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Aamir Khan: India’s Soft Power in China
Aamir Khan (right) teaches Chinese actor Huang Bo (left) Indian dance moves during his China tour.

Aamir Khan: India’s Soft Power in China

 
 

It seems that Aamir Khan — the 53-year-old Indian film actor, producer, director, and television talk show host — has become the most famous and popular Indian in today’s China. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi might not be able to compare with Khan in terms of popularity among Chinese people, considering the diplomatic friction between the two nations.

Currently, Secret Superstar, Khan’s latest movie about a 14-year-old Muslim-Indian girl striving to become a singer in spite of the restrictions from her conservative father, is playing in Chinese theaters. Since its local release on January 19, the 150-minute film has remained as the single-day box office champion for more than a week. With limited $2.4 million budget, the movie has made more than $47 million at the box office in the first nine days and is expected to gross more than $126 million in total in the Chinese mainland alone.

The market’s upbeat forecast for Secret Superstar is actually quite reserved. Khan’s earlier movie Dangal, which was released in December 2016, had a surprisingly great performance, grossing a total of $189 million in the Chinese market. Numerous Chinese audiences complimented the movie for its strong feminist stance and its honest attitude toward India’s own issues.

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The Chinese website Douban (a viewer-led movie-ranking website similar to IMDb) rated the movie 9.1 out of 10, making Dangal the highest rated foreign movie in 2017.

Even Chinese President Xi Jinping told Modi on the sidelines of a summit in Kazakhstan last year that he “loved” Dangal, and “hoped to see more of the same kind of movies in the future in China.”

Dangal’s great success not only rekindled Chinese audiences’ interest in Indian movies but also won Khan himself extremely high popularity in China.

Referred to as “India’s conscience,” Khan’s personal story has been widely reported by Chinese media. His most inspiring point is that he has made great efforts to confront various social issues in Indian society, such as poverty, education, sexual abuse, gender inequality, and discrimination. (All these issues are relevant to China’s society, too.) Not only did he present these problems in his movies, he also created and hosted a television talk show, Satyamev Jayate, targeting these sensitive issues directly in real life. This talk show has been translated and broadcasted by a Chinese website.

Comparing his accomplishment to China’s own movie stars, Chinese netizens can’t help but question “why doesn’t China have a celebrity on a par with Aamir Khan?” Some Chinese commentators straightforwardly attributed Khan’s achievements to India’s democracy, which protects openness, freedom, and independent minds.

Tansen Sen, director of the Centre for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai, even described Khan as India’s second greatest cultural icon in China since the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Although this description sounds a little too dramatic, it’s fair to say that Khan is one of the very few Indians who has gained only positive commentaries from Chinese netizens so far.

Noting his own positive image and potential power, Khan has reportedly expressed his willingness to improve China-India relations.

During his current tour in China for his movie, he told Chinese fans that he’d love to help “improve India-China ties.”

“I want to do a film with Chinese and Indian talent,” he said. “It would bring the two countries closer.”

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