Readers Write In #110: Why sending action movies like War to China is a bad idea

Posted on November 13, 2019

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(by Alex John)

The thought of War being sent to China kept ringing in the back of my head he whole time I watched it. Nothing has been announced yet, although the huge studio that backs the film and bucks that it rakes in domestically makes it safe to assume that War could be the next commercial entry from India to the Chinese mainland. And the very thought worries me. Let me make myself clear before I write this. This is not just about War, but about the choices we make to impede the rather huge cross-over potential of our films. And it is not just about China too. In general, the cross-over prospects of our movies seem to be rather dull and our film industries rely heavily on our large diaspora for foreign currency than the people of the places we send our films to. Why does this happen? It is primarily because the most perceptible feature of our highly celebrated films is not the desirable exoticism that attracts foreign audiences towards them, but the aesthetic opposite to it, the weirdness that repels them (It is no surprise that the only non-Indian critic of War in rotten tomatoes found the film rather weird than interesting).

How do we fix this? Two ways, I believe. Either shed the oriental tackiness and conform to the western trends, or promote it with vengeance like the Chinese did in the 1970s. Now, is it possible to shun the Indian-ness in our films? It is more or less a norm for our art-house films, at least the one we sent to big festivals. We have no qualms in molding these films into the standards (or more often requirements, like,uh, backwardness) of the west, but that, no arguments here, serves them right. But mainstream movies? That’s definitely a matter of argument. I mean, who could risk the wrath of an overwhelmingly Desi audience by tampering with its tastes? This takes us to the next option, to bankroll the silliness wholeheartedly. Like I pointed out before, the Chinese wrapped up their martial arts movies in cheesiness, or the other way around, and sold them like hotcakes. Those films were no less significant in the cultural exchanges between the two giant nations than the Hollywood movies of the time. India, with its booming cultural & economic importance and ever dynamic diaspora, is quite able to repeat that history.

We actually showed signs of doing this in the late 1990s and early 2000s with our curiously popular films like Taal and Lagaan (both were raved by the legendary critic Roger Ebert), but the trend didn’t quite take off. The case with the cross cultural films like The monsoon wedding and Bend it like Beckham was, to say, the other way around. They were too..westernized to strike any chord with the domestic film-goers. And things haven’t been any better in the last 2 decades. Now it is our Godsend opportunity that our movies do well in China, and my heart sinks when I see us fumble on that chance by sending the most unlikely candidates to the most restricted slots. We send our action biggies like Baahubali & 2.0 to a place that is all set to put Hollywood to shame in terms of business. Don’t we realize they might not care about our Hollywood ambitions when they have access to the original?

Oh, but they do care about the societal pressure on students, they care about the singing ambitions of a young girl, they care about a satiric take on religions they keep locked up in their closets, and about the hustle bustles of a school admission. Heck, they could even like our action films if done in our own idiosyncratic way (Remember our martial arts forms such as Kushti, Kalarippayattu, and also about Sultan’s reasonable success in China) But we let the very Chinese trick of selling the foreignness and cashing in on the exotic drown in the notorious sub-continental ineptitude. Look, I will be the happiest if a star vehicle from India proves me wrong and wins the Chinese box office, but what are the odds of that happening? Can anyone imagine a derivative, wannabe (innocuous fun, though) film like War busting blocks in a generously open market like China? Well, if someone can, I can only envy the wishful thinking. What I believe is that we should learn from our mistakes and stop sending our action potboilers to the dragon-land. If Indian films really are to foray into the world of big business, China can be the gateway with an added benefit; it is the nearest one to us(think about the cultural similarities). We really shouldn’t let this chance go.

PS: I don’t consider our yesteryear Bollywood films’ success in Soviet Union as true cross-over victories, as those were the by-product of that time’s political atmosphere and embargoes. The business done by Indian films in south east-Asian and African countries are too minimal to be taken into account too.