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Chinese Checkers

We often like to think of ourselves as, admittedly, not an equal, but at least a parallel bastion of power to Hollywood in the global filmmaking pecking order. The US may be the world’s biggest film industry in revenue terms, but we Indians are number one in terms of output i.e. the number of films produced each year.

We should be justifiably proud of our cinematic history and ethos, and it is true that we have successfully developed our own distinctive filmmaking idiom that has managed to withstand and top the Hollywood juggernaut in our domestic market, albeit with ever decreasing margins. However, we have to confess that we are still some distance away from the monetary sizes of some other major film markets.

And to get a sense of perspective of where we really stand, we don’t even need to look 14,000 kilometers West, at the United States; a sobering reality check can be found right in our backyard by examining our Eastern neighbour, China. Check out the table below:

As is evident, the comparison is hardly flattering for us, no matter which way you splice the data above.

At face value, there ought not to be too much difference in the sizes of the two film markets since both countries have a similar number of potential consumers. Indeed, India is on track to overtake China as the most populous country within a decade. Realistically, though, with film-going not being a necessity, a more relevant measure is the amount of money at the disposal of the citizens of each country. On that count, with China’s Per Capita Income being 5 times ours, it would have been justified if the size of their domestic market outscored ours by a similar ratio. However, in reality, China is ahead of us by a multiple of 10 or more on almost every count.

It is important to remember that the Chinese film market is tightly controlled with a view to not only reinforce the official line of the authoritarian state, but also to protect the local industry.

The country restricts the number of foreign films that can be imported – whether from Hollywood or India or anywhere else in the world – to just 34 titles a year and the distributors of these films have to perforce agree to a mere  25-per cent revenue share. Even with these unattractive commercial terms, questions have been raised about the levels of transparency and accuracy in the revenue statements provided to foreign distributors and there have been allegations of under- or misreporting of actual collections.

Moreover, along with the numerical quota, the state also controls the timing of these foreign releases and it is common for potential Hollywood blockbusters to be bunched up together in quick succession while giving local products the best release windows without much foreign competition.

To further raise the odds, foreign films are heavily censored and have to conform to a long list of ‘Do Not’s’ dictated by the state. Moreover, China has no motion picture rating system that allows different kinds of films to be exhibited subject to age restriction. Therefore, films must be deemed to be suitable for all audiences in order to be shown in that country, thereby automatically disqualifying films with adult themes. 

Undoubtedly, the high degree of protection enjoyed by the local industry is a major factor behind the substantial Chinese lead over India at the box office. However, it is not the sole reason behind the Chinese superiority, nor should we really be looking at building a similar wall to reduce foreign competition.

As a nation that for decades tried its hand at socialism, we know better than most that protectionism really isn’t a long-term solution and only highlights the deficiencies that have been pandered to when the floodgates of competition open up, as they inevitably do. Indeed, certain local language film industries in India have tried to create artificial barriers against other films with unspectacular results.

Quite simply, like in many other commercial and industrial spheres, the Indian film industry is so far behind its Chinese counterparts that they really cannot be called competitors… for now. We have to vastly improve our infrastructure – 31,600 screens in China versus less than 10,000 here in India being a case in point – and critically, the quality of our product before we can aspire to achieve a degree of parity with our Eastern neighbour.

Doing so will not be easy, nor will it happen overnight. But we can seek inspiration from the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step… 

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