But in conversation in Shanghai he sidestepped the accusations of sexual assault that were recently leveled against him. “I don’t think we should talk about that. I didn’t come here for this purpose,” he said.
He has elsewhere denied the allegations, and told Variety that the Shanghai festival had not reconsidered its invitation to him because of the accusations.
Instead, Hirani spoke about the breakout success of his 2009 film “3 Idiots.” It earned 13.9 million yuan ($2 million) in the Middle Kingdom.
“Apparently lots and lots of people saw it, which I still feel 10 years down the line. Every person from China I met either here or in Mumbai has seen ‘3 Idiots.’ I think it connected with them because we have similar issues in terms of education and parental pressure in India and China,” he said.
Yet when the film first hit Chinese theaters, Hirani and his team — who had sold the rights to an American distributor, IM Global, that then licensed off the China rights — didn’t even know it had been released. “It was a total surprise. We thought of [China] as a very small market” at the time,” he admitted.
He was then approached to be directly involved in the 2015 China release of his next film “PK,” which tells the story of an alien who comes to Earth in search of God because his home planet has no religion. It grossed $19.4 million.
“I always felt that it wasn’t a film for China and wouldn’t work because people here are not as religious. But it did extremely well with a limited release, which made me realize they want to see a different kind of cinema,” he said.
The two films paved the way for Aamir Khan to became the first Bollywood star to find mainstream popularity in the Middle Kingdom. Khan-starring “Dangal” grossed $193 million in the territory in 2017.
“The business in China is actually far bigger than the business in India,” Hirani said. “Aamir’s film did extremely well in India, but it did four times more business in China. The market’s massive.”
For a while, China gave the impression that every Indian film would be a smashing success there, he said, but in the past few months, a number of them hitting Chinese theaters have seen lackluster results.
“They should be selecting our films more carefully,” he said. “Since the market opened up, many distributors jumped in and started picking films left, right, and center. Suddenly not many films are doing well. You lose some credibility.”