Glimpses of China beyond the Wall in ‘I’

Finally I got to see Shankar’s ‘I’, one week after it was released. The film was released in only one theater in my town and as it was Sankranti, people were literally fighting over each other at 6 am in the morning to get its tickets. They seem to be more enthusiastic about the film than me and so I convinced myself that they deserve to watch it before me(I was too lazy to get up that early)! At last I got an entry in the afternoon on a Wednesday. As I was watching the movie several thoughts occurred to me. One of it was about ‘China and films’.

China is a breathtakingly beautiful country but for several reasons including the apathetic attitude of Chinese government, Indian filmmakers did not explore China for locations to its potential so far. Over the years Indian silver screens brought us the snow of Alps from Switzerland and took us to the glorious pyramids of Egypt but they did not the open mysteries of the forbidden city in Beijing. Indian audience did not get to see the exquisite scenic beauty of China until ‘I’.

What changed?

In recent years, China has decided to rely less on its manufacturing-export model of economy and instead focus on services led growth of which tourism is an important component. China is seeing a tourism boom now, China plans to develop tourism into a strategic economic pillar by 2015. But in last two years, even as the outbound tourist growth is galloping, the inbound tourism numbers are actually dipping. This is attributed to deteriorating relations with its traditional inbound tourist countries like Japan and pollution scare of its cities. China has renewed its efforts to reverse this decline. Films like ‘I’ creates a whole new market for Chinese tourism industry by sampling some of its destinations.

Also Chinese  government has increased its focus on Chinese film industry and as a policy Chinese banks are being encouraged to lend to theater owners and Chinese film production houses. Chinese box office receipts have grown at more than 30% per year for the past decade and around 100 screens are being built every week in China as we speak. This shows the enormous a potential growing market for Indian films. Presently Hollywood is ruling the roost there, it’s films makeup half of the top 10 highest grossing movies in China.

China also sees films as a tool to attain a soft power status on par with USA. This has two components. One showcasing China through Chinese movies. But this may take a very long time to fructify as Chinese films has very little appreciation outside of China in comparison to Hollywood or Bollywood. The second way is to let other film industries showcase China through their films. This is where films like ‘I’ comes in to the scene.

Why ‘I’?

Shankar’s films are known for their awesome song picturizations in exotic locations. When I think of Australia, the most vivid pictures that come to mind include, adorable Kangaroos jumping around with Ar Rahman music in background as shown in a song in the film Bharateeyudu(Indian in Hindi). Similarly after watching Robot, many of us picture the images of Machu Picchu when we think of Peru. Such is the power of films to influence our cognitive Knowledge which in turn dictates our emotions and behaviour. And if the scenes are captured by celluloid magicians like Shankar, the effect is multifold.

And after Robo and Aparichit, the pan–India reach of Shankar’s and Vikram’s films has increased. With these qualities who else is better than Shankar to showcase China to India and beyond.

On top of everything, he teamed up with P.C Sreeram the Godfather of Indian cinematography to shoot this film. The way he portrayed China was mesmerizing to say the least, like a true artist he tenderly unwrapped the virgin beauty of Chinese pristine locations on the screen. At the end of the movie, you would be putting China on your travel destination list. As a free advice, I suggest Chinese tour operators to come up with a special package of touring places where ‘I’ was shot for Indian tourists.

Monetary gain 

The monetary value of the publicity that the Chinese tourism industry accrues through this film would run in to hundreds of Crores. Let us do a ‘back of the napkin’ calculation here. Even if only 50,000 people are convinced by the film, to visit China instead of other countries on a holiday. And conservatively estimating that if they spend around Rs 2,00,000 each in China, the revenue generated would come out to be Rs 1000 crores!! With at least 40 crore potential audience(Zee and Setmax will play the movie hundreds of times on prime time to Hindi audience from next year, even if the film fails to capture mainstream Hindi audience in theaters), of them convincing 50k travellers is almost nothing. Also the reach of Indian cinema is expanding rapidly in to other countries especially south east Asian countries, who have more commonalities with Chinese culture. For example, ‘I’ is the first Tamil film to have a direct release in Pakistani theaters!

Another gain from this is that China will become the latest trend among Indian filmmakers, the Indian audience are getting bored of watching the repeated locations of Bangkok and Egypt. Already production houses are replacing the ‘been there done that’ locales to the new exotic locations of China. The act of making foreign films in China is itself a source of revenue.

Due to the above reasons China has strong incentives to cajole Shankar and influence his decision to choose China as his film’s location. I think China Film Group, the gatekeeper of film market in China is directly involved in the venture by offering some kind of ‘support’ and other incentives for I’s shoot there. Shankar and his crew stayed for 50 days in China for the shoot and shot over 1/3rd of the part there.

The main reasons for this assertion are:

  • There is no specific reason, why it had to be China. It could have been any other country without affecting any part of the film. Heck, if the film had not mentioned that the actors are visiting China for like 10 times throughout the film, we wouldn’t even know that it was China. For major part of the time, it just showed Vikram and Amy singing and chasing each other through flower valleys(though amazing to look at).
  • This shows that China has been artificially embedded in the story. You might think that many Indian films shoot in foreign locales which has nothing to do with script. The difference here is that, I made China an integral part of the story where 1/3rd of the story was set in, without any reason.
  • The blatant product placement that was done in the movie was mind boggling. Shankar conveniently used the model characters in the film to advertise a dozen brands through his songs which would have contributed millions of rupees to the film’s budget. As an audience I felt very distracted by those ‘advts’ and I lost a little respect for Shankar. And the biggest product placement of all in the movie was ‘China’ itself, shown in all its glory.
  • Another reason is that, not every film gets permission to be shot in China. And China allowed I crew to stay in China for 50 days and shoot their film!
  • I is getting a very wide release in China, according firstpost, it is getting a massive 5000 theater release in China. It is one of the 50 foreign films that have been allowed into China this year and the first Tamil film to do so.

If China did not in anyway directly influence Shankar’s choice, then he just delivered a free jackpot to the Chinese tourist industry. At the least I am expecting some kind of award for Shankar from the Chinese government, similar to the one Indian government awarded to Taiwanese director Ang Lee for capturing India beautifully in his film ‘Life of Pi’.

What are the lessons to be learnt here?

  • It shows an active interest of China in India and its tourists. The economic interdependencies are always healthy to have between two neighbors(whom the world sees as rivals).
  • The benefits needs to be mutual. China should allow more number of Indian films in to its market.
  • There is a huge unexploited market for Indian films. China is already the second largest market for Hollywood outside US. If our domestic ‘woods’ get their act together, collections from China could end up exceeding the domestic collections. This is not just a pipe dream, the reason is that the tastes of Chinese audience matches the kind films India produce, especially the mix of action and romance with strong stress on ‘family values’- which are in short supply from Hollywood. Let’s establish something here, our songs and dance routines are adorable. Do not listen to any contrary information, they are our most differentiating factor and music is the easiest way to win someone’s heart!
  • Like I was shot in China, Chinese film makers need to be encouraged to shoot films here by giving various incentives and making it hassle free to shoot in India
  • Joint production of films needs to be undertaken, this puts our films outside the foreign quota of films.
  • Indian government needs to recognize the importance of films in driving up tourist numbers and as a tool of soft power. It should make it easier for foreign films like ‘Life of Pi’ to be shot here
  • Two years back, the latest James Bond movie makers approached Indian government to seek permission to shoot some scenes in India where major part of the film takes place. Astonishingly, it is reported that, Indian government asked David Fincher the director to make some changes in the script! What the hell are our bureaucrats thinking? If such big franchise comes to shoot here, you do not turn them down unless the script involves shooting down our PM or some thing like that, any thing less scandalous needs to be tolerated. This was a golden opportunity which the Indian government squandered.
Cultural exchanges between countries encourage the growth of warm people to people relations between countries and in 21st century, films are its main vehicles. This is in the interest of not only China and India, but has implication for world peace. It is unfortunate that India has more warmer relations with the distant western countries but not with it’s neighbouring country with which it has more in common culturally, geographically and historically. I hope I will set a new trend by which films will play a crucial role in bringing the peoples of China and India closer.
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