Bollywood without Borders

Film flashback: Before ‘Tubelight’, ‘Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani’ dreamt of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai

V Shantaram’s 1946 movie retraces the journey of Indian doctor Dwarkanath Kotnis from Sholapur to the Chinese battlefield.

The next Salman Khan blockbuster Tubelight is set during the 1965 Sino-Indian War and features Khan as a simple-minded soul who vows to bring back his soldier brother being held as a prisoner of war. Kabir Khan’s June 23 release is an official remake of the Hollywood film Little Boy, which is replete with faith-based miracles. Since Tubelight is a Salman Khan film, we can be assured that his presence alone will be enough to move mountains.

Tubelight has a Chinese character as Khan’s love interest, played by Chinese actress Zhu Zhu. A few years ago, filmmakers would have blithely cast an Indian actress in the role and given her a fictional back story to justify her appearance. Anything is possible in an industry in which Priyanka Chopra has played Manipuri boxer Mary Kom and countless Indian actors have applied eye make-up and put on traditional Chinese clothes to pass themselves off as citizens of India’s large neighbour.

Tubelight (2017).

That is what happened in one of the earliest Indian films to be set in China. But what V Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946) lacks in authenticity, it makes up for with the nation-building spirit typical of the decade and the one that followed. The movie is based on the remarkable story of Dwarkanath Kotnis, the doctor from Maharashtra’s Sholapur town who travelled to China in 1938 as part of a medical mission during the Second Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945. Kotnis married a Chinese woman, Guo Qinglan, had a son with her, and was revered as a hero for his tireless efforts in healing villagers and soldiers. His local name was Ke Dihua.

Kotnis died on December 9, 1942, from a combination of overwork, poor nutrition and epilepsy. He was 32 years old. Communist Party of China head Mao Zedong mourned his passing (“The army has lost a helping hand, and the nation has lost a friend”). A tomb and a statue were built in the Martyrs Graveyard in Tang County, and two more mausoleums were later constructed in Shijiazhuang and Tang County. Chinese writers further memorialised the good doctor by publishing books about him.

In 2005, Guo wrote her own account of her husband’s singular journey. In My Life with Kotnis, translated by BR Deepak, Guo writes about seeing Kotnis for the first time at a function: “He was of moderate height and had those sparkling bright eyes on his brownish face that made an unforgettable impression on others… His sincere sympathy for the Chinese people and his anti-war resolve was so infectious that one and all were infected by it.”

Dwarkanath Kotnis. Image credit: Communist Party of China.
Dwarkanath Kotnis. Image credit: Communist Party of China.

Shantaram based his account on the book And One Did Not Come Back by KA Abbas, the leftist writer and director. Shantaram was approached by Abbas and writer VP Sathe at Rajkamal Studios, which the filmmaker set up after breaking away from Prabahat Studios in 1942. “Shantaram heard the story and was captivated by the inherent and intense human drama,” Sanjit Narwekar writes in the biography V Shantaram: The Legacy of the Royal Lotus. “Making a biographical film was risky business, but then, Shantaram had never shirked from taking risks.”

The film was shot mostly in Mumbai, with sets representing the battlefield created at Rajkamal Studios. “The wife of the Chinese counsel was roped in to provide the expertise to recreate China…” Narwekar writes.

Shantaram plays Kotnis, an idealistic doctor who is stirred into action after hearing a speech by Jahawarlal Nehru that exhorts Indians to consider the suffering of the Chinese at the hands of Japanese invaders. “It is my moral duty to help a suffering country,” Kotnis tells his father, who has set up a dispensary for his son in the vain hope that he will practise medicine in Sholapur.

The moment of truth between father and son is an example of Shantaram’s visual inventiveness in elevating a routine conversation – it’s a single-take sequence, in which the inspirational speech is heard off camera.

The battlefield sequences, the Army camp locations and the romance that develops between Kotnis and the Chinese nurse Ching Lan might seem creaky and old-fashioned by current standards, but they do manage to sketch the broad contours of Kotnis’s experiences. All the Chinese characters are played by Indians with eye make-up, the most unconvincing being Jayashree as Ching Lan. She dresses like a man to escape detention by the Japanese army, and is hugged and backslapped by Kotnis before he realises the truth about his distinctly un-masculine comrade.

Jayashree in Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946).
Jayashree in Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946).

Shantaram emphasises Kotnis’s selflessness, which endears him to the locals, but plays down Kotnis’s conversion to the Communist cause and places his zeal within the framework of Indian nationalism. As Kotnis sails on the Rajputana to China, he wears a ring encrusted with the flag of undivided India, which reminds him of his duties whenever he loses heart.

By 1942, Kotnis had become a member of the Chinese Communist party. Three of the five Indian doctors sent to China had returned by 1939, but Kotnis stayed on along with Bejoy Kumar Basu (he was a member of the Communist Party of India, and later returned safely). Guo reports Kotnis’s reply to Mao’s cable requesting him to return: “The cause of the War of Resistance led by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party is great; I have fallen in love with it and with the masses. I want to fight with you shoulder to shoulder in weal and woe. I will never leave this place!”

Commercial considerations might have contributed to Shantaram’s astute recasting of Kotnis as a true Indian making his country proud on foreign soil. “The Second World War showed no signs of abating even towards the end of 1944,” Narwkar writes in the biography. “It was getting increasingly difficult to make films since raw stock was at a premium. Only those films which ‘propagated the War Effort’ were being given raw stock permits. Shantaram was in a fix. He decided to send the script on Dr. Kotnis as a War Effort film and no one was more surprised than he when the script was passed and the raw stock permit issued.”

Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946).

The preference for authenticity in Tubelight seems to have been driven by similar market factors. China has been warming towards Indian films over the past few years, with the Aamir Khan starrer Dangal emerging not only as the most successful Indian export, but also a deal breaker in terms of box office returns ($185 million since its release on May 5 and holding strong).

Salman Khan too is popular among Chinese viewers, and with Tubelight, he might succeed too in making a case for Bollywood soft power in one of India’s closest geopolitical and economic rivals.

Casting Zhu Zhu is a sign of how far Indian filmmakers have come in their ambition to grow the overseas market. In Shakti Samanta’s crime thrillers Howrah Bridge (1958) and China Town (1962), Madan Puri plays Chang and Wong respectively. In China Town, stunt director Shetty is Ching Lee, a Chinese shoemaker. In the ultra-jingoistic Tahalka (1992), Amrish Puri plays Dong, the ruler of a fictitious kingdom that clearly represents China.

These characters are notorious examples of Bollywood’s version of the Hollywood phenomenon yellowface. The Chinese language too has often been reduced to sing-song gibberish. A movie as recent as Chandni Chowk to China (2009) has characters named Chopstick and Hojo. The egregious comedy also features Deepika Padukone as half Indian-half Chinese twins Sakhi and Suzy (the latter’s code name is Meow Meow).

Zhu Zhu and Salman Khan on the sets of Tubelight.
Zhu Zhu and Salman Khan on the sets of Tubelight.

Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani is far removed from the slickness of recent productions, but its sincerity in promoting Sino-Indian unity cannot be doubted. The movie’s success prompted an English version, The Journey of Dr. Kotnis, which was distributed in England and the United States of America. A Chinese biopic on Kotnis’s life, Ke Di Hua Dai Fu (Dr DS Kotnis), was also made in 1982. A fresh Indian production that retraces Kotnis’s steps, this time using Chinese actors to play the Chinese parts, has the potential of becoming a crossover project in the spirit of PK and Dangal.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

What’s the difference between ‘a’ washing machine and a ‘great’ washing machine?

The right machine can save water, power consumption, time, energy and your clothes from damage.

In 2010, Hans Rosling, a Swedish statistician, convinced a room full of people that the washing machine was the greatest invention of the industrial revolution. In the TED talk delivered by him, he illuminates how the washing machine freed women from doing hours of labour intensive laundry, giving them the time to read books and eventually join the labour force. Rosling’s argument rings true even today as it is difficult to deny the significance of the washing machine in our everyday lives.

For many households, buying a washing machine is a sizable investment. Oddly, buyers underestimate the importance of the decision-making process while buying one and don’t research the purchase as much as they would for a television or refrigerator. Most buyers limit their buying criteria to type, size and price of the washing machine.

Visible technological advancements can be seen all around us, making it fair to expect a lot more from household appliances, especially washing machines. Here are a few features to expect and look out for before investing in a washing machine:

Cover your basics

Do you wash your towels every day? How frequently do you do your laundry? Are you okay with a bit of manual intervention during the wash cycle? These questions will help filter the basic type of washing machine you need. The semi-automatics require manual intervention to move clothes from the washing tub to the drying tub and are priced lower than a fully-automatic. A fully-automatic comes in two types: front load and top load. Front loading machines use less water by rotating the inner drum and using gravity to move the clothes through water.

Size matters

The size or the capacity of the machine is directly proportional to the consumption of electricity. The right machine capacity depends on the daily requirement of the household. For instance, for couples or individuals, a 6kg capacity would be adequate whereas a family of four might need an 8 kg or bigger capacity for their laundry needs. This is an important factor to consider since the wrong decision can consume an unnecessary amount of electricity.

Machine intelligence that helps save time

In situations when time works against you and your laundry, features of a well-designed washing machine can come to rescue. There are programmes for urgent laundry needs that provide clean laundry in a super quick 15 to 30 minutes’ cycle; a time delay feature that can assist you to start the laundry at a desired time etc. Many of these features dispel the notion that longer wash cycles mean cleaner clothes. In fact, some washing machines come with pre-activated wash cycles that offer shortest wash cycles across all programmes without compromising on cleanliness.

The green quotient

Despite the conveniences washing machines offer, many of them also consume a substantial amount of electricity and water. By paying close attention to performance features, it’s possible to find washing machines that use less water and energy. For example, there are machines which can adjust the levels of water used based on the size of the load. The reduced water usage, in turn, helps reduce the usage of electricity. Further, machines that promise a silent, no-vibration wash don’t just reduce noise – they are also more efficient as they are designed to work with less friction, thus reducing the energy consumed.

Customisable washing modes

Crushed dresses, out-of-shape shirts and shrunken sweaters are stuff of laundry nightmares. Most of us would rather take out the time to hand wash our expensive items of clothing rather than trusting the washing machine. To get the dirt out of clothes, washing machines use speed to first agitate the clothes and spin the water out of them, a process that takes a toll on the fabric. Fortunately, advanced machines come equipped with washing modes that control speed and water temperature depending on the fabric. While jeans and towels can endure a high-speed tumble and spin action, delicate fabrics like silk need a gentler wash at low speeds. Some machines also have a monsoon mode. This is an India specific mode that gives clothes a hot rinse and spin to reduce drying time during monsoons. A super clean mode will use hot water to clean the clothes deeply.

Washing machines have come a long way, from a wooden drum powered by motor to high-tech machines that come equipped with automatic washing modes. Bosch washing machines include all the above-mentioned features and provide damage free laundry in an energy efficient way. With 32 different washing modes, Bosch washing machines can create custom wash cycles for different types of laundry, be it lightly soiled linens, or stained woollens. The ActiveWater feature in Bosch washing machines senses the laundry load and optimises the usage of water and electricity. Its EcoSilentDrive motor draws energy from a permanent magnet, thereby saving energy and giving a silent wash. The fear of expensive clothes being wringed to shapelessness in a washing machine is a common one. The video below explains how Bosch’s unique VarioDrumTM technology achieves damage free laundry.


To start your search for the perfect washing machine, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Bosch and not by the Scroll editorial team.