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The soft power of Bollywood

The official ‘Festivals of India’ and cultural centres abroad that focus on India’s traditional cultures have had limited success as they are perceived, accurately, as government-sponsored initiatives targeting a global elite. Much more effective in soft power terms is India’s privately-owned and -run popular film industry -Bollywood - the world’s largest film industry in terms of the number of films produced (Gehlawat, 2015). Indian movies are watched and enjoyed in large parts of the world, from the Middle East and North Africa to Central and Southeast Asia, although the largest overseas audience for them is the south Asian diaspora (Gera Roy, 2012; Schaefer and Karan, 2013; Swaminathan, 2017; Athique, 2019, among others).

In the context of the BRICS nations, apart from Brazil, Indian films have had a long-established relationship with Russia, China and South Africa, the latter through the diasporic connection. During the Cold War years, when Hollywood films were not easily available in the Soviet Union or China, Indian films were imported to provide the melodramatic escapism not offered by the often drab and dull state-propaganda films. Indian actor Raj Kapoor was extremely popular in the Soviet Union and his 1954 film Аиша (Vagabond) was the most successful Indian film in the country and helped cement the Indo-Soviet relationship for decades afterwards. Kapoor’s films were popular in Communist China as well and other Indian films were regularly imported for their socialist or progressive and often feelgood storylines. With the opening-up of the Chinese cinema market to Hollywood in the 1990s, Indian film imports declined substantially. However, in recent years, some Indian films have done very well in the Chinese market.

Since formally receiving the status of an industry by the Indian government in 2000, authorizing banks to provide loans to filmmakers and insurers to insure film financiers, the Indian film industry has become a source of export revenue, as well as an instrument for promoting India’s soft power (Thussu, 2013; Swaminathan, 2017).This has also helped encourage foreign investors to engage with the Indian entertainment industry, resulting in growing investment from the telecom, software and media sectors.The ensuing corporatization and the synergies this created made it possible for Bollywood content to be available on multiple platforms -satellite, cable, online, mobile- and contribute to the creation of a globalized production, distribution and consumption system (Punathambekar, 2013). As a result, Indian film exports have grown steadily over the past two decades and industry estimates suggest that by 2018 the entertainment and media sector in India was worth $19 billion and was expected to increase as its markets further globalized (KPMG, 2019).

China is an important market for films and the successful performance of Indian films has the potential to contribute significantly in smoothing the relationship between the two BKICS partners. Appealing to Chinese audiences, Chinese actress Zhu Zhu was cast as the leading lady in the 2017 Bollywood film Tubelight, set against the backdrop of the 1962 India-China border war.This appeal has not gone unnoticed by Hollywood giants, who have expanded their involvement in India and set up joint ventures with Indian companies to enter the Indian market and indeed the global market for Indian cinema.

One notable example is Disney’s 2016 Bollywood production Dangal starring Aamir Khan, which made $217 million in the international market, with China accounting for $178.3 million of this figure, making it the most successful Indian film internationally. The film was released in China in 2017 dubbed into Mandarin as Shuajiao Baba (Let’s Wrestle, Dad!) and generated about five times its India earnings (Yau, 2018). Aamir Khan has a huge fan following among the Chinese youth - who call him Mishu, ‘Uncle Aamir’ in Chinese: on Sina-Weibo, Khan’s official account had more than 1.2 million followers. As Table 11.1 demonstrates, Indian films are being watched by Chinese audiences, although very few Indian films are annually released in China because of the import quota system. Beyond box office figures, millions more watch the films through social media forums and there are many Bollywood-oriented social media groups on Chinese websites such as Douban and Baidu BBS (Bi, 2019).

Bollywood is also increasingly being watched not in theatres but on laptops and other mobile digital devices, with both Amazon Prime and Netflix having special rates for Indian films for the global audience. Yet the industry’s growth continues to be limited by various factors, including a poor communication

TABLE 11.1 Bollywood in China


Year of release

Box office revenue, in million yuan




Secret Superstar






Bajrangi Bhaijaan



Hindi Medium









Toilet-A Love Story



Dhoom 3



3 Idiots



Source: Compiled from industry and media sources.

infrastructure as well as piracy, which accounts for a substantial annual loss of revenue (KPMG, 2019).

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