The next Salman Khan blockbuster Tubelight is set during the 1965 Sino-Indian War and features Khan as a simple-minded soul who vows to bring back his soldier brother being held as a prisoner of war. Kabir Khan’s June 23 release is an official remake of the Hollywood film Little Boy, which is replete with faith-based miracles. Since Tubelight is a Salman Khan film, we can be assured that his presence alone will be enough to move mountains.

Tubelight has a Chinese character as Khan’s love interest, played by Chinese actress Zhu Zhu. A few years ago, filmmakers would have blithely cast an Indian actress in the role and given her a fictional back story to justify her appearance. Anything is possible in an industry in which Priyanka Chopra has played Manipuri boxer Mary Kom and countless Indian actors have applied eye make-up and put on traditional Chinese clothes to pass themselves off as citizens of India’s large neighbour.

Tubelight (2017).

That is what happened in one of the earliest Indian films to be set in China. But what V Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946) lacks in authenticity, it makes up for with the nation-building spirit typical of the decade and the one that followed. The movie is based on the remarkable story of Dwarkanath Kotnis, the doctor from Maharashtra’s Sholapur town who travelled to China in 1938 as part of a medical mission during the Second Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945. Kotnis married a Chinese woman, Guo Qinglan, had a son with her, and was revered as a hero for his tireless efforts in healing villagers and soldiers. His local name was Ke Dihua.

Kotnis died on December 9, 1942, from a combination of overwork, poor nutrition and epilepsy. He was 32 years old. Communist Party of China head Mao Zedong mourned his passing (“The army has lost a helping hand, and the nation has lost a friend”). A tomb and a statue were built in the Martyrs Graveyard in Tang County, and two more mausoleums were later constructed in Shijiazhuang and Tang County. Chinese writers further memorialised the good doctor by publishing books about him.

In 2005, Guo wrote her own account of her husband’s singular journey. In My Life with Kotnis, translated by BR Deepak, Guo writes about seeing Kotnis for the first time at a function: “He was of moderate height and had those sparkling bright eyes on his brownish face that made an unforgettable impression on others… His sincere sympathy for the Chinese people and his anti-war resolve was so infectious that one and all were infected by it.”

Dwarkanath Kotnis. Image credit: Communist Party of China.

Shantaram based his account on the book And One Did Not Come Back by KA Abbas, the leftist writer and director. Shantaram was approached by Abbas and writer VP Sathe at Rajkamal Studios, which the filmmaker set up after breaking away from Prabahat Studios in 1942. “Shantaram heard the story and was captivated by the inherent and intense human drama,” Sanjit Narwekar writes in the biography V Shantaram: The Legacy of the Royal Lotus. “Making a biographical film was risky business, but then, Shantaram had never shirked from taking risks.”

The film was shot mostly in Mumbai, with sets representing the battlefield created at Rajkamal Studios. “The wife of the Chinese counsel was roped in to provide the expertise to recreate China…” Narwekar writes.

Shantaram plays Kotnis, an idealistic doctor who is stirred into action after hearing a speech by Jahawarlal Nehru that exhorts Indians to consider the suffering of the Chinese at the hands of Japanese invaders. “It is my moral duty to help a suffering country,” Kotnis tells his father, who has set up a dispensary for his son in the vain hope that he will practise medicine in Sholapur.

The moment of truth between father and son is an example of Shantaram’s visual inventiveness in elevating a routine conversation – it’s a single-take sequence, in which the inspirational speech is heard off camera.

The battlefield sequences, the Army camp locations and the romance that develops between Kotnis and the Chinese nurse Ching Lan might seem creaky and old-fashioned by current standards, but they do manage to sketch the broad contours of Kotnis’s experiences. All the Chinese characters are played by Indians with eye make-up, the most unconvincing being Jayashree as Ching Lan. She dresses like a man to escape detention by the Japanese army, and is hugged and backslapped by Kotnis before he realises the truth about his distinctly un-masculine comrade.

Jayashree in Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946).

Shantaram emphasises Kotnis’s selflessness, which endears him to the locals, but plays down Kotnis’s conversion to the Communist cause and places his zeal within the framework of Indian nationalism. As Kotnis sails on the Rajputana to China, he wears a ring encrusted with the flag of undivided India, which reminds him of his duties whenever he loses heart.

By 1942, Kotnis had become a member of the Chinese Communist party. Three of the five Indian doctors sent to China had returned by 1939, but Kotnis stayed on along with Bejoy Kumar Basu (he was a member of the Communist Party of India, and later returned safely). Guo reports Kotnis’s reply to Mao’s cable requesting him to return: “The cause of the War of Resistance led by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party is great; I have fallen in love with it and with the masses. I want to fight with you shoulder to shoulder in weal and woe. I will never leave this place!”

Commercial considerations might have contributed to Shantaram’s astute recasting of Kotnis as a true Indian making his country proud on foreign soil. “The Second World War showed no signs of abating even towards the end of 1944,” Narwkar writes in the biography. “It was getting increasingly difficult to make films since raw stock was at a premium. Only those films which ‘propagated the War Effort’ were being given raw stock permits. Shantaram was in a fix. He decided to send the script on Dr. Kotnis as a War Effort film and no one was more surprised than he when the script was passed and the raw stock permit issued.”

Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946).

The preference for authenticity in Tubelight seems to have been driven by similar market factors. China has been warming towards Indian films over the past few years, with the Aamir Khan starrer Dangal emerging not only as the most successful Indian export, but also a deal breaker in terms of box office returns ($185 million since its release on May 5 and holding strong).

Salman Khan too is popular among Chinese viewers, and with Tubelight, he might succeed too in making a case for Bollywood soft power in one of India’s closest geopolitical and economic rivals.

Casting Zhu Zhu is a sign of how far Indian filmmakers have come in their ambition to grow the overseas market. In Shakti Samanta’s crime thrillers Howrah Bridge (1958) and China Town (1962), Madan Puri plays Chang and Wong respectively. In China Town, stunt director Shetty is Ching Lee, a Chinese shoemaker. In the ultra-jingoistic Tahalka (1992), Amrish Puri plays Dong, the ruler of a fictitious kingdom that clearly represents China.

These characters are notorious examples of Bollywood’s version of the Hollywood phenomenon yellowface. The Chinese language too has often been reduced to sing-song gibberish. A movie as recent as Chandni Chowk to China (2009) has characters named Chopstick and Hojo. The egregious comedy also features Deepika Padukone as half Indian-half Chinese twins Sakhi and Suzy (the latter’s code name is Meow Meow).

Zhu Zhu and Salman Khan on the sets of Tubelight.

Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani is far removed from the slickness of recent productions, but its sincerity in promoting Sino-Indian unity cannot be doubted. The movie’s success prompted an English version, The Journey of Dr. Kotnis, which was distributed in England and the United States of America. A Chinese biopic on Kotnis’s life, Ke Di Hua Dai Fu (Dr DS Kotnis), was also made in 1982. A fresh Indian production that retraces Kotnis’s steps, this time using Chinese actors to play the Chinese parts, has the potential of becoming a crossover project in the spirit of PK and Dangal.