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‘In our grey lives, we happened into a fantasy world’: Why the Soviet Union fell for Indian cinema

As dubbed Russian films make their way to local cinemas, a short history of how the former USSR came to worship Indian movies and stars.

Dubbed Russian films are being released in India once again under a new trade pact. After The Crew in January, the superhero-themed Guardians will be released on February 24. As Sudha Rajagopalan reveals in her fascinating study Leave Disco Dancer Alone! Indian Cinema and Soviet Movie-going after Stalin (Yoda Press, 2008), the cultural exchange dates back to the early 1950s, when Indian films were distributed across the former Soviet Union. In these edited excerpts, Rajagopalan traces the history of the cultural exchange and the reasons for the worship of Indian films among audiences in the Communist country.

When Stalin died in March 1953, the new regime under Nikita Khrushchev began the gradual retrenchment of some of the most oppressive policies of the Stalinist era. Changes were underway and the mood already hopeful when in 1956 Khrushchev delivered the famous de-Stalinisation speech, officially distancing the party from the excesses of the Stalinist past.

Durga Khote dances with students in Leningrad in 1951. Courtesy Yoda Press.
Durga Khote dances with students in Leningrad in 1951. Courtesy Yoda Press.

At the heart of the main post-Stalinist changes—the gradual relaxation of the political stranglehold, the new accommodation of foreign political orders other than the strictly socialist and the slow liberalisation, albeit within bounds, of cultural practices and leisure—was the new friendship with India and the first festival of Indian films in 1954, held in Moscow and several Soviet cities. At first, the Stalinist years of institutionalised xenophobia saw the Soviet state’s unwillingness to engage with the newly independent Indian state. There was a general distrust of what the Soviets saw as the bourgeois regime of the Congress party, and national newspapers in the Soviet Union bestowed little serious attention on Indian politics.

This began to change by 1951 and the Indian ambassador V.K. Krishna Menon was received twice by Stalin in the last years of his regime. The Indian state had repeatedly expressed admiration for the Soviet Union and the latter began to reciprocate that interest by the end of the Stalin years. Furthermore, Soviet cultural organisations were in active touch with leftist organisations and societies in colonial and early post-colonial India. In the years in which the Soviet Union began to acquire friends in the Indian intelligentsia and establishment, the Soviet Society for Cultural Relations (Vse-sovetskoe obshchestvo kul’turnykh sviazei) or VOKS also demonstrated curiosity about Indian cinematography. Countries with ‘progressive’ cinemas displaying appropriate political sympathies were recipients of the Soviet state’s largesse in providing technical equipment and other useful materials such as books on film-making. In the midforties, legendary Soviet film-maker Vsevolod Pudovkin as head of the VOKS expressed a keen interest in the films, studios, directors and actors of India. He requested copies of Indian films, survey articles on Indian cinema, photographs of film actors and directors, stills from Indian films and press cuttings on this cinema. This new curiosity about Indian cinema inspired the visit of Pudovkin and Soviet actor Nikolai Cherkasov to India in early 1951.

Nargis at the First International Children’s Film Festival in Moscow in 1967. Courtesy Yoda Press.
Nargis at the First International Children’s Film Festival in Moscow in 1967. Courtesy Yoda Press.

With this visit, Indo-Soviet film exchanges acquired new momentum. In 1951, cultural delegations from
India began to pay regular visits to Soviet Union. That year, a group of Indian film professionals visited Kiev, met with Ukrainian film personalities and visited studios, cultural establishments and educational centres.

Meanwhile, in order to conduct business, Soveksportfil’m, the film import and export department under the aegis of Goskino (the State Committee for Cinematography), began to set up regional offices abroad in the 1940s. In India, the regional office was set up in Bombay in 1946 and in Madras and Calcutta in 1978. Soveksportfil’m’s immediate concern was the public distribution of Soviet films in India but like VOKS, it also recognised the geo-political importance of becoming acquainted with film-makers and studios in India in the immediate pre- and post-independence years. In 1949, Soveksportfil’m imported Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth/Deti zemli), the first Indian film purchased for Soviet theatres. In 1951, the second Indian film, Chinnamul (The Uprooted/Obezdolennye) was screened in Soviet theatres at Pudovkin’s behest. Both were exemplary of the early ‘progressive’ films that presaged the art cinema movement of the sixties, and were subjected to critical reviews in the Soviet press.

The Russian publicity poster for Shree 420, 1956. Courtesy Yoda Press.
The Russian publicity poster for Shree 420, 1956. Courtesy Yoda Press.

The hitherto expressed mutual admiration between the two countries was given full expression in the first Indian film festival in the Soviet Union in September 1954 (possibly the first foreign film festival after the death of Stalin). The event was truly emblematic of both the mutual interest in cultivating the other as a political ally and the new openness in post-Stalinist society for genre cinemas from non-communist societies. The festival films, Awara, Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land/Dva bigha zemli), Aandhiyan (Storms/Uragan) and Rahi (Two Leaves and a Bud/Ganga) were concerned with issues of social justice in the context of urbanisation, rural impoverishment and other problems inherited by independent India. The directors of these films, many of them members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in the fifties, brought to the Indian film industry the ideological persuasions of the organisation.

Astronaut Yuri Gagarin with director KA Abbas in Moscow, 1962. Courtesy Yoda Press.
Astronaut Yuri Gagarin with director KA Abbas in Moscow, 1962. Courtesy Yoda Press.

The festival and the atmosphere of goodwill it created went a long way in sustaining film trade between the two countries, even after Bombay films began to display less of the social ethos of early post-independence India. In the year after the festival, the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, visited the Soviet Union and was welcomed with a reception unprecedented in its scale. Nehru was the first Asian head of state to visit the Soviet Union since 1928. The Indian prime minister was invited to speak to an audience of approximately 100,000 people in Dinamo stadium in Moscow; never before had a foreign head of state from a non-communist nation addressed a Soviet audience directly.

Nehru’s visit marked the strengthening of ties between the two countries and, specifically, provided yet another impulse for trade in film. The festival and the state-level visit soon after reinforced the embeddedness of Indian films in the strategic relationship between both states. An unwavering thread throughout the post-Stalinist decades of diplomatic exchanges and friendship treaties between the two countries, Indian films remained the most visible, talked-about and entertaining ‘commodity’ in an otherwise dry, officious discourse on friendship and bilateral co-operation.

For viewers, whether of the early or later generations of Indian film admirers, these films’ genres and formal traits are remembered as offering respite from a dull, unchanging and homogeneous reality. Film scholars refer to this motive as ‘utopianism’ or ‘escape’. Although viewers never used the word ‘escape’, they did talk about ‘forgetting themselves’, ‘crying and laughing till everything fell into place’, and appreciating the engagement with a world so removed from their own. These expressions suggest escape as a motive for enjoying the films, where escape is not a passive response but an active if temporary engagement with another world.

Mithun Chakraborty at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1987. Courtesy Yoda Press.
Mithun Chakraborty at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1987. Courtesy Yoda Press.

The single dominant discourse that permeated and shaped Soviet society, its landscape , its aesthetic and arts dictated practicality and rationalism, frowned upon frivolity and the pursuit of personal happiness above public good, and valorised the Soviet way of doing and seeing above all else. This translated itself into circumscribed contact with the outside world, well-defined boundaries between public and private, and a lack of variation in artistic approaches in cinema, the arts and even urban geography.

Elena Mel’ko, part of the first generation of Indian film admirers, recalled that Indian films greatly enhanced the new atmosphere of openness and extended Soviet horizons in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death.

“For years, everything was off limits to us. And then Stalin died in 1953, and the Indian film ‘The Vagabond’ opened the festival in 1954. This was, I must say, an eye-opener. It opened a new world, one which we did not know, and it came at a time when we were in a mood to celebrate.”

Film scholar Naum Kleiman avers that Indian films were always a means for Soviet audiences to experience that which was beyond their reach. Soviet audiences read Western cinema and films of the east bloc as visual representations of societies that were outwardly similar. But they considered Indian cinema emblematic of a vastly different society where good cheer and optimism prevailed and where problems met with utopian resolutions, in a visual setting that was expressionist, embellished and extravagant.This is reinforced by the recollections of Igor’ Belotserkovskii, who grew up in a Ukrainian village and remembers as a child that he and his young friends were so enamoured of Indian films that they staged little reproductions and played their favourite film characters. He explained that the plot and the use of music and dance to convey emotions were aspects of Indian popular cinema that persuaded him and his friends to think of India as a fantasy world. He remembers laughingly that he and his schoolmates built a wobbly raft and tried to set sail for India only to be pulled out of the water in time by passers-by.

An article about Hema Malini and Dharmendra in a local magazine, 1981. Courtesy Yoda Press.
An article about Hema Malini and Dharmendra in a local magazine, 1981. Courtesy Yoda Press.

However, even after foreign films became commonplace and a degree of contact with the outside world was accommodated, Indian films continued to be valued for being a showcase of ‘exotic’ Indian culture. Soviet sociologists writing after the sixties repeatedly pointed to ‘cinematic tourism’ as an important function of cinema; surveys established that a wide swathe of the movie audience went to watch foreign films because it was a means of seeing foreign places to which they could not travel. Soviet magazines promoted domestic travel; images of other social and cultural landscapes were few and when present, aimed to discourage interest in the foreign. This increased public hunger for access to worlds that were unfamiliar or ‘exotic’. Younger viewers such as Dmitrii Zmeev and Elena Seliverstova who have enjoyed Indian films with passionate interest since the seventies explain that their interest in these films stemmed from their desire to be engaged with another society and its cultural practices; enthused by the dance sequences in Bobby and Sita aur Gita, Zmeev and Seliverstova studied Indian dance and now teach it in Moscow.

Another viewer of the seventies and eighties generation, Tatiana Kazarian, recounted her favourite scenes from Indian films of those decades, especially Sholay (Embers/Mest’ i zakon) and added that her attention was also drawn to the material aspects of the lives on screen, such as the bridal finery in elaborate wedding scenes. She explained that she relished the music and dance, and enjoyed observing the relationships between characters in the film.

Amitabh Bachchan at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1991. Courtesy Yoda Press.
Amitabh Bachchan at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1991. Courtesy Yoda Press.

In their retrospective accounts, admirers also invariably compared Indian popular films to skazkas or ‘fairy-tales’. Here they specifically referred to as ‘skazkaesque’ elements of the Indian film narrative such as the fulfilment of protagonists’ wishes and their overcoming of all odds to become empowered in the plot’s denouement. The ‘happy end’ utopian resolutions were central to audience enjoyment of this cinema. An equally significant metaphor that featured regularly in recollections of Indian films is that the Indian film show was a ‘prazdnik’ or festival.

Later-day viewers also testified to the attraction of portrayals of everyday human endeavours and the centrality of romance in Indian films. Aleksandra Alimova explained that Indian films, unlike Soviet cinema, inspired her to have personal dreams: “The beautiful scenes of love and of romantic assignations ... I wanted my life to be that beautiful. When I fell in love, I wanted it to be like that ... beautiful, happy, with everyone happy for me. That everything would be beautiful and soulful.”

Many younger viewers found the physical types foregrounded in Indian films worthy models of emulation, whether it was trying to style their hair or dress in a fashion similar to their screen idol. Young Katia Marginovskaia considered film star Rekha to be the single most important recollection she had of an eighties film. ‘I remember vividly the colour of Rekha’s sari ... apple green. In our grey lives, we literally happened into a fantasy world.... I had never seen anything like this.’

For many viewers, Indian films demonstrated cultural tendencies that they found corresponded with their own particular ethno-cultural backgrounds, especially the central place of the family. While romantic heterosexual love was an integral part of the Indian film’s plot, it was often secondary to other familial relationships in the narrative. Georgian resident of Moscow, Nonna Kotrikadze, who started watching films in the seventies with the release of Bobby, responded favourably to the portrayal of such relationships in Indian films. “This is a constant theme in Indian films and I could relate to it ... this is because our (Georgian) families are similar. Western and Soviet films showed love between men and women, but not between parent and child. I admired this feature in Indian films.”

The Russian poster of the Mithun Chakraborty starrer Pyar Ke Naam Qurbaan, 1991. Courtesy Yoda Press.
The Russian poster of the Mithun Chakraborty starrer Pyar Ke Naam Qurbaan, 1991. Courtesy Yoda Press.

In the context of the current social and sexual revolutions that characterise the post-Soviet landscape, this ‘restraint’ in Indian films is remembered in a litany of laments about ‘moral decay’ in the present. Viewers recall nostalgically the ‘good moral values’ of Indian films and at once rue that Russian films and television programmes are now unabashedly erotic. Elena Semenova commented that Indian cinema showed ‘good, sincere love without aggressive sex ... not some animal passion’.

Not only older generation viewers but younger enthusiasts for Indian films also spoke approvingly of Indian films’ restrained demonstrations of romance and intimacy that left a lot to the imagination. Elena Boikova, who began watching Indian films in her teenage years in the eighties, explained her interest in Indian films with reference to its privileging of ‘emotional’ over ‘physical’ love.

“We now see American films. The hero kisses the heroine and two days later, they are sleeping together. Indian films do not have this ... it is all romantically portrayed. He gives her a flower and is about to kiss her, when she looks away ... oh!”

Excerpted with permission from Leave Disco Dancer Alone! Indian Cinema and Soviet Movie-going after Stalin, Sudha Rajagopalan, Yoda Press.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

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