‘Secret Superstar’ Blazes New Trail for Indian Cinema in China

2018-01-18 12:21:11

Last year, a pair of wrestling sisters shattered Chinese box-office records with feel-good feminism, and this year, a small-town songstress is on a quest to win hearts and rewrite history.

On Friday, Bollywood’s latest offering, “Secret Superstar,” will premiere across China, becoming the first Indian movie to secure a box-office split in the country. In the past, filmmakers sold rights to domestic distributors for a flat fee.

The film reunites actors Aamir Khan and Zaira Wasim, who played father and daughter in last year’s wrestling drama “Dangal,” the highest-grossing Indian movie of all time in China — where it raked in nearly $200 million — and in the world. Khan also produced both films, along with his wife, Kiran Rao, and others.

Though the protagonist is a 15-year-old aspiring singer, “Secret Superstar” breaks from the stereotypical Bollywood fare peppered with song-and-dance sequences. Instead, it again brings social issues like gender equality and domestic violence to the fore, exploring the challenges the teenage heroine — played by Wasim — faces in her conservative family.

Such films have proven popular with Chinese audiences, who say domestic productions rarely wrestle with these topics, and “Secret Superstar” has already earned more than $6 million in ticket presales, and a remarkable score of 8.2 out of 10 on movie-rating website Douban.

“I found it very moving and relatable,” 21-year-old Lai Xiang told Sixth Tone. The keen Bollywood fan — who says he has watched more than 100 Hindi films — wrote in his Douban review that the plot resonated with him because of his own father’s temper.

At the Shanghai Film Art Center on Wednesday, hundreds of fans attended a preview, where 17-year-old Wasim appeared along with the movie’s director as part of a promotion tour. During the two-hour-plus screening, the audience alternately burst into laughter and sobs.

One viewer, Jian Lihua, a sales representative in Shanghai, said the movie was made for the heart rather than the mind. “I recently watched the Chinese movie ‘Forever Young,’ which was based on history, but ‘Secret Superstar’ has the ability to connect with people’s daily lives,” she said.

Gu Wancheng, a partner at Peacock Mountain Pictures, one of the production companies behind “Secret Superstar,” told Sixth Tone that it was initially difficult to bring Indian movies to China. In recent years, however, audiences have become more appreciative, she said, especially since the releases of Khan’s “3 Idiots” and “PK.”

“[Khan] has a good reputation in China now: He represents quality movies,” Gu said. “That makes it easier to bring and sell Bollywood movies to China.”

However, industry analysts say that Khan’s socially conscious films are the exception, not the rule.

“Aamir Khan’s films so far have sparked something in Chinese audiences, but in no way do I think most of those moviegoers are ready for ‘normal’ Bollywood fare,” China Film Insider’s Jonathan Papish told Sixth Tone. He predicted that “Secret Superstar” will do well, but was skeptical that it would match the success of “Dangal.”

“The stars have to align just right for any film to gross $200 million-plus in China,” Papish said. Even Hollywood blockbuster “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” flopped at the box-office this month, with Chinese viewers panning its protracted plot and uninspiring characters.

However, the revenue-sharing agreement that “Secret Superstar” snagged is “a game-changer for Bollywood,” Papish said. It is the first time that an Indian import has signed such an arrangement — an indicator that more screening slots could now be given to non-Hollywood films. China’s film import quota only allows 34 foreign movies to be screened annually, and most are American blockbusters.

In recent years, China and India have also forged official partnerships in coproducing movies. Three such films have been released since 2016, including last year’s Jackie Chan picture “Kung Fu Yoga.” During his 2016 Beijing visit, India’s then-president Pranab Mukherjee said the alliance could produce “useful instruments for creating positive perceptions” between the two countries — but so far, its offerings have seen lackluster performance in both India and China.

On the contrary, movies like “Dangal,” and “Secret Superstar” have been successful in selling Bollywood to an audience that has a different culture and language, but some shared social concerns. 

For 38-year-old Yang Liu, who brought her 10-year-old daughter to Wednesday’s screening, “Secret Superstar” was an emotional rollercoaster about issues that span national borders: domestic violence, a preference for male children, mother-daughter relationships, and — above all — pursuing one’s dreams.

“It made me think about the dynamics of relationships on so many levels,” Yang said. “Women are not the inferior gender, and they can fight for their rights and dreams. The movie highlights multiple issues that women face in India, China, and the rest of the world. It also shows that women have a choice — they just need to take that step.”

Contributions: Shi Yangkun; editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: Zaira Wasim (middle), the lead actress in ‘Secret Superstar,’ poses with the film’s director (left) and a singer at a promotional event in Shanghai, Jan. 17, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)