Shah Nishith Avinash (left) and Chinese director Xu Zheng Photo: Courtesy of Shah Nishith Avinash

Shah Nishith Avinash Photo: Chen Xi/GT

Tang Hanming, the Chinese name of Shah Nishith Avinash, is rather unique in that it is formed from the names of three Chinese dynasties – the Han (206BC-AD220), Tang (618-907) and Ming (1368-1644). The young Indian man was invited to give a speech as an Outstanding Alumni Representative of the Confucius Institute during the institute’s Open Day at its Beijing headquarters on November 8. 

“I became interested in Chinese while watching Hindi dub of the Hong Kong version of The Legend of the Condor Heroes. At the time, I was 10 years old and was completely taken in by the kung fu on display in the TV drama. This instilled in me a strong desire to learn Chinese,” Shah told the Global Times after his speech. 

While Shah didn’t know it back then, his interest in a Chinese TV show would one day lead him to star in a hit Chinese movie one day – 2018’s Dying to Survive.  

Shah first began studying at the Confucius Institute at the recommendation of a German friend. After applying he received a scholarship from the institute and spent one year learning Chinese at Zhengzhou University in Central China’s Henan Province for his undergraduate degree. He later took his master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language at Tianjin Normal University. 

Currently, Shah works as a customer manager at the Bank of China branch in Bombay. He also set up his own business by opening the India China Academy, where he teaches Indians Chinese during the weekends.

Destiny with China 

“I have always had a relationship with Chinese culture and Chinese film and television,” Shah said, talking about how he landed his role in Dying to Survive.

Shah said when the film’s director Xu Zheng first invited him to read the script, he thought they were looking to hire him to translate it into Hindi. He only realized that the reading had been an audition after he was told he got the part. 

“I never imagined that I would be an actor in a Chinese film,” Shah said, grinning. 

Although his role, an Indian driver, was a supporting role, he still felt the experience was an interesting one. 

For the role, Shah needed a long mustache. 

“That was the first time in my life that I grew a beard. After the film crew told me what they needed, it took me two and a half months to grow it,” he explained.

While the beard was just a matter of time and patience, wearing the head scarf for his role as a Sikh was more challenging because he didn’t have the time to learn how to tie it himself. Shah said he found a Sikh to help tie it for him and then traveled all the way to the film shoot with it on. 

“I was very afraid that the head scarf would loosen or become deformed on my way from Tianjin to Nanjing [in Jiangsu Province] on the high-speed train, so I sat straight and didn’t dare move. Just like a robot,” Shah joked. 

Shah said that the filming of the scene when he drives the main character Xu Zheng to a pharmacy was also an incredibly memorable experience. Since the shoot was located near a large market in the central part of Mumbai, it was very crowded and noisy. 

“Local people generally ride motorcycles in such an environment, while I needed to drive a car, so it was very challenging. Although I already have an Indian driving license, I still practiced driving a car in the market for two weeks,” he said.

In addition to his acting duties, Shah has also done some translation work for Chinese director Jia Zhangke and Indian actor Aamir Khan. 

Shah said Indians like to watch Chinese kung fu movies. 

“Many of my Indian friends know Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, but they do not know too much about other types of Chinese movies.” 

He noted that Chinese films could learn a thing or two from Bollywood films, as the latter are not only famous in India but also have strong followings around the world. 

“I hope China and India can have more cooperation in films and in many other fields.”

Cultural similarities 

Shah said learning Chinese provided him many opportunities to get to know many Chinese engaged in various occupations including government officials, artists and engineers. During this time, he noticed that Chinese and Indian culture have many things in common. 

“It is very interesting that in China, many parents ask their children to use their right hand when doing homework, and if the child uses their left hand, the parents will correct them, which is the same in India. Also, an India goddess called Hanuman has the same magic power as the Money King from the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West, so many Indians can accept and understand the role of the Monkey King,” he noted. 

Shah also said that the reason Indian film Dangal became such a juggernaut in China comes down to the fact many Chinese encounter similar problems as the main character when parenting. 

“We have so many similarities, and surely, we need to strengthen our cooperation. For example, the story of the Indian doctor Dwarkanath Kotnis, who was dispatched to China to provide medical assistance during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) and made contributions to Sino-Indian friendship, can be filmed under the cooperation of the two countries. Meanwhile, every time I enjoy a Peking Opera, I think of Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the lyrics of which I feel would be a perfect fit for Chinese Opera,” Shah said, his eyes shining with light.  

“The ‘China’ you search for in Google is not the real China. Only when you come here will you know what the real China is,” Shah said.
Newspaper headline: Cultural connections