For a Tuesday evening show, the crowd waiting outside a central Beijing cinema was unusual. But so great has been the buzz around Dying to Survive, a dark comedy from popular Chinese actor and director Xu Zheng that many young Beijingers left work early to catch one of the first screenings. And two hours later, a packed audience rose for a standing ovation when the end credits began to roll.
What's most remarkable about how the film struck a chord is its unusual subject: the huge popularity of "illegal" Indian cancer drugs in China, where prohibitive costs of approved Western drugs have led thousands of patients to despair. It's a sensitive issue and what made it all the more surprising is that many elements of Xu's film made past the censors.
The film is based on the true story of businessman Lu Yong — played by Xu — who was arrested for selling 'fake' drugs, as Chinese law deems Indian generics that aren't approved for sale.
Lu, who himself was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2002, had been prescribed Gleevec, a drug from Novartis that costs around 25,000 Yuan (Rs 2.5 lakh) for a small bottle. After spending around Rs 70 lakh, Lu ran out of money, and turned to an Indian drug, Veenat, which is essentially as effective as Gleevec and is available at one-tenth the price.
Lu subsequently helped hundreds of other cancer sufferers access Veenat, and for this he was arrested in July 2014. As the China Daily reported, the court took a lenient view of his case considering both his health and the immense help he had brought other patients, and a subsequent judicial interpretation by the Supreme Court declared that the sale of a small number of unlicensed foreign drugs that don't hurt patients would no longer be considered a crime.
Co-director Wen Muye and Xu, who also produced the film, tell the story powerfully, interspersing the heart-rending plight of Chinese patients with the elements of humour that have made Xu widely popular in China.
There are several scenes filmed in Mumbai as well where the protagonist convinces a sympathetic Indian pharmaceutical firm executive to make him his sales representative in China. The drugs are then smuggled in ships to Shanghai.
In one sense, it's remarkable that the film made past the censors. It doesn't pull its punches in going after both Novartis and the dilapidates Chinese healthcare system, showing unsympathetic doctors and even less sympathetic police officials, who work so closely with Novartis that their executive is even shown sitting in on Shanghai police investigatory meetings to crack down on the spread of Veenat in China.
Cancer patients are even shown protesting outside a Novartis office, and in one powerful scene, Xu assails a cop for his harsh treatment of one young cancer sufferer. "What is his crime," he asks. "He was only struggling to survive."
That the film ends on an optimistic note as it lists the 2018 reforms announced by the Xi Jinping government to bring down prices of such drugs and to also include them under the state insurance cover for patients, was perhaps a compromise the director had to make for a China release (it remains unclear if the new policy has actually been implemented).
That still doesn't take away from a captivating story rendered powerfully so much so that Indian medicines are going to be the unlikely topic of conversation in China thanks to what's likely to be the hit of the summer.