Aamir Khan (right) teaches Huang Bo the dance in Secret Superstar. Photo: IC
Where older Chinese sometimes hum the tunes of veteran Bollywood stars Jeetendra or Anil Kapoor, today their children and grandchildren might be heard singing "main sexy baliye ho ho, main sexy baliye."
It is Aamir Khan who is the best-known Indian movie heartthrob among young Chinese as he wound up his promotional tour in China for the 2017 Indian musical drama Secret Superstar.
But Khan offers fans a lot more than a pretty smile. He is known to take up social issues and reflect publicly on his devotion to his art. His movie roles make him an unofficial ambassador for India and softens often-fraught relations.
Films and TV are more easily accepted by "common citizens," said Long Xingchun, director of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University.
"Chinese people did not know much about India before and the images of India were mostly poverty and disaster," Long said.
"And because Indian media often have negative coverage and hostile reports on China, the Chinese do not have very good impression of the nation."
But through Aamir Khan's tour and his films like Dangal and Secret Superstar, "Chinese begin to realize the friendly, cute and positive sides of India and are impressed by the depth of thought."
Titles like "national treasure" or "conscience of India" fall off the lips of fans in China where he is commonly called "Mi Shu" or "Uncle Mi," an affectionate translation of Aamir.
Having established an account on the Twitter-like Chinese social networking site Sina Weibo less than a year ago, Khan has already amassed more than 1 million followers.
PK, the first Aamir Khan film released on the Chinese mainland, introduced the actor to a wide audience. Chinese moviegoers marveled when the then 51-year-old star gained and lost some 30 kilograms to portray a character in his next big role in the film Dangal.
Meanwhile Khan's Truth Alone Triumphs TV show won hearts for his attempts to improve society. In his latest movie, Khan's a narcissistic singer impressed and surprised Chinese audiences for his mastery of all kinds of roles.
"After watching Secret Superstar, all I want to say is Aamir Khan is not a simple man. He can be a genius, an affectionate lover, a funny guy, and in this film coquettish. I love him even deeper now!" internet user Colorful Snail from the North China city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei Province posted on Sina Weibo.
"Although I don't like India, I still admire Aamir Khan. No other actor can push a nation and influence the world like he does," filmgoer Qianai Mingyang, from Suzhou in East China's Jiangsu Province, told the Global Times.
There will always be those who think the Indian star and his films are too much admired on the Chinese mainland.
"You cannot hype Aamir Khan as a god just because of Three Idiots and Dangal," user Fuhei de Xiaomojie posted.
"Both Christopher Nolan and Aamir Khan are overpraised," wrote Jiaotou Yu Qiukui.
More than an entertainer
Although it is common for Hollywood stars to come to China and promote their films, Khan has exhibited an exceptional savvy.
While most stars sit passively through promotional activities created for them by their publicity teams, Khan knows how to fire up an audience and supply what every media needs: headlines.
For example, most overseas stars tend to give general, vague answers when asked about their understanding of Chinese film, whereas Khan names stars like Deng Chao, Huang Bo, Wang Baoqiang and Yu Baimei, actors not widely cited outside of China.
In his tour of China, Khan attended dates with Chinese pop stars and posted videos and pictures of them getting together, an effective way of boosting his profile in China and also introducing Chinese stars to India.
At a forum last week in Beijing as the atmosphere cooled, Khan suggested Huang Bo learn Hindi and dance in the style of Secret Superstar. Meanwhile, Khan learned Chinese dialect from Huang.
Chinese mainland media ate it up. Khan's suggestions went more viral than anything he said about the film.
Mutual praise among stars is an old PR trick but Khan has a high emotional quotient, Chinese blogger Dijiu Fangyingshi wrote. "Aamir Khan must have studied the local customs and practices."
Road more traveled
Secret Superstar had earned 400 million yuan ($63.29 million) as of Sunday afternoon, to be the second bestselling Indian film on the Chinese mainland, without a doubt.
"The theme of praising a mother's love and encouraging women's rights can be sympathized with by a Chinese audience as Chinese society has similar problems," Tan Zheng, a research fellow at Film Art Centre of China Federation of Literary and Art Circle, told the Global Times. The box office sales were due to Khan's personal fame, he said.
Secret Superstar was a good film, Tan said, but did not have as good a story as Dangal.
Khan can really help Sino-Indian communications with his films, Tan noted.
Quickly following the release of Secret Superstar in China, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a 2015 Indian film was announced as coming to China in early March.
While it is rare for older imported films to play at Chinese theaters, Tan said the movie will more likely serve as a warm-up for Salman Khan's works entering the world's second largest film market.