(This article, about Mohindepaul Singh Gill, the first ethnic Indian to make it big in showbiz in East Asia, was published in DNA edition dated October 23, 2007.)
As Mohindepaul Singh Gill weaves his way through a crowded section of Nathan Road in Kowloon, he has a noticeably electric effect on passersby. Chinese pedestrians, who normally stride purposefully with a faraway look that acknowledges no one, break step and gawk in adoration at the lanky man in their midst. A few of them uncharacteristically let out squeals of delight and ask to have photos taken with him.
The unabashed show of adulation is easily explained: Gill, whom they know only by his Chinese nickname of ‘Q BoBo’, is a celebrity showman in Hong Kong and southern China, whose Cantonese-language TV shows currently enjoy the highest viewership ratings. He’s also acted in several Chinese-language films, including one that starred Jackie Chan, making him perhaps the first ethnic Indian in all of East Asia to see his name up in lights.
Stardom – and big-money entertainment contracts – came about virtually overnight for the 37-year-old Gill, a third-generation resident of Hong Kong who traces his roots to Punjab. Growing up in a Chinese milieu, Gill acquired fluency in Cantonese, the tonal language spoken in Hong Kong and southern China, and assimilated elements of Chinese culture. “If you live among the Chinese, I think it’s important to speak their language, but few Indians make the effort,” he says. He’d been working for 16 years in Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department as a prison official when, unknown to him, in mid-2005 his colleagues sent in an application on his behalf to an ‘Indian Idol’-like TV talent show.
That show, ‘Minutes to Fame’, provided Gill a platform to showcase showmanship skills he didn’t know he ever had. Singing traditional Chinese songs, doing the bhangra, and keeping the crowds regaled with gags and some flamboyant props, the “Chinese-speaking Indian” proved a big hit with studio audiences and TV viewers. Success on that show opened up a world of TV entertainment, and in May 2006, Gill gave up his government job, with substantial benefits, for a serious stab at stardom.
That move has paid off handsomely: Gill has signed on with entertainment channel TVB for sit-coms and game shows, all of which enjoy high viewer ratings. He’s also hosted a cookery show where, speaking in Cantonese, he handholds Chinese viewers on the art of making the perfect samosa, pakoda, roti and dal. He’s even landed comedy roles in several Chinese-language films, including Kung Fu Mahjong (in which he portrays a bumbling gangster who plays mahjong with his feet), The Lady Iron Chef and Rob-B-Hood, which stars Jackie Chan.
Having made the crossover into the Chinese-language entertainment industry, Gill is playing a critical role as a cultural bridge, helping Chinese people understand elements of Indian culture better. “Chinese people confuse Indians with Indonesians, Hindus with Muslims… In a small way, I’m helping them change their mindset of seeing Indians in Hong Kong as securitymen and doormen.” But it’s equally important, he feels, for Indians in China to make an attempt at cultural assimilation. As a brand ambassador for the Racial Harmony Committee of the Hong Kong government, he’s taking that message to larger audiences. He’s also volunteering time to help support the cause of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong.
Still walking on Nathan Road, Gill stops at a traditional Chinese medicine shop and points to an ad poster of him in a Superman costume, endorsing a wellness product. “The first non-Chinese person to endorse a Chinese medicine,” he says. Within seconds, he’s mobbed by the shop staff who have recognised their favourite ‘Q BoBo’, and want to have pictures taken with him. It’s going to be a long walk back home for the Indian-origin star who has won countless Chinese hearts.