Thanks to the stunningly lucrative reception of his current film Dangal, Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan now has China’s moviegoers—and distributors—in the palm of his hand.
Since his family sports drama Dangal rocketed into the record books as one of the highest-grossing films in China’s box office history, Khan can now easily write his own ticket there, raising funding for whatever films he likes, lining up lucrative celebrity endorsements, or becoming a major spokesman for his favorite cross-border Sino-Indian causes.
Khan’s progression from China unknown to China superstar in just 8 years may not have been exactly by design, but other ambitious Indian movie stars can take note and follow a similar trajectory to their own celebrity in the Middle Kingdom
Here are a few lessons to be drawn from the Aamir Khan playbook:
1- Be a charismatic star with talent. Not everyone in India meets this first criterion, but there are certainly many who do. In addition to Bollywood superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, other male leads like Akshay Kumar, Ajith, Hrithik Roshan, and Kamal Hassan have China potential, as do female stars like Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif, Kareena Kapoor, and others (feel free to berate me in the comments if you feel I've left out your favorite Indian film luminary).
2- Start out by starring in a broad comedy with crossover potential. Aamir Khan found his way into the Chinese zeitgeist with the much-beloved comedy 3 Idiots. Mention that film to most any young Chinese filmgoer and you’ll bring a smile to their face. No matter that 3 Idiots never found its way into theaters; its widespread exposure in pirated home video viewings and its massive word-of-mouth made it one of China’s favorite films.
3- Keep making consistently good, entertaining films. Khan’s fame in China could easily have fizzled if his follow-up films to 3 Idiots had been duds. But his next film to release there, Dhoom 3, was a winner in India and it made a decent splash in China too because of its high-octane action and jaw-dropping stunts. PK was an even bigger hit in the PRC, and cemented Khan's reputation there as a star whose films were reliably entertaining.
4- Make movies that are socially relevant. Chinese audiences enjoy movies that make them laugh and cry, but they particularly love movies that make them think and feel the hero's challenges as if they were their own. Social media commentaries gush over Dangal's themes of parental sacrifice, gender equality, and pursuing one's dreams against overwhelming odds.
5- Choose films that share Chinese cultural values. What this means is simply that Indian movies that focus on themes that resonate with Chinese filmgoers' values--education, the primacy of family, filial piety, climbing from poverty to wealth, managing the transition from rural to urban living--are most likely to succeed there. This cultural resonance is hugely important for two reasons. The first is that movies with obvious appeal to Chinese moviegoers are more likely to be imported and approved for distribution than those that lack that appeal. The second is that the more Chinese audience can see themselves in an Indian film's characters and situations due to their shared cultural DNA, the more likely they will make it a hit. Only a few Indian films have ever made it big in the Chinese market, and none have without meeting this rule.