Beijing resident Wenjing Zhang considered wearing her Being Human t-shirt, but then decided that it wouldn’t be appropriate. The evening was reserved for a different Khan.

It had taken a lot of juggling of class and work schedules, but Wenjing and half a dozen of her friends finally met at Donghuqu subway station in Beijing in early May for a show of Shuajiao Baba (Let’s Wrestle, Father), more popularly known in India as Dangal. On the way, they discussed whether the Aamir Khan wrestling drama would be as good as 3 Idiots, clicked a stack of pictures to post on Wechat, the Chinese version of Whatsapp, and joined other Chinese youth – mostly in their twenties and thirties – to watch what is China’s highest grossing non-Hollywood foreign movie.

Dangal was released on an estimated 9,000 screens in China on May 5 with English subtitles. (Some theatres have screened the Chinese dubbed version.) The attendance at cinemas, said official news agency Xinhua, has “exceeded that of Disney and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 released on the same day”. The Shanghaiist website added, “Grossing 776 million yuan ($112 million) in just two and a half weeks, Bollywood blockbuster Dangal has broken the record for the most successful non-Hollywood foreign film in Chinese history.”

With a box office haul of Rs 888.25 crore thus far, Dangal has emerged as the highest earning Indian production ever, overtaking Baahubali 2.

Nitesh Tiwari’s critically lauded film follows a father’s efforts to overcome prejudice and train his daughters into becoming wrestling champions. The movie is based on the lives of Mahavir Singh Phogat and two of his daughters, Geeta and Babita. Its themes of gender equality, women in sports, and the importance of elders in shaping the careers of their wards have resonated with Chinese viewers. “The ideas of breaking gender roles and reforming education inspired by the film have struck a chord with many Chinese parents,” stated a Xinhua report.

“I loved it so much,” 19-year-old Wenjing said. “I’m planning to see it again.”

That was a couple of weeks ago. Since then, she has watched Dangal five times. “I need to stop, I can’t afford it,” she told Scroll.in over Wechat. “It’s 50 yuan for each ticket!”

After a string of embarrassed emojis: “Okay, maybe just one more time.”

Wenjing’s friend Ajie Yang too has watched Dangal thrice. Even as the duo talk about how much they love “Uncle Khan”, as Aamir Khan is known in China, their favourite remains his rival. “No one can take Salman’s place,” Ajie said, raising the sleeve of her t-shirt to show a tattoo that says “Salman Khan” in Hindi.

She got it at a hole-in-the-wall parlour at her hometown in Jilin province, from a bemused artist. The 25-year-old film production company employee shrugged: “I told him I was a super-fan.”

While Ajie (left) and Wenjing request Indian friends who are visiting home to buy them fan merchandise, the tattoo on Aije’s arm is entirely made-in-China. Photo by Mithila Phadke.
While Ajie (left) and Wenjing request Indian friends who are visiting home to buy them fan merchandise, the tattoo on Aije’s arm is entirely made-in-China. Photo by Mithila Phadke.

Bollywood blockbusters have been steadily building up a dedicated following in China. The Hindi releases here include 3 Idiots (credited with breaking down “China’s Great Bollywood Wall”) and Dhoom: 3, both starring Aamir Khan. The popularity is divided into two kinds: fans of blockbusters, and clusters of young people whose keen interest in and dedication to Hindi cinema has helped popularise them in China through less apparent routes.

Ajie, Wenjing, and a bunch of their friends won’t be stopping at multiple viewings of Dangal and conducting feverish discussions online. Over the next few months, they will be painstakingly subtitling videos of the film for those who can’t make it to theatres. The titles include films that have not been released in China, which are then uploaded on social media platforms like Weibo.

Wanted, Lagaan, Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan…” Wenjing rattled off.

While most movies take about two months, translating and subtitling the Salman Khan starrer Sultan went on for five months. “It was very difficult to translate,” Aije said. “There were so many culture-specific phrases, we struggled to find the right words.” Sultan ended up being subtitled by two more groups of fans. Elsewhere in China, other youth methodically work away on films starring Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan.

“Our goal is to now do the subtitling work quicker – maybe in one month,” Wenjing said. They want to make sure their version is up there on Weibo before anyone else.

Another Aamir Khan movie was responsible for Wenjing’s fandom. It started in the classroom, where her high school chemistry teacher screened the Khan starrer 3 Idiots (2009).

“In China, 3 Idiots is a very popular movie,” Wenjing said. “Lots of schools and colleges have screened it for their students. I know kids who are in the first or second grade and have watched it.”

Wenjing’s teacher, Hou, who popularised 3 Idiots among his students, said he identified with the film’s criticism of rote learning and its emphasis on the importance of free thinking and imagination. “This film is important because it tells students that you need to be interested in learning rather than just your exam scores,” Hou said. “In modern times, the education system has been falling behind in the East. We need to change it and this film communicates that in an engaging way.”

Once their interest in Hindi cinema is piqued, students go on to watch other movies, and many of them work their way back to older productions. “I prefer the older style of Bollywood movies. Raj Kapoor and Nargis – that was the golden era,” Yuese Shi said. Those films had a “quiet beauty” as opposed to the new stunts-heavy fare, he added.

Yuese’s interest in Raj Kapoor’s socialist-themed cinema is logical, given that Awara had been as much a hit in China as in the former Soviet Union. Awara was among seven Indian movies released in China between 1955 and 1961, and the movie was re-released in the ’70s after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Hindi film songs are as popular, if not more, than the movies, just as they have been in the West Asian and European countries to which Hindi cinema has travelled since the ’50s. At local Chinese karaoke establishments, Hindi film songs and their translated lyrics often pop up on the screens.

For Zoe Weng, the Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja Aaja song from Disco Dancer (1982) is a favourite. “Years ago, there were shops that would play it, which is where I first heard it,” Weng said.

After Dangal, the Indian films scheduled to open in China include Baahubali 2: The Conclusion and the Salman Khan starrer Tubelight. The latter production has an immediate local connection in the form of Chinese singer and actress Zhu Zhu.

“There are so many Chinese people who have an interest in Indian cinema, and I wish more released here officially,” Ajie said. Until that happens, fans such as her are trying to fill the gap, one film at a time.