Aamir Khan in his new film Secret Superstar [Photo provided to China Daily]
Indian actor Aamir Khan is sealing his major-celebrity status in China with cinema of social relevance.
Aamir Khan was in China last week to promote his latest Hindi film Secret Superstar. During his weeklong stay, first in Shanghai and then in Beijing, the Indian actor also found out that he has become a major celebrity in a country where Bollywood's reach has been traditionally limited.
Some local analysts compare his stardom in China to that of Hollywood actors Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Others wonder if Khan is an activist actor. Still others describe him as a feminist. The Chinese media seem to have settled for Mishu, or Uncle Aamir.
The surprising rise in popularity of the 52-year-old Bollywood star is owing to his cinema of social relevance that Chinese moviegoers don't get enough of from their own industry as well as his savvy marketing and China outreach. At more than 1 million, Khan has the most followers for an Indian on Sina Weibo, the country's Twitter-like platform.
Secret Superstar had made more than 400 million yuan ($63 million) earlier this week. The story of a teenage Muslim girl's fight against ugly patriarchy to realize her dreams was released in China on Jan 19.
Last year, his film Dangal, inspired by the real journey of an Indian wrestler through a conservative landscape to turn his daughters into world-class athletes, had made nearly 1.3 billion yuan.
In 2011, Khan's work first got major attention from Chinese moviegoers with Three Idiots, which was released in India much earlier. A statement on India's orthodox education system, with parallels in China, the Hindi film resonated with the local audience. Film critics and fans alike recommended it to their friends.
The film also triggered an interest in China for Khan's youth-centric cinema.
Some film critics say the education systems, gender discrimination and domestic violence (that Secret Superstar shows) are among perceived similarities of social issues in India and China.
A series of "masterpieces" have made Khan an effective brand in China, in addition to his savvy marketing and film distribution.
The audience is also getting a bit bored with Hollywood films shown in China, according to Tan Fei, a filmmaker and film critic, who also lives in Beijing.
While it's still early to estimate if Hollywood's influence on the Chinese market is on the wane, the local audience's appetite for diverse cinema is definitely on show and is helping Khan.
Khan's success is also significant from the standpoint of Sino-Indian relations that are often constrained by the longtime border dispute.
"He is the best choice for goodwill ambassador," Tan says.