Secret Superstar, an inspirational drama that features Aamir Khan, has crossed $100M in China after three weeks in release. Last year, the Khan-fronted Dangal grossed over $193M in the Middle Kingdom to make it the most successful Hindi movie ever in the market.
The Advait Chandan-helmed Superstar, now at about $112M, carries on the tradition of Aamir Khan’s success in the PROC which began with 2009’s 3 Idiots. His other films then found great favor including PK and Dangal.
The top 3 Bollywood stars internationally are Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan (no relation). But so far only Aamir has made a big dent at Chinese turnstiles. On deck will be a test for Salman Khan whose 2015 Bajrangi Bhaijaan releases on 8,000 screens on March 2. This is two and a half years after it became a worldwide hit with approximately $94.5M in global box office. It is the No. 5 release ever in India.
Folks will be watching how Bajrangi performs in China, particularly as it’s Salman’s first film to be distributed there. Says a source on the ground, “I think Bajrangi Bhaijaan will face many challenges. Many movies including local comedy Girls 2 will open on the same day.” However, weeks before release, it’s already got an 8.6 score on local reviews site Douban.
The inspirational and emotional elements that are seen in both Dangal and Secret Superstar are to some degree present in Bajrangi. The film is about a devout Indian man who helps a mute Pakistani girl return home after she is separated from her family. Movies about individuals succeeding against long odds and the importance of family relationships resonate well in China.
Box office analyst Gitesh Pandya says, “Most of the recent success for Hindi films in China has been from films associated with Aamir Khan who has grown a large fan following there. His films have done monster business in China and have outgrossed many big-budget Hollywood tentpoles.” Dangal’s score from 2017 is more than four times what Star Wars: The Last Jedi made, for example.
Superstar has recently been adding about $2M+ a day. It won the past two frames, returning to the No. 1 spot after having opened to $28M in mid-January. On its 2nd weekend, it came in just below new entry Maze Runner: The Death Cure (and even topped that movie on the latter’s first Sunday). This session, it also led the box office in what was a quiet frame as the Middle Kingdom looks ahead to the Lunar New Year holiday with a spate of new local movies entering the picture.
China and India have had their differences historically over border disputes and it’s wondered if overall box office success can influence India’s soft power in the PROC. USC professor Stanley Rosen who specializes in China says, “Aamir Khan’s popularity in China is subject to the same constraints as the South Korean actors discovered when China wanted to punish South Korea over the THAAD missile issue. If the border boundary dispute heats up, the Chinese government will not approve any Indian films for China. Politics will always come first and the import of films is a carrot China is offering to India. But it can be withdrawn at any time, depending on the overall relationship. Aamir Khan’s popularity is useful for both countries but it cannot override the larger issues in the relationship.”
Still, the Chinese government also likes when a revenue share film from elsewhere makes hay, says Rosen, as it breaks through the Hollywood monopoly.
Eros International Media will release Bajrangi Bhaijaan in association with China’s E Stars Films and Salman Khan Ventures. Eros’ Group CEO Jyoti Deshpande noted that Bhajrangi “weaves the universal story of cross-border friendship.” E Stars Films CEO Allen Liu added, “There is high expectation and curiosity for the film post the success of recent Indian releases in China and the positive word of mouth Bajrangi Bhaijaan enjoys. We anticipate tremendous potential in this beautiful drama starring one of the most popular actors in Indian cinema in a film that speaks the language of emotions like courage and hope which are universal.”
This is the first of the film associations Eros is exploring in China. The company and Bajrangi director Kabir Khan are teaming for a travel drama, The Zookeeper, which will be shot in Hindi and Mandarin.
Part of what helped propel Secret Superstar to the $100M mark was its proximity to Dangal which also featured Zaira Wasim, the young lead of Secret Superstar. There are also similar themes of breaking free of societal shackles to succeed against heavy odds — Dangal was about a father training his two daughters to be champion wrestlers while Secret Superstar sees a girl buck up against tradition to pursue her dream of becoming a singer.
Rosen notes that because Superstar, which touches on social inequality and domestic violence, is about a country competing with China, “perhaps that might make it of interest when viewers compare India and China issues of inequality and gender. It’s of course easier to get films that show the negative aspects of society in a country like India past the censors than it would be if the film was about domestic violence and inequalities in China. It makes China look good by comparison.”
Secret Superstar has been propelled by good word of mouth and high scores with 8.2 on Douban and 9.6 on Maoyan. The film’s outsize China gross dwarfs its take elsewhere with $12.5M in India and just under $8M in the rest of the world.
Chinese icon Jackie Chan tried the reverse last year with Kungfu Yoga which was a breakout during the Lunar New Year, grossing $255M in China. But it was heavily criticized in India for trivializing the culture and was less successful compared to its China performance.