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Suseenthiran’s Kennedy Club, or Akshay Kumar’s PadMan: What Do The Chinese Want To See?

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Chinese theatrical rights for director Suseenthiran’s upcoming Kennedy Club has reportedly been sold to a local distribution house in China for Rs 2 crore. Set in Palani, the film is about a women’s kabaddi team, and will star Sasikumar and filmmaker Bharathiraja in lead roles. The sports-based film is said to have a strong message for the audience.

The other film about women in sports, which earned over Rs 750 crore in China last year, was Aamir Khan’s Dangal. It over-took Indian box office earnings of Rs 387 crore, and in its opening week in China, even surpassed Hollywood blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2, which released the same week.

Dangal went on to rank as the 12th most popular film in China that year. And it only helped that Aamir was already a star, as early as 2009, with the release of 3 Idiots. Like every other foreign film that had no way to get a theatrical release in the country back then, 3 Idiots went straight to the Chinese piracy market after its release. It became a cult hit, and to this date it is China’s 12th favorite film of all time, with only one other Chinese film ranking higher.

China used to have the 15th biggest box-office market and 9,000 screens during the release of 3 Idiots. Smaller countries like South Korea, Canada and Australia were higher up in the list. But over these years, after 3 Idiots’ release and China’s own efforts to increase the number of active screens to 40,000, China has the second biggest box-office market today after the US. During this period, between 2010-2017, 8 Indian films including Dangal have released.

Despite China’s import quota to limit the number of foreign film releases, which are usually Hollywood, this year, seven Indian films have already released, and two await release. Earlier this week it was announced that Akshay Kumar’s Padman will release in China on December 14, after Amitabh Bachchan’s 102 Not Out‘s release this month end. This is the first time that two Indian films will come out in a two-week gap.

Early in January Secret Superstar released. In March Bajrangi Bhaijaan was screened at the Lantern festival. Hindi Medium released in April for the Qingming festival weekend, Baahubali: The Conclusion released in May and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha in June. Salman Khan’s Sultan hit cinemas in August, and Rani Mukerji’s Hichki was very well received after releasing in October. These films however, did not cross the 100 crore mark like Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots or PK (which earned Rs 123 crores) or Dangal. 

Vijay’s Mersal is another film which hasn’t yet released officially in China, but it was screened at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in July, and was one of the three south Indian films at the festival along with the Malayalam movie Ezra and Telugu film Jai Lava Kusa. Following this, Mersal was bought by China’s HGC Entertainment in August and currently awaits its release.

What’s interesting is this year’s releases show that China’s craze with Indian films might not just be about Uncle Aamir, or Mi Aamir, as he’s called by fans in the country. Thugs of Hindosthan which was expected to release this year end, has now been pushed to January next year. According to a source quoted in a Firstpost report, efforts by Chinese distributors to release Thugs of Hindostan this year failed because of its poor reviews and the dismal box-office performance. Its release has now been pushed to early 2019, as a Chinese New Year release before February 5.

Many who’ve tried to understand this trend, have said there could be something common about our cultures, concerns, etc, which makes our films relateable for Chinese audiences. They’ve said the content is the reason films like Dangal and Secret Superstar have done well. Aamir’s Secret Superstar was a small-budget film about a young Muslim girl who aspires to become a YouTube sensation. It was the first Indian film to have a revenue-sharing deal with China – something usually reserved for Hollywood. It released on 11,000 screens in China, and collections crossed Rs 860 crore.

Since Dangal‘s release, Aamir, Rani Mukharjee and others started visiting China for film promotions too. Aamir has attributed the reason for these film’s popularity to some emotional resonance with the characters – the fathers, daughters and families.

This might be true. And it’s promising for Indian producers like Eros International who are teaming up with Chinese distribution houses, to release co-produced films. But what’s also true is there are Indian films popular in India, and Indian films popular in China. The big South Indian movies that enter 200 crore clubs world-wide, don’t make it big in China. Most Rajinikanth and Vijay films don’t even release in China. While Secret Superstar which made Rs 90 crore in India, earned Rs 863 crore in China; Baahubali 2 which made a whooping Rs 1,810 crore in India, only earned about Rs 7 crore in China.

That Kennedy Club will tell the story of an underdog sports team fighting against odds to win, and will have strong women as protagonists, may just be everything the Chinese audiences want to see. And we might just see Kennedy Club do much better in China than a Thugs of Hindosthan or a Mersal. 

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