Chinese people. Perhaps they find Indian classical dance and music closer to their own cultural traditions like Chinese music and opera. Indian yoga is already a big hit in China.
I had a first-hand experience of this hunger for Indian cultural traditions when I used to help out at the India China Trade Centre (ICTC) around 2003-2004. Many musical troupes wanted to go to China and perform there but from the Chinese side, the demand would always be for those groups that could perform Indian classical singing and dancing.
If you turn the equation around, what kind of perception do Indians have of China and the Chinese? The most common perceptions are that China is a socialist country with an authoritarian regime, that China is the factory of the world and that it is way ahead of India in terms of infrastructure. Even the Indian Prime Minister talks about turning a city like Mumbai, not into London or New York or Tokyo, but into Shanghai. “Chinese cities have become sort of benchmarks for us now,” said Aiyar.
To a great extent, the assumptions that Indians have about China are correct, perhaps because of India’s free media and the culture of debate and discussion that prevails in most parts of India. But how much do Indians know about the Chinese people and their culture?
Aiyar sees a difference between how Indians and Westerners see China. For example, when a Westerner arrives in a city like Shanghai or Beijing, he is appalled by the unruly traffic on the road or the behavior of the Chinese drivers. When an Indian arrives, he is all praise for the Chinese drivers and their respect for traffic rules. Obviously, Indians see Chinese citizens as better behaved than Western visitors do. Aiyar herself finds much to admire in China, like the fact that low level workers in China, unlike their Indian counterparts, at least get to wear gloves while carrying out menial tasks such as carrying refuse or cleaning toilets. “That glove, a barrier between the dirt and the worker’s body, provides him with a modicum of dignity,” she says.
In terms of cinema, perhaps a section of Indians might be familiar with Chinese stars such as Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat because of their action thrillers such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but beyond that, Indians know very little either of Chinese cinema or its other arts. Clearly, there is a great wall of cultural ignorance between the two countries.
When a film like Chandni Chowk to China (2009), Warner Brothers’ first Bollywood film, tried to cross over this great wall, it fell flat at the box office. So what is the way forward?
Slumdog Millionaire replaces Awara
Unfortunately, the current generation of Chinese youth is not interested in Indian films unlike the older generations. According to Aiyar, the young dig international cinema (particularly Hollywood and Korean films) and they approach Bollywood as exotica, as most in the West would do. The current generation of Chinese youth knows India more by Slumdog Millionaire than by Awara. In a situation like this, there clearly is a case for the Indian and Chinese governments to encourage each other’s films in their respective markets in a mood of cooperation and friendship.
Take the example of Singapore and China. In July 2010, the two countries signed nine agreements paving the way for industry collaborations ranging from financing, pre-production, production to distribution and marketing.
When a small country like Singapore can take steps in this direction, why can’t India?
And it’s not just the governments that ought to do something, although Indian ministers do have a duty to do more than just tweet or appear on TV. Trade bodies like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the ICTC can also pitch in and bring the film companies together to co-produce or get TV channels to share some television content. For the two countries to come closer, the youth of both countries have to become aware of each other’s cultures. One way to do this is through the exchange of students and cultural groups between the two countries on a large scale, to facilitate more interaction.
China maybe the factory of the world but India has a vibrant cultural scene, and for once, at least, China can be a net importer rather than an exporter in this arena. Knowing about each other will help India and China in the long run. If familiarity breeds contempt, ignorance breeds suspicion. In the case of India and China, I think a healthy contempt is better than layers of dangerous suspicion and mistrust.
This article was published in September 2010 issue of Khabar, Atlanta.