‘Dangal’ Sells Bollywood Feminism at China Box Office

Chinese audiences can’t get enough of Indian movie about two female wrestlers who topple gender stereotypes.

In Bollywood blockbuster Dangal, two young women wrestle their way into the ring in a deeply patriarchal Indian society — and at the Chinese box office, the film, too, is breaking with convention.

The movie grossed more than $27 million in its first week in China, outpacing Hollywood’s latest offering, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Debuting on May 5 with 30,000 screenings, or 13.3 percent of China’s daily total, Dangal reached 47,000 screenings on Wednesday. Both in China and globally, Dangal has set new international revenue records for Indian movies.

“It has set a benchmark in China — it’s a trendsetter,” Taran Adarsh, one of India’s leading movie critics and trade analysts, told Sixth Tone. “Universally, a good movie with emotions brings in the audience. And ‘Dangal’ is heavily reliant on a solid plot that showcases the relationship between a father and his daughters, and the struggles they go through.”

Dangal tells the real-life story of Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, two women from rural India who smashed gender stereotypes in wrestling, a male-dominated sport, by winning gold medals for India at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and 2014.

International movies that make it to the silver screen in China are usually big-budget productions out of Hollywood — predominantly sci-fi, animated, and action movies. Media professional and film enthusiast Wang Sisi said people also want to see movies that mirror social issues. For the 28-year-old, Dangal was a window into Indian society, its social taboos, and its shifting attitude toward women. Bollywood, too, used to stick to formulaic plots sprinkled with song and dance sequences, and these films often objectified female characters. But some recent productions have broken with tradition by using authoritative female leads.

As Chinese audiences become more exposed to international movies, they are showing a growing appetite for films that are different. Last year, moviegoers praised the story of one woman’s determination to find justice in the domestic production I Am Not Madame Bovary. But that movie was an exception, according to Jonathan Papish, an industry analyst at online industry outlet China Film Insider, which occasionally shares content with Sixth Tone.

“In China, the constraints that a patriarchal society puts on women are rarely confronted in mainstream film,” Papish told Sixth Tone. “The success of Dangal should be attributed to its story.”

Actor Aamir Khan, known for previous successes PK and 3 Idiots, playing a lead role in Dangal, Papish said, likely didn’t contribute much to the film’s popularity in China, where he enjoys more limited stardom. Instead, ticket sales are being buoyed by word of mouth and positive reviews on Chinese movie review sites: Dangal is currently rated 9.2 out of 10 on Douban, China’s largest movie review website.

Liu Xintong, 26, told Sixth Tone she heard about the movie from her boyfriend. She liked it but thought a father forcing his daughters to take up an avocation against their will contradicted the movie’s feminist aspirations. Liu added, however, that watching the film has made her more willing to see other Bollywood productions.

Chinese millennials like Liu and Wang are exactly the demographic that Indian distributors are targeting. Adarsh, the critic, said the ever-increasing number of screens in China (which has the most in the world), growing interest for Bollywood movies among Chinese audiences, and recent box-office returns should motivate more Indian filmmakers to actively court the Chinese market.

“We need to make movies keeping in mind the global audience — not just the South Asian market or countries with Indian diaspora, like the U.S. or the U.K.,” Adarsh said.

However, grappling for a bigger market share is a challenge in China, which only allows 34 foreign movies to be screened annually. And though Bollywood is flexing its muscles to woo Chinese audiences and claim new territory for its movies, industry experts like Papish are still skeptical.

“I still don’t think the success of Dangal in China is a harbinger of things to come for the entire Indian [movie] industry,” Papish said. “However, I do believe increased exposure to Bollywood films can lead to more successful runs, but only on a film-by-film basis, depending on the film’s content.”

Film enthusiast Wang, on the other hand, is more convinced. “I like Hollywood movies for their special effects, but they’re easily forgettable,” he told Sixth Tone. “Many Bollywood movies focus on the story, and make you think: This is really special.”

Addtional reporting: Yin Yijun; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

— This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone