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).  


  1. Really well-done post & thanks for sharing the vids!

  2. Very interesting! Every time I read your blog I learn something and am entertained at the same time! Win-win.

  3. Thanks for your kind comments! My goal is to entertain (and inform), so I'm happy to keep doing that :)

  4. Wondering if anyone recalls the black and white 'Teesri Kasam' which as you call your parents favorite actors- Raj Kappor and Waheeda Rehman. An unusual pairing in otself because Waheeda rehman did not act as much with RK as he was called as with the debonair Dev Anand in such classics as RK Narayans' Guide. I think it is the recolelction of songs which is part of the remembrance and its easy allusion to and translation into Russian/Kazakh etc. Dev Ananad despite also being from the Punjab that at one time shared borders with the Russian empire relied a lot on SD Burman whose music was more in the Indian folk/classical mould and whose words were more Hindi/Bhojpuri rather than Hinudtani(Urdu). On the other hand RK mostly went with Shankar/Jaikishan who probably borrowed heavily from Tchaikovsky amongst others making their tunes aside from the Urdu words easy to catch for the Russian/Kazakh audience. Just try translating 'Paan Khaiye Saayan Hamar' which converts to 'My lover eats Paan ( Betel leaf' versus 'Meera Jooat hai Japani'. Great piece

    Jagannathan Viswanathan

    1. Interesting point about language (Urdu/Hindustani versus classical Hindi), but since these songs were popular even in the non-Turkic/non-Persian parts of the USSR, my guess is language may not have played a huge role in popularity. Officials were responsible for picking the films to be shown commercially in the USSR, and I'm not sure how they picked which movies to show. Once they saw the popularity of Awaara and Shree 420, though, they did seem to pick Raj Kapoor movies with frequency!

      (Also, Dev Anand was part of a 1955 delegation to Moscow with Nehru).