Happy Tuesday! Tubelight will be coming out soon, and I thought it might be helpful to review the history of Indo-Chinese relations. At least, the little I know about them. (yes yes, I will get back to the Nehru-Gandhi’s, probably on Thursday)
Non-Usual Disclaimer: I have a background in history, and have done plenty of reading and taken several seminars in Indian history. But it is not my speciality, so this will be a very general and superficial look at the situation.
There is one thing that divides China and India more than anything else: The Himalayas. That sounds like a joke, but it’s really where you have to start with all of this. If you look at a modern map, with just the lines and colors, it seems like China and India should have a lot in common, because they are neighbors. But the closeness doesn’t matter if there is a big barrier between them (like the Himalayas), a barrier that has been there through all of human history.
(See? Much easier to get into India from the West than from the East and North.)
If we go way way way way way back in time and look at ancient immigration patterns, India was settled by the south Indians, who were just there as long as human history records (presumably at some point they came over by boat from Africa, since all human life started in Africa, but it was a very very long time ago). And then from the north, through what is now Afghanistan. There wasn’t much movement from China, because there were a bunch of mountains in the way.
This is all millenia ago. But the end result is that there are vague cultural influences and familiarities between modern day India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, and Turkmenistan that just aren’t there between China and India. Think about stuff like the Laila-Majnu legend, or women wearing red scarves over their heads at a wedding, or all those words that pop up in all those languages, “Khoobsurat”, “Hamesha”, etc. etc. There have been thousands of years of easy trade routes and immigration and inter-marriages and everything else between them. Down to the present day, the immigration and trade between all those countries is a large part of the footprint of Hindi film.
And then there’s China. Like India only really being “India” as we know it know since 1947, “China” hasn’t always been China like we see it on the modern maps. It is also a combination of influences and trade patterns. Russia to the north, Korea to the east, Japan across the ocean, and so on. But like the area south and west of the Himalayas, China was a bit cut off from the west of the world. Because those mountains are very very tall. And on the other side, was the ocean. And so China, or more properly “central Asia”, developed its own millennia of cultural traditions and history and so on and so forth, almost completely unrelated to its neighbor to the south.
There were crossovers, of course. Buddha would be a massive obvious crossover. You would be surprised how many people in America, who never really thought about it, just assume the Buddha was Chinese. But no, he was from Nepal (according to tradition). He came out a Hindu tradition of philosophy, and his teachers spread through South Asia first. Before being spread throughout the rest of the world by Emperor Asoka, after his conversion. And to China in a series of waves of missionaries, from Asoka, and later from the Kushan empire, based in Afghanistan.
(Chinese style Buddha. But notice the pose, very similar to some Hindu religious sculptures)
It’s not a matter of Buddhism moving from India to China though. It is more that it was powerful in India for years and years, and then as the people began to turn away from it to other philosophies, coincidentally, it began to spread more and more through China, and be altered in response to Chinese cultural adaptation. And, of course, it didn’t spread only to China. Buddhism pops up everywhere from Greece to Japan, always in slightly different but recognizable forms.
But besides these small traces traveling over the mountains, China and India mostly developed entirely independently throughout history. It wasn’t until the modern era, with telephones and radios and airplanes, that the possibility of a real neighbor relationship came about.
I talked on Saturday about Dr. Kotnis, who was one of 5 doctors sent by Nehru and Bose and the Indian National Congress to assist the communist Chinese army. That was part of a general move of friendship between India and China in the early 20th century. China had finally gained its freedom from western control in 1912. Although, again, that control looked very different from what it was in India. China had Opium wars and the Boxer Rebellion. Most of all, China never had one clear colonizer. India was all Britain all the time for over a hundred years. China never really was. Which also meant China never really immediately coalesced into a single entity the way India did. And so it’s Independence was rapidly followed by civil war, and then an authoritarian regime. While India’s independence was followed by democracy and, while there were plenty of state issues and so on, no massive civil war of the kind China saw.
Before WWII, Nehru was making moves of friendship towards China, trying to hold them up as an example to the people of how colonial powers can be defeated, and trying to position India as a possible Chinese ally if China would give them support in their freedom movement. But then the war happened, and China became a protectorate of the British again, sort of, while the British were fighting the Japanese. And Japan became India’s potential ally instead of China.
When the war was over, vooooop, it swung back to China. Dr. Kotnis came out, and various trade agreements and friendly diplomatic visits occurred. The cry of the people was “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” (India-China, Brother-Brother).
(Nehru and Mao, practically holding hands)
It started to go wrong in the late 50s. There were two main areas of dispute. First, Tibet. The Chinese put down the first rebellion there pretty brutally, which was hard for Nehru, an honorable and sensitive man, to stomach. And after much consultation with many thoughtful men, Nehru and the Indian government gave sanctuary to the Dalai Lama. China did not like this.
Meanwhile, over in Ladakh, there was the disputed border. There had never really been a happy resolution to this border, there were two suggested lines of control and the two countries had differing claims between the two. Troops were moved in, this country shot at that country, that country shot at this country, this went on for a couple years. Until, finally, there was a definitive move and countermove. That is what I was talking about in Sunday’s post on “Ae Mere Watan Logo”, the very short Sino-Indian war that ended with a definitive Chinese victory, they got the border line they wanted.
India still has several territories in that area, in the middle of the mountains. For most neighboring countries, we would be talking about millions of people who exist in an in between state between two cultures. America and Mexico, for instance, American influence dribbles down into northern Mexico, and Mexican influence grows up into Southwestern US. But it’s just too hard to live on the Indian-Chinese border! Only a few communities are in that region.
But there are still some. And there are also the communities in Tibet and Nepal, India and China’s shared neighbors. In terms of Indian film, here’s something interesting (and relevant considering his newest film is coming out soon), Imtiaz Ali is very concerned about Free Tibet. My understanding is that he filmed “Yara Rab” from Socha Na Tha, and “Yeh Ishq Haaye” from Jab We Met there, and came to care about the people. To the point that he inserted a “Free Tibet” flag into the middle of “Sadda Haq” in Rockstar.
Indian film also has some Nepali stars. Manish Koirala, for one thing, is Nepali. Which is part of the reason she was cast in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se, representing Assam, one of those territories in India that is cut off from the rest of the country by the mountains, and by culture, finding itself uniquely part of the central Asian and south Asian sphere of influence.
(Manisha at her wedding to a Nepali businessman. It’s kind of Indian and kind of not, you know?)
These are also the regions that the two team members in Chak De are from, that inspires the fight scene. The border territories are so poor and struggling, that most often their people come to the main territory of India only as sex workers, or occasionally domestic servants. This, plus the “exotic” and “unIndian” way they look, can make them into objects of sexual harassment.
That’s the disputed side of things, and there are plenty of other examples, the Chinese-Indian restaurant rivalry in Kal Ho Na Ho, the murder of the Chinese character in Ra.One, etc. etc. China and India aren’t on the brink of war any more, but their trade rivalry has only increased in recent years.
But along with trade rivalry comes the possibility of trade partnership. Hollywood saw this possibility early, too early actually. They looked at the two massive Asian markets and went “Hey! We can probably combine these!” And no, Hollywood, no you cannot! Warner Bros. filmed Chandni Chowk to China in Bangkok, Shanghai, and Bombay, and cast two Hindi film industry stars, Akshay and Deepika. They seemed to think that the only thing keeping Indian films from crossing over into China was that they had never been set there before. Not thousands of years of separately developed cultures.
(this poster, this poster is not a good idea)
There are all kinds of specific details that made Chandni Chowk to China fail (for instance, casting Deepika as twin Chinese-Indian women). But the general reason it failed was because it was produced by a company that was neither Chinese nor Indian, and was trying to appeal to both markets without fully understanding them.
That problem has been fixed over the past several years. Not that Hollywood has learned to understand other cultures (HA! that will never happen), but that China has slowly started to buy up Hollywood. More and more Hollywood productions are made with Chinese money. Sometimes official co-productions, but more often through rights sales. As in, some Chinese distributor says “I will give you so much money, if you deliver a movie with Tom Cruise and a bunch of action scenes”, and then the producer goes around and makes a movie with Tom Cruise and a bunch of action scenes.
And now we have Tubelight. Which goes all the way back to the definitive moment when that “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” relationship ended in its setting, and tries to start a new relationship. A movie made in India by Indian artists (except for Zhu Zhu), but funded by Chinese money.