‘Great Father. Great Nation’: A first-person account of watching ‘Dangal’ in China

Sudheendra Kulkarni

Beijing has earned a permanent place in the annals of the international women’s movement. Twenty-two years ago, it hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women, the biggest ever United Nations summit on women, with over 30,000 people from 189 countries participating. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995, still remains the most comprehensive policy agenda for the empowerment of women worldwide.

Yet, as Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the South African head of UN Women, has noted in her introduction to a recent review of the Beijing Platform for Action, “No country has achieved equality for women and girls and significant levels of inequality between women and men persist…[g]ender equality is not only a goal in itself, but a means for achieving all other goals on the global agenda. Today, more than ever, urgent and sustained action is needed to transform the structures, institutions and norms – economic, political and social – that are holding back progress on gender equality.”

There is, of course, no linear relationship between good cinema and the lofty ideals expressed in UN declarations. Nevertheless, both artistic creativity and UN activism are often inspired and stimulated by worldwide social movements and discourses. Aamir Khan’s latest blockbuster film Dangal is a case in point. He and Nitesh Tiwari, the film’s director, may or may not have known about the Beijing Declaration. But there is little doubt they were influenced by the concerns and demands of the movement for women’s empowerment, which found a concentrated expression in the landmark UN call to action in Beijing.

I do not know why, but I thought of the UN summit on women when I went to see Dangal in the Chinese capital last month. (I had gone there to participate, as an unofficial Indian delegate, in the Belt and Road conference hosted by President Xi Jinping.) This may be because China is where one of the best films ever made on the theme of women’s empowerment has gained unprecedented popularity. It has grossed the highest box-office earnings for a foreign film ─ over Rs 1,000 crore, more than in India. Aamir Khan, the film’s hero and also producer, was already very famous in China with his previous movies 3 Idiots and PK. With Dangal, he has become a superstar, admired more than any Hollywood star.

Dangal has won praise from none other than Xi Jinping himself. He told Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Kazakhstan, that he absolutely enjoyed watching it. He has also expressed the hope that more such good Indian movies are screened in China. Those jingoistic Indians who have slandered Aamir Khan as an “anti-national” and who think China is our enemy should ask themselves: Why are Chinese, from politicians to plebeians, so receptive to India’s soft power?

I had watched the movie in India soon after its release in December last, concluding, like millions of his admirers, that Aamir Khan is a rare Bollywood star whose films are always off the beaten track, entertaining and yet highly educative, short on masala but strong on social message. But my curiosity was spurred by three questions. What do Chinese, especially young Chinese, think of India? How do they respond to the call for women’s empowerment? And why has Aamir Khan achieved the kind of popularity in China that Raj Kapoor did in the 1950s? (Even today, many Chinese of the older generation sing Awara Hoon whenever they meet an Indian.)

On a Sunday afternoon, as I concluded a meeting at Peking University and proceeded to a nearby theatre showing Dangal, something interesting happened. A young street vendor selling souvenirs greeted me with a question: “Yindu? Indian?” When I said, “Yes,” a big smile blossomed on his face. “Aamir Khan. Good, very good!” he exclaimed, in his inadequate English. It was my first touch with the wave Dangal had begun making in China.

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The movie ticket cost 70 yuan (about Rs 700). The hall was getting rapidly filled up, mostly by young Chinese, girls outnumbering boys. Eager to start a conversation on the film, I asked some of them if they knew English. “Very little,” was the courteous answer. With only one seat empty (next to mine) in the entire hall, and with the movie about to begin, my disappointment was almost complete – what’s the point in watching Dangal in China if I don’t get to speak to the Chinese about it? Just then, a young woman came and sat next to me. She spoke excellent English. “I am a fan of Aamir Khan. I enjoyed 3 Idiots and PK. I am eager to see how his new movie is.” She introduced herself with her nickname Yuxin.

To my surprise, the movie was not dubbed in Chinese, it only had subtitles. I wondered: “Will this help Chinese audiences understand the text and context of Dangal, in which dialogues matter a lot?” My doubts were soon belied. The viewers were totally engrossed, responding with loud “Aahs”, “Oohs” and laughs at all the right scenes in the movie.

Their exclamations were especially supportive whenever Aamir Khan exhorted his daughters not to give up in their resolve to become champion wrestlers. As the film reached its crescendo, they were cheering for the victory of Geeta Phogat (played brilliantly by Fatima Sana Shaikh) over her Australian rival with as much enthusiasm as Indian viewers had done here. The triumphant display of the Indian tricolor and the singing of the Indian national anthem in the film – the reason for the Pakistani government’s ban on it – made no difference to the Chinese youth, who gave it a standing ovation before exiting the hall.

I turned to Yuxin and asked, “What did you think of the film?”

I had tears of joy when she replied, after a long pause: “Great Father. Great Nation.”

“Which scene did you like the most?

Yuxin: “What Aamir Khan, the father, tells his daughter before the final fight, ‘When you win, you will not be the only winner. You will win this gold medal for all the women of India.’”

She added, pertinently: “Like 3 Idiots, this film also encourages people to have the courage to find their own true nature. People should develop the boldness to decide whether to listen to society or to their own inner voice.”

I embraced Yuxin and said, “I would like to talk to you more about the film.” We stepped into a nearby cafe, and the conversation made me understand much more than a Chinese woman’s opinion about Dangal – it gave me an insight into the mind of a representative of a highly enlightened, and spiritually searching, section of Chinese society.

Like many Chinese, Yuxin is an avid explorer, and practitioner, of the Buddha’s teachings. She gave up her previous vocation as a social entrepreneur to start a bold new endeavour – teaching school and college teachers about the true meaning of education.

“Why education?”

“Because education in the real sense of the term touches the soul. All social problems in the world, be it in India, China or anywhere else, are because of the pollution of the soul.”

Yuxin is organising a reading club to encourage people who want to contribute to our society to first change themselves, and put what Mahatma Gandhi said into practice – “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Yuxin then drew an interesting parallel between Dangal and Buddha’s teachings. “There is a scene in the film when Aamir Khan tells his daughter, ‘As your father I can only teach you, but I cannot save you every time.’ The Buddha is also our father, our teacher. He teaches us how to live in a right way, but he cannot save us. We should make our own efforts to save ourselves, and to purify our soul. In my view, not only the Buddha is our father, but also Confucius, Lao Tzu and all the wise men all over the world who try to awaken sleeping people to realise the truth and realise their true selves are our fathers.”

According to Yuxin, the reason behind Dangal’s success is that in China Aamir Khan is called “the conscience of India”. And conscience, she said, “will have echoes all over the world, no matter the differences in skin color, nationality, gender, etc. For conscience is our true nature, and the movie has touched our true nature”.

In his recent book The Souls of China – The Return of Religion After Mao, Ian Johnson, a Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times correspondent, tells us that there is an “explosion of faith” in today’s materialistic China. People are trying to find out “What it means to be Chinese, and how to live an ethical life in a country that discarded traditional morality and is still searching for new guideposts”. Significantly, he writes, “Xi Jinping has put a return to morality and Chinese tradition at the heart of his ideas for his country.”

Dangal, set in rural Haryana, has succeeded in crossing the barriers of nationality and language, and in speaking to the hearts and minds of Chinese, especially young Chinese, principally because of the universality of its message: “Discard traditional morality, and search for new guideposts.”

The author, who was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is chairman of the Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. He tweets at @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com.