Why Dangal is the most intriguing pop culture story of the year

Dangal is a very enjoyable movie. Even audiences not used to meandering running times and sports movies punctuated by long musical montages will find it easy to be engaged by this well-told, handsomely shot story of a father who pushes his daughters onto the unconventional path of striving for athletic glory in a conservative, traditional society. You might feel some unease over how much the female protagonists’ lives and physical appearances are still determined by their patriarch’s wishes. But the acting is great, the emotional payoff is sincerely earned and amidst the current glut of superhero blockbusters, it’s almost a relief to sink into a story like this, where there isn’t a special effect to be seen (to the untrained eye anyway).

But all those great qualities don’t fully explain Dangal’s commercial success. It’s not only Bollywood’s most highest-grossing movie of all time, it is also the most profitable non-Hollywood title ever screened in China.

How did this happen? Many reports point to star Aamir Khan’s established popularity in the Chinese market, as well as cultural affinities between the two Asian giants. Forbes reports: “The two ancient cultures share many values in common, including deep filial piety and appreciation for family, reverence for education, and respect for hard work as a conduit to success. Both countries are also at relatively similar points in their economic development, and thus the struggles Indian movie characters face with regard to such issues as female empowerment, the transition from a rural to an urban society, and the challenges of climbing the socio-economic ladder, all resonate nicely with Chinese audiences who confront similar obstacles in their own lives.”

There is another reason though, and it’s pretty mind-blowing. In 2016, South Korea accepted the American anti-missile system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, (TTHAAD) on its soil to defend itself from missile attack. (To state the obvious: Its neighbour is the volatile North Korea.) However, “Beijing views THAAD as a threat to its own military operations — specifically in the South China Sea”, and one of the ways China responded to this development was to remove South Korean movies and TV shows from its domestic cineplexes and TV stations, creating a vacuum for alternative entertainment sources. And that’s how a Bollywood movie cracked the coveted Chinese market. Take that, superheroes.