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Connecting India and China through Cinema

2020-02-10 04:03:13 China Pictorial 2020年1期

by Madhurendra Jha

During a recent visit to Beijing to attend a symposium, my professor and I had a lot of fun explaining to a local cab driver who drove us from Nanluoguxiang to Deshengmen that not all Indians are vegetarians and many Indians consume alcoholic beverages, too. The cab driver found it difficult to change his long-held imagination of India fed to him by the popular media and bazaar gossip.

Our conversation with him reminded me of my conversations with a few of my Indian friends about what China looks like in their imaginations. The most interesting answer came from a friend who is a well-educated and well-travelled writer. “When I try to imagine China,” he said, “I see a big dust storm.” The two examples point toward the fact that there is a huge void between the people of India and China when it comes to understanding each other.

As a popular Chinese saying goes, “it is better to see once than to hear a hundred times.” Films, I would argue, are an excellent source for our peoples to see and hear each other in an intimate and relaxed atmosphere.

In the last few years, the Indian media and the Chinese media have been discussing the popularity Indian films have gained in China, such as 3 Idiots, PK, Dangal, Hindi Medium, Secret Superstar and Hichki, just to name a few, with Andhadhun being the latest addition. Not only have these films been commercially successful but also have drawn the attention of Chinese scholars who, through these films, have studied the Indian film industry and the various socio-political and cultural aspects in these films.

The enthusiasm with which Chinese audiences are consuming Indian films is not a new phenomenon. In October 1955, a weeklong Indian film festival was organized in China, during which three films including Awaara and Do Bigha Zameen were simultaneously screened across 20 cities in China.

Even earlier, in the 1930s, the film theatres of Shanghai screened the Indo-German co-production The Light of Asia and Nur Jehan, which was advertised as the first Indian film to be screened in China.

Now the cinematic connection between India and China, which began with these two films almost 90 years ago, is only getting more profound.

To say that films from Chinas mainland have not been coming to India is technically untrue. The popular Chinese film The WhiteHaired Girl was screened as a part of a film festival in India in 1952, and then again in 1977, at the Delhi Film Festival. One of the most renowned filmmakers in China, Xie Jin visited India in 1987 as he led a five-member Chinese delegation to attend the 11th India International Film Festival. Films from Chinas mainland including Blush, The King of Masks and The Old Barber have won the Golden Peacock Award for Best Film at the India International Film Festival.

My limited knowledge and experience, however, lead me to believe that because these films have been largely limited to film festivals, barely visible in a “theatre near you,” they have failed to capture the popular imagination of Indian audiences.

As a result, Indian audiences are mostly still limited to Chinese kung fu films starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, while remaining oblivious to the other genres of film from China which show the tears and laughter, as well as the failures and aspirations of the Chinese people. Hence the film Ash Is Purest White by one of the most important auteurs of China, Jia Zhangke, which was released in India on August 2, 2019, came and went without creating any buzz among the majority of Indian moviegoers.

Inadequate marketing is another factor to be blamed. Insufficient screens, of which the overwhelming majority are in very few major cities of India, indicate the intended audience was art-film enthusiasts, the same as that of film festivals.

After the Sino-Indian border conflict in 1962, in the popular imagination of Indian films and media, as well as in the minds of the common people consuming these, China became an “aggressive”nation, which translates into lack of trust for this neighbour.

For instance, in Haqeeqat, a 1964 war film directed by Chetan Anand, when the protagonist compares China to a “backstabbing friend” who India trusted, he is voicing the emotion of the majority of Indians and announcing the end of the Hindi-Cheeni Bhai-Bhai(literally, “Indians and Chinese are brothers”) era.

However, the constantly changing world order demands that Indians continuously move toward minimizing the negative effects of what I call the “Haqeeqat syndrome,” i.e. living with a constant distrust for China.

Considering the way China has been portrayed in Indias post-1962 films and media, the importance of Chinese films in helping Indians develop a better understanding of China looks even more pertinent.

Films can help both governments expedite this process. A good film has the power to transcend the barriers of differences, be they racial, linguistic or religious, and connect the audience with the characters on the screen at a human level.

“Aa wa la ooon!” I have met many Chinese people who can sing at least the first line of the title track of Awaara. They praise the film for shattering the idea of class.

I had the good fortune to witness the Chinese audiences reaction to Dangal when it premiered in Beijing and then again at the cinema hall of Peking University in April 2017.

The audience laughed, cried, and cheered with the characters and for the characters. At both venues, the audience continued to clap till the last of the end credits rolled. The showings I attended showed to full houses.

Having seen and screened Chinese films as a student and as a faculty member, I believe that an Indian audience will feel the melancholy of Spring in a Small Town; understand the way a new nation is being imagined in The Bridge; experience the vastness of China portrayed in The Yellow Earth; feel catharsis after watching the vicissitudes of the Xu family in To Live; empathize with the alienated youth in Platform; fall out of their chairs laughing while watching the journey of self-discovery of the protagonists in Lost in Thailand; see the vulnerability of Chinese leukaemia patients in Dying to Survive; and marvel at the sci-fi world depicted in The Wandering Earth.

When this happens, the discourse around China in India, which refuses to see it as anything other than a political entity, will also start moving toward seeing it as a cultural entity.

The “dust storm” (as my friend described the difficulty of understanding China) will start to settle and the ancient civilization and its people clouded by it thus far will begin to appear.

Both Chinese and Indian governments do understand this. Mechanisms to promote people-topeople communication are being established, with films being an integral part of this drive. The first meeting of the China-India High Level Mechanism on Cultural and People-to-People Exchanges in December 2018 and its second session in August 2019 saw both countries celebrating India-China Film Week in New Delhi and Beijing respectively to foster better connection and deepen the cultural understanding between the two nations. The presence of the BRICS film festival and the SCO film festival will only add strength to this effort.

However, much more needs to be done at a larger scale. Both governments can follow the model of the India Film Week held in China in October 1955. The Chinese embassy and consulates in India and the Indian central government in tandem with the state governments can organize Chinese film weeks in all major cities of India. Collaborations with universities, colleges and institutes, which have Chinese studies programs in those cities or nearby areas, can spread knowledge of the screenings and thus allow these films to reach deeper to common Indian moviegoers. This would facilitate a socio-political and cultural understanding of China. Simultaneously, Indian film weeks can be organized in China in similar fashion.

I believed such sustained efforts by the governments, in concert with the enterprising private players ready to tap the potential of the film market in India and China and in consultation with the academicians on both sides studying each other, will contribute to the task of filling up the Himalayan gap which exists between the people of the two countries.

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