In the light of the current crisis in Ukraine, and the stand India is now being compelled to take with regard to its relations with Russia‘ it is fascinating to delve into the history of Indian actors and their mass-following in Russia.
The 1950s were very much a Hindi Rusi Bhai-Bhai era, marked by the heavy leftist political direction the two nations were leaning towards. And it was during this era that Raj Kapoor rose to being a bonafide Russian legend.
During his only trip to the Soviet Union, Kapoor landed without a visa and Russia, a country that is most definitely not known for being lax with official protocol, let him in the country with a smile on their face. Rishi Kapoor, Raj’s son, explains that after passing through immigration with ease, “He got outside and waited for a taxi… By then people started recognising that Raj Kapoor is in Moscow. His taxi came and he sat in. Suddenly what he saw was that the taxi is not moving forward and instead is going up. The people took the car on their shoulders.”
The title song, Awara Hoon, from Kapoor’s picture Awara played at official Russian banquets and it is rumoured that the song was even hummed by figures like ex-President Boris Yeltsin and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. As The Calvert Journal puts it, “The peak was in the 1950s and 60s when Raj Kapoor especially elicited fan frenzy that can only be compared to the madness that followed the Liverpool boys, The Beatles, on the other side of the world.”
The caveat is that although no one can deny that Raj Kapoor was beloved by Russian audiences, many can’t agree on why. Was his fame influenced by socialism, optimism, nationalism, propaganda, or all of the above? One has to cast a pretty wide net to figure out common threads from the Russian Raj Kapoor experience. Kapoor wasn’t even a communist. However, one of his scriptwriters, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, has been described as, “A romantic lefty who was quite attracted to the Soviet experiment.” Abbas wasn’t the only comrade scriptwriter –– The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) attracted other Leftists like Balraj Sahni, Kaifi Azmi and Sardar Jafri, and it is suspected they drew a lot from classic Soviet literature and ideas. So it’s not surprising that Raj Kapoor pictures resonated with largely communist audiences –– even Chairman Mao was a fan.
This vein of thought draws on undertones that subtly celebrate unity between the two nations’ inclination towards socialist ideals through the affable charisma of Raj Kapoor. For example, his songlines in Shree 420 could be interpreted as an instrument of promoting a political agenda:
Mera joota hai japani
Yeh patloon englistani
sar pe laal topi rusi
phir bhi dil hai Hindustani
My shoes are Japanese
This trouser is English
The hat on my head is Russian
But my heart is Indian
Nitin Giri, a self-proclaimed movie buff, points out that the hat is Russian, whereas the shoes are Japanese and so he explains, “Russia and Japan had never been the best of friends. So the Russians were quite thrilled to see that in the song, a Russian product is on top and a Japanese one is on the bottom (be it anatomically)”. He asserts that the lyrics of this song were influenced by the fact that Russia and India had good relations at that time as opposed to Japan, which was out of favour with both nations at the time.
This could be over the top, nonetheless, propaganda is not always blatant or loud, sometimes it is a soft whisper that gently confirms nationalist ideals. However, Kapoor was not the only Bollywood actor that made it past the Iron Curtain and on to fame in Russia. Thus, he could not have been the sole vehicle used by scriptwriters to unknowingly promote their beliefs. Many of Kapoor’s contemporaries were popular in Russia –– for example, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar had quite the following, and yet, their stardom paled in comparison to his.
One of Russia’s most prominent film critics, Alexander Lipkov, used to get floods of correspondence sent to him regarding Kapoor’s films. The audience’s input appeared to be unequivocally positive, ranging from fans ripe with an obsession: “I saw the film (Awara) 16 times and I did not miss out on a single detail.” (Gaiane Markarian), to those enamoured by dramatic storylines, like Kapoor’s Sangam, “I saw the sacrifices people are capable of for the sake of true love. I discovered the model of real friendship, not in words but in deed.” (Zhivkovskaya, Izhevsk).
Emotions ran so high for Raj Kapoor’s movies that when Lipkov gave a lukewarm review for Sangam he even received death threats: “Someone by the name of Ikhtiandr Zib even promised to slit my throat if I fell into his hands,” says the film critic. Lipkov didn’t buy into the obsession Kapoor’s films inspired in Russia and was more of a Satyajt Ray fan himself. Nonetheless, he did have an opinion on why Kapoor’s films did so well in the USSR. He explained in his book, “Despite the heart-wrenching passions, the film (Sangam) presented so much hope, the unaffected patriotism and love for India.” Here one can see how Kapoor’s characters catered to that apparent need. Post World War II, Russia was coming out of a dire situation just as it entered another. Life was tough and communist propaganda dominated the next few decades. So to see a poorer country promote such unchecked optimism undoubtedly satisfied the Russian people’s need for a positive portrayal of life surrounded by hardship.
Hence, even though political ideologies had a role in Kapoor’s success in Russia, it appears that the factor that led him to such exalted levels of admiration was a sense of desperation for escapism. In another letter sent to Lipkov a fan explains, “You see it (Indian films) and your heart rejoices. Everything is beautiful; there is so much beauty that you do not want to leave the cinema, especially when you think of what awaits you outside.”
The film critic also stresses the importance of the actor in this role of escapism, hinting that if escapism was the door Russians wanted to enter, a convincing actor was the key: “Finally, the hero of the Indian cinema was particularly attractive to the viewer.”
In the sense that in this world of fantasy, with elaborate dances and beautiful scenery, the protagonist had to equal his background, and sell the hero image –– and Raj Kapoor was quite the hero.
After all, it seems he helped quite a few Russians temporarily escape some of the darker chapters of their country’s history.
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