A still from Raj Kapoor's classic Awaara (1951). Source: Press Photo
Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s film ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ was the first Indian film to be dubbed into Russian. The movie was released back in 1949, when Stalin was the supreme leader.
However, it wasn’t until the mid-1950s and the epoch of Raj Kapoor that Indian movies became a staple of Soviet cinemagoers, said Vladimir Shevardenidze, chief editor at the Russian television channel India TV. By the time the USSR collapsed, no fewer than 226 Indian films had been screened in cinemas across the country.
The most popular Indian film throughout the entire Soviet era was ‘Awaara,’ in which Raj Kapoor was both director and lead actor.
“Back then, Raj Kapoor was what we’d call a sex symbol,” said Alyona Kuznetsova, cosmetologist and huge Bollywood fan. The film was shot in India in 1950, but the black-and-white masterpiece didn’t hit Russian screens until four years later, where it promptly racked up 63.7 million ticket sales. Only two films in the history of the Soviet era managed to attract more viewers – The Magnificent Seven (with 67 million tickets sold) and the Mexican film ‘Yesenia’ (91 million). But ‘Awaara’ was the undisputed champion among Indian films.
Coming a close second behind Awaara is ‘Bobby’, released in the Soviet Union in 1975. A total of 62.6 million Soviet moviegoers queued up to watch the modern-day Cinderella story about Bobby, a beautiful girl born into poverty, and the rich ‘prince’ who falls in love with her. Little wonder it was so popular among Soviet audiences.
“But this tearjerker chick flick had nothing on the most popular Indian film ‘for the lads,’” recalls long-time Bollywood aficionado Ilya. He is talking about ‘Disco Dancer’. The legendary film might only have managed to make it to number 8 in the list of the most popular foreign films in Soviet cinema history, but it has remained a favourite among that generation of men growing up in the Soviet Union, largely because of its numerous fight scenes, enthralling plot and excellent music. “All the lads would be singing ‘Jimmy Jimmy, Aaja Aaja’ from the soundtrack. We also learned how to snap our fingers really loudly – just like the guy in the film does,” Ilya added. 60.9 million people saw the movie.
In fourth place is Pramod Chakravorty’s action thriller ‘Barood’. The film tells the story of Anup who, as a boy, witnessed the murder of his father. Committing the faces of those responsible to memory, he vows to avenge his father’s death. Fourteen years later, Anup has started to carry out his plan, but in a twist that tugged on the heartstrings of Soviet moviegoers, he unexpectedly falls in love with the daughter of one of the murderers. ‘Barood’ brought in 60 million viewers, only slightly fewer than Disco Dancer.
Speaking of pulling at heartstrings, the film ‘Seeta aur Geeta’ had the whole country in tears. The plot revolves around identical twin sisters Seeta and Geeta, who were separated at birth and have very different fates; Geeta is abducted by gypsies and becomes a wandering street performer, while her sister is raised by their rich uncle, whose fortune she stands to inherit. Somehow, after a series of hilarious adventures and misunderstandings, the sisters meet. The film was so popular – 55.2 million Soviet citizens paid to see it – that a pair of Siamese twins born in Kyrgyzstan (or the Kyrgyz Republic as it is now known) was given the names Seeta and Geeta by their parents.
The dramatic story of a woman called Devyani (from the film ‘Mamta’) who was married to a man she didn’t love and then withdrew from her daughter’s life, reached Soviet screens in 1969 and drew a cinema audience totalling 52.1 million people. The audience for ‘Phool aur Patthar’ was just a little less, at 45.4 million. “For me this film is a symbol of Indian cinema. The tragedy of one person and, of course, a great love,” says Anna Kolchina. The plot tells the story of a city struck by a terrible illness which takes the lives of hundreds of people. Many residents, including the family of the young woman leave. She is left alone in poor health in a large house. A thief gets into the house, but when he sees the dying girl he looks after her, and the girl recovers. She does not want to forgive her family, who left her to die.
The list of the ten most popular Indian films in the USSR ends with ‘Duniya’ and ‘Hamraaz’. “I watched that film five or six times. The girls and I even skipped our lectures at the institute for that film,” recalls Maria Kochetkova about ‘Duniya’. This film about a despotic mother who prevents her rich son from marrying a poor girl won the hearts of 45.4 million citizens of the Soviet Union. Hamraaz had an audience of 42.4 million people.
“Russians like Indian cinema for its cheeky optimism. No matter how difficult the trials, no matter what surprises life brings, everything will still be fine in the end,” said Maria Sergeyeva, a modern fan of Indian cinematography. It’s true that after the collapse of the USSR, Indian films disappeared from the screens of Russian cinemas and moved onto cable channels and into film libraries for fans. Bollywood productions are now finding it hard to compete with Hollywood blockbusters in Russia. But Indian film festivals are very successful throughout Russia, and this shows that interest in Indian films in Russia is far from waning.
Not long ago a key Russian official, former deputy prime minister Vladislav Surkov, admitted his love for Indian cinema. He said he had to keep his feelings secret because it is not the done thing for a politician to watch colourful Bollywood movies with friends, said Surkov. But in the past, his friends used to accept and share his love of Indian cinema.
“We got tickets for ‘Ram and Shyam’,” Surkov recalled in his column in Russky Pioneer. He said what always attracted him to Bollywood films was the clear distinction between good and evil, their triumphant moral simplicity and the straightforwardness of their ethical choices. In addition, Indian cinema allowed him to “hope for a miracle,” because of the incredible stories about children who would get mixed up and lost but would always, in the end, manage to find each other.
The article was first published in 2013.
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