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Back in the USSR

books Updated: May 05, 2008 19:45 IST
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Back To Russia


Sudha Rajagopalan


YODA


RS 350 PP 241



If not for a surprising piece of news from Russia, this book may have stayed as a prime example of meticulous analysis of a subject, seemingly obscure nowadays, but sion audience - is due to an astounding success of Indian movies with the Soviet/Russian public since 1953, when Raj Kapoor rushed into Stalinist Russia with his

Awara

.



The first part of this book, based on Sudha Rajagopalan's doctoral research, is a known one. The fact that Soviet movie-goers loved Indian popular films has been well documented. You only need to supply the details to turn the subject into a book.



The Soviet market was indispensable for the Indian cinema industry The author marks that in the crucial post-Independence period, it was the Soviet audiences, along with the Indian diaspora, that "helped this cinema hold its own at home and abroad".



Love stories are touching. The author provides a vivid description of thousands of Russians lining up to see Indian movie stars of the 50s, the 60s and the 70s - the most revered of whom were Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Nargis and Nirupa Roy Also, it is enough to say that every Russian village was waiting greedily for an Indian movie - something that held true even as late as the 70s.



The book soberly analyses the obvious fact that Soviet society under communism was an ideologically restricted one. Foreign cultural influences were censored carefully Indian movies that rushed in the Soviet Union right after Stalin's death happened to correspond with the first steps of the Soviet system towards a slightly more open society India was considered to be something in between the 'corrupt capitalist' West and communist Eastern Europe.



The Indian movies might not have been 'communist' at all, but the Soviet leadership was "humouring the tastes of the consuming public", claims Rajagopalan. It was better to humour them with something Indian than, say, with Hollywood fare. And then comes the second and much more complicated task that the author takes upon herself under the title 'Cultural Mediation and Disengagement'.



This part concerns Soviet reviews of Indian movies. Rajagopalan takes the works of communist cinema critics at their face value, analysing the numerous reviews as a manifestation of the subtle clash of communist ideas on the arts with the all-too-entertaining nature of most In- dian movies.



The reviewers stressed that 'pure entertainment' was a notch below 'real art', the one that was supposed to show the mechanics of class struggle, etc.



"Leave the disco dancer alone", the phrase that is the title of the book, was the silent and then (in the Gorbachev-era 80s) notso-silent public reaction to these dull propaganda. (Disco Dancen that Indian version of Saturday Night Feven was wildly popular in the last years of the Soviet Union.) You have to be Russian and have the experience of both Soviet and post-Soviet periods to realise that things are not as simple as Rajagopalan sees them.



Even today, Russian attitudes to Indian filmmaking shows that there are two Russias: the 'public' and the 'elite'. While in the 50s both classes were admirers of Bollywood production, by the 70s, the 'elite' was falling out of its 'Indian love', becoming more and more Westernised, while the 'public' stayed faithful. Russia has changed.



The Westernised elite is demoralised, the younger generation is showing interest in the West and the East alike. But the 'masala channel' on Russian TV should easily find a receptive audience in the Russian countryside. Where exactly will modern Indian movies fit? Which social group will accept it easier? These are good questions.



Nostalgia among the older generation still fuels the love affair for Indian cinema. Is it possible that a new surge of modern Indian popular movies on Russian screens will spark a new love between the two peoples? Watch the Russian TV space.



Dmitri Kosyrev is a political analyst of the Russian news agency, RIA Novosti. He is also the author of a series of historical thrillers The Disco Dancer Comes