Exerting soft
power through
Indian-ness and
Chinese-ness
Ayesha Lulla & Akshay Mathur

Countries that hold global leadership positions have a keen knack for balancing aspects of power that speak to the head and the heart. Which means, not only do they place emphasis on economic ideology, but also ‘softer’ aspects such as culture.

Take the USA as an example, not only does it exert its might through its strong technology and industry dominance, but also through promoting values that represent Americana – for example, freedom, equality & heroism.

The one industry they have historically relied upon to perpetuate their power has been their film industry. From Marvel super heroes to the smallest indie films, at their core they all offer a window into narratives and values that make up the American cultural fabric.

India and China, arguably the next big superpowers, need to take notes from existing dominant superpowers, to ensure that global dominance is not lopsided, but holistic and balanced.

It is interesting to explore the concept of Indian-ness in China and the concept of Chinese-ness in India through the medium of cinema. In doing this we can look at these two countries without the gaze of a western superpower, but through a uniquely Asian point of view.

Indian-ness in China

In the recent past, Bollywood has made an immense impact in China, especially through titles such as Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Dangal & Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The appeal of these movies falls into two vastly different paradigms. The first being unadulterated campiness, usually communicated through over the top action scenes, formulaic Bollywood romances and an unabashed love of singing & dancing.

On the other hand are heavier films, that are built on worthy topics such as female empowerment and social mobility. These movies offer a deep insight into the trials and tribulations of the disenfranchised, which find resonance not just in India but also China, where these narratives are important and timely.

It is not untrue to say that Bollywood is India’s stealth weapon when exerting its soft power. Not only is it popular and entertaining but it is also a masterclass in resilience, resolve and optimism.
What better values to stand for than these?

Chinese-ness in India

If you ask an Indian moviegoer about Chinese cinema, they are likely to recall Jackie Chan’s action movies circa 2000s. When asked to think harder, they would think of genres such as action, fantasy and adventure, exemplified in movies such as The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, Journey to the West, League of Gods and The Monkey King that showcase a historical view of Chinese culture.

Contemporary Chinese cinema has yet to find its way to India, thus, construction of Chinese-ness remains anchored in dated cultural notions, which is not helpful when considering the master Chinese narrative of innovation, nimbleness and adaptability.

This throws open an opportunity for China to export movies such as 超时空同居 (How Long Will I Love U) and 后来的我们 (Us and Them), which offer a contemporary view into Chinese culture through familiar genres like romance and drama. In doing, so it offers Indian consumers new insight into modern Chinese values and appreciation of aesthetic similarities between Indian and Chinese films. Of course non-cinema vehicles also offer entertainment as parallel industries to leverage. The ACG (animation, comics & gaming) genre in China is rapidly evolving in sophisticated storytelling and could offer an alternate means to communicate Chinese-ness.

Soft power is the ‘yin’ to the economic ‘yang’ of superpowers. While India has leveraged its film industry better in constructing a favourable view of Indian-ness in China, the converse does not hold true, with notions of Chinese-ness being quite weak in India. This presents an opportunity for China to look within and outside of the film industry to find the right vehicles and genres to showcase Chinese contemporary values.

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