Screaming fans surged toward actor Shah Rukh Khan as he stepped out from the arrivals gate at Beijing Capital International Airport.
One fan who had traveled from faraway Xinjiang placed a dark embroidered hat common to China’s Uighur ethnic minority on his head, as others embraced and kissed him. Another fan gave him a dutar, a traditional Central Asian lute that she’d flown all the way from the region.
“Sha Sha!” they cried, using his Chinese nickname.
The Bollywood superstar had arrived in Beijing for the city’s international film festival, which ran April 13-20. His latest film, “Zero,” closed the festival, and he spoke at a panel on Indian and Chinese producers making movies together.
Indian films have recently risen in popularity in China, and apolitical productions focused on romance or social themes that China and India share especially may have found a profitable niche. In 2017, “Dangal,” a film about a father who overcomes patriarchal norms to train daughters as professional wrestlers, winning glory for India in the process, became a surprise smash hit in China. It grossed $193 million at the Chinese box office, 16 times more than the $12 million it made in India.
Last year, “Secret Superstar,” a musical drama about a young girl who dons a niqab to sing on YouTube in defiance of her abusive father, made $104 million in China, in contrast to its $11.9 million at home. Last year’s education-themed “Hindi Medium” made $34 million in China. “3 Idiots,” another education-themed film released in 2009, became a cult classic in China.
Bollywood hasn’t caught up to Hollywood. The top 50 highest-grossing films in Chinese history are all from China, Hong Kong, or the United States, with the exception of “Dangal,” which ranks as No. 36.
The “Fast & Furious” series is the most popular U.S. production, with two recent releases making $397 million and $361 million in China, while “Avengers: Infinity War” ranked at No. 11 with $356 million, according to the entertainment research company EntGroup.
But Hollywood stars were notably absent at the Beijing International Film Festival. The state-run festival’s organizers promoted movies celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, and opened the festival with a Sino-Kazakh coproduction, created under the auspices of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road development initiative.
A Canadian film was disinvited from the festival because of “political problems,” in the organizers’ words, as Sino-Canadian relations have grown strained over the arrest in Canada of Chinese tech giant Huawei’s chief financial officer and Chinese authorities’ detention of several Canadians in China.
India and China have their own geopolitical problems. India objects to Chinese investment in its rival, Pakistan, including the construction of an economic corridor through disputed territories.
China has also repeatedly blocked United Nations proposals to put Masood Azhar, head of a Pakistani extremist group that’s carried out deadly attacks in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, on an international terrorist list.
Meanwhile, China’s mass internment of Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang in the name of “counter-extremism” has drawn international condemnation.
During an interview with state channel CGTN, Khan said he didn’t know he had so many fans in China, especially from Xinjiang.
“Thank you everyone from Xinjiang for much love, so many hugs and so many kisses,” he said.
At the only public screening of “Zero” during the festival — in a large Beijing mall on April 20 — some of the Khan fans who showed up were Uighur students who’d bonded over their mutual love of Bollywood while studying in Beijing.
“All people in Xinjiang are his fans. Our generation, we grew up from childhood watching these movies,” said a 23-year-old Uighur from Kashgar who asked to go by his online name, Aire.
As a kid, he’d binge-watched pirated Bollywood DVDs dubbed in Uighur. At weddings, they’d play a mixture of Uighur and Hindi songs.
Many of Khan’s Uighur fans didn’t want to comment on politics. But they had seen Khan’s TV interview.
“He kept saying, ‘Xinjiang,’ ” Aire said. “So he’s remembered us.”
Other fans of Indian cinema included Qiao, a 30-year-old civil servant from Shandong who is Han Chinese and works in Beijing. Qiao, who declined to give her full name for privacy reasons, said she liked how different Indian films were from Hollywood ones.
“Asian films don’t have to conform to the West. We want to have agency over how we present ourselves, not to just display what you want to see from us,” she said.
Arun Gupta, a professor at India’s National Institute of Design who’s taught cinema classes in China, said it makes sense that Xinjiang and Tibet are Bollywood fan bases. China’s western regions were once hubs of easy movement and rich cultural exchange, he said.
Gupta said that Chinese audiences embrace Indian films with familiar themes: women’s issues, family drama, education, a rural-urban gap.
“Chinese audiences find an echo of their own social issues in Hindi cinema. And it’s done in an entertaining manner,” he said. “Hollywood talks about a world which is not familiar.”
Indian films are also already censored, so they typically don’t need additional Chinese censorship, he said — though Chinese authorities once blocked him from screening “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” a feminist Indian film, at a festival in Hainan.
Since “Dangal’s” success, attempts at Indian and Chinese coproduction have struggled to please both audiences. One example is “Kung Fu Yoga,” starring Jackie Chan, which did well at the Chinese box office but flopped in India.
Foreign filmmakers want to coproduce with Chinese companies because they can bypass the country’s quota of 34 foreign films screened each year and get a higher percentage of the revenue. But many have fallen into a trap of making films aimed mainly at Chinese audiences, which fail to resonate with viewers abroad.
Stanley Rosen, a Chinese film specialist at USC, listed a number of examples: “Lost in Thailand,” “Wolf Warrior 2,” “Operation Red Sea,” set respectively in Thailand, Africa and the Middle East, all films where Chinese characters are protagonists, while foreign ones are underdeveloped and stereotyped.
Cultural familiarity doesn’t guarantee a movie’s success, Rosen said, pointing to record ticket sales of “Avengers: Endgame” in China, despite the film’s lack of Chinese themes.
“You have to have a good film. Hollywood or anyone else — the film has to be good,” Rosen said.
At last week’s screening of “Zero,” Chinese fans complained that the best part had been cut. They’d been watching previews of Khan’s song and dance scenes online for months, only to find that Chinese censors shortened most of the musical scenes.
But shortening musical scenes in Indian films is common in Chinese censorship, said Prasad Shetty, a producer who’s promoted Indian films in China.
It’s not that the music is politically sensitive, Shetty said, it’s that insiders in China just think Indian films are too long, and the songs are an easy part to cut.
“As industry people, we are so skewed and biased. We assume we are leaders and we understand the audience,” he said. “Nobody understands the audience, especially when the audience is so huge.”