Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Raj Kapoor: The Most Famous Indian in Kazakhstan

A few weeks on a crowded Astana bus during rush-hour, a woman in her mid-to-late 40s began engaging me in conversation. It was one of those days when I wasn't feeling particularly loquacious, but her friendly demeanor and chattiness – and the fact that the bus was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic – eventually broke through my normally misanthropic exterior.  The conversation took a generally predictable turn when she asked where I was from, and I had to respond with “I’m an American, but I was born in India…”

That sentence rarely remains finished.  “Oh, I knew you must be Indian! I love Indian movies…”  In the ten minutes that followed, during which we barely made it past two stops, she had gone through the list of her favorite movies –  usual suspects “Gospodin 420” (Shree 420), “Seeta i Geeta” (Seeta aur Geeta), and the untranslateable “Disco Dancer” featured prominently.  She then proceeded to extoll the virtues of Raj Kapoor, a renowned Bollywood actor often compared to Charlie Chaplain whose popularity in the former USSR apparently has not waned. When Kapoor visited Moscow with his co-star (and lover) Nargis after the success of their movie “Awaara,” they were overwhelmed by fans shouting the lyrics of songs from the movie, despite not understanding the words. 

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in "Awaara" (translation: The Vagabond/Tramp).
It certainly wasn't the first time that I had experienced this.  The masseuse at the Astana city banya recounted in detail – perhaps too much detail for an hour-long “relaxing” massage – her recent vacation to India, a trip she had dreamed about since watching Indian movies as a child in the Soviet Union.  Over the years, I’ve met Russians, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis and Uzbeks who have gushed over their continued love for the campy, melodrama, song-and-dance routine of Bollywood movies.  There’s even an entire cable channel in Russia and Kazakhstan dedicated to Indian movies and TV programs, aptly called “India.” Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Hema Malini and Nargis -- actors and actresses who hold nostalgic significance for my parents' generation in India -- carry similar nostalgic weight among their generation in the former Soviet republics. 

The Soviet love affair with Bollywood began after World War II in the post-Indian Independence period, but grew exponentially in the post-Stalinist era after the first Indian film festival was held in the USSR in 1954.  Hollywood was banned, of course, but Bollywood was produced in India, a "non-aligned" country in the Cold War emerging from the shackles of colonialism and led by a Prime Minister with Socialist sympathies. True, importing Hindi movies satisfied the concerns of Soviet officials because these movies rarely ventured into dangerous political territory -- in fact, many early Bollywood films embraced socialist realism -- but that alone cannot explain the popularity of such films among the viewing public. The brief and academically non-rigorous search I did on this topic revealed a number of largely unsatisfying reasons for the popularity of these movies: the "escapism" provided by the melodrama, the fairytale-like plots, and the sympathetic portrayals of the working class were a few recurring themes. I found one recent academic work that tackles the topic head-on -- Indian Films in Soviet Cinemas: The Culture of Movie-going after Stalin by Sudha Rajagopalan -- and I am eager to read this book to see if it will provide a more comprehensive perspective.  

However, Rajagopalan's book ends at 1991, which means it does not look at the last 20 years and the role that these movies -- and more contemporary Bollywood movies -- continue to play for both the generation of people who grew up in the Soviet Union and a new generation of moviegoers who have grown up exclusively in the post-Soviet era. Are these movies merely another relic of Soviet nostalgia, or will Kazakhstanis and Russians fifty years from now talk about Shah Rukh Khan they way their parents and grandparents talk about Raj Kapoor?

I, myself, am not a huge fan of Indian movies the way that many foreigners I meet probably wish I would be.  In fact, I prefer the classic films of the 1950s and 60s to their flashier contemporary cousins in the same way I love the films produced in the Golden Age of Hollywood.  So, when the woman on the bus, whose name I never sought to find out, started singing one of my favorite Raj Kapoor tunes (Dost Dost Na Raha from "Sangam"), I couldn't help but join along. Although she didn't understand the lyrics of the song, the one word she understood was "dost" -- a word that happens to be shared both in Hindi and Kazakh ("dos" or "дос"), meaning "friend." How fitting, I thought.  

Bonus: The following song from "Shree 420" (or "Gospodin 420") was a huge hit in the Soviet Union, perhaps because the chorus of the song refers to Raj Kapoor's character wearing "a red Russian hat" (along with English pants and Japanese shoes... but, of course, his heart is Indian).  

Friday, August 9, 2013

An Ode to Letter Writing

I have been a letter-writer since I was in elementary school, a perk of growing up before the age of the Internet and text messages.  

My first pen pal was my grandfather, my mother’s father who died 16 years ago last week.  I remember the excitement that came with receiving one of his letters from India, old-fashioned blue aerogrammes penned with royal blue fountain ink. Initially, our correspondence began within the body of the letters he and my mother wrote each other, but the volume of our writing grew until eventually they merited their own, separate envelopes. Nothing in those letters was particularly revolutionary: I would bore him with mundane details of my schooling adventures, and he would remind me to be a good girl, which largely involved listening to my parents.  Occasionally I would include snippets of a story I was writing – I had grand dreams of becoming a novelist at age 9 – and his next letter would include a critique of those excerpts. 

It is quite possible this childhood hobby would have died with my grandfather had it not been for my discovery of Jane Austen around the same time. Awkward 13-year-old me, about to enter high school, found refuge in the witty but benign predictability of Austen, not to mention crushes on all her heroes, who were far superior to any boy my age. Austen was my gateway to the Romantics and Victorians: the Brontës, Eliot, and Dickens. Heroines in those books were overwhelmed by letters: from confidantes, family members, potential suitors, and the one aunt in London, who would issue that coveted invite to spend “the season” in the capital. I longed for my confidantes to send me pages of their deepest thoughts, penned in secret late at night, and for suitors to court me via handwritten love letters.  

While my success rate in getting potential lovers to woo me with letters is fairly low (I’ve managed it once or twice – not bad in this day and age – though they were never quite as epic as I had hoped), I have sustained lengthy letter-writing relationships with several good friends since high school, many of whom have written me while I was abroad in Russia, South Africa, and, now, Kazakhstan. These written conversations have chronicled my life – and our relationships – in ways no Facebook timeline, or email thread ever could match, and these friends are special in that they know with me an intimacy that might remain unparalleled even in marriage. While the frequency of the letters may be appalling to a 19th century denizen, the quality and depth of the feelings conveyed in those pages would be worthy of even Emma Woodhouse, the most judgmental of the Austen heroines. 

Earlier this summer one of these friends announced her pregnancy to me via a letter. Though I already knew about this milestone via more “conventional” sources of communication, the letter represented a capstone on eight plus years of correspondence that captured our journey through post-college existential crises about adulthood. Within the pages of letters and cards, we commiserated over moving far away from family and friends to pursue our careers, being picky over the men we met (or not meeting men), meeting the men we would eventually marry, and forging new paths for ourselves. Around the same time, another friend, with whom I have had a steady – if not always frequent – letter-writing relationship since high school, showed me my entry in her address book: a veritable map of my life for the past dozen years. 

Though I strongly advocate advances in technology that make it easier for people all over the world to communicate -- I can hardly imagine how my ultra long-distance relationship would have survived without Skype -- these advances could never replace the perfect joy of receiving a handwritten letter from a friend or loved one. 

Because, simply put, a handwritten letter is intimacy wrapped in time-honored ritual stuffed inside an envelope. 

It is both personal in that it’s addressed to you and public in that it can survive into posterity. It is a time capsule, preserving a moment in a relationship between two people, as well as a relic, fading in importance in an age of instant communication. Without the benefit of a backspace button, a letter can be both reckless and thoughtful at the same time, allowing the writer to compose with haste, or with great care. Of all the forms of communication available to us, handwritten letters are the most human, filled with flaws and bursting with feeling.