From Bombay with Love

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Deepa Bhasthi grew up in a very small town in Southern India with mainly books to keep her company.

Deepa Bhasthi:
I’m an only child, so there was no one to fight with and play with at home.

Vivian Le:
She didn’t have many links to the outside world. This was the early 90s before email took off or AOL chat rooms realized their full creepy potential.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Vivian Le.

Vivian Le:
But one day when she was 10 years old, Deepa’s father brought her home a children’s magazine with potential pen pals listed in the back.

Deepa Bhasthi:
Back then the idea of the pen pal was very popular. To have a pen pal who lived abroad was a big thing.

Roman Mars:
There were pen pals listed from all over the world – Asia, Europe, South America. Deepa decided to write to two girls living in Russia.

Vivian Le:
But there was a problem. This particular magazine actually came from a secondhand shop and was completely out of date.

Deepa Bhasthi:
The magazines that my dad found for me were from I think the early 80s or so. I found them much later in the 90s, so there was almost a seven to eight year gap.

Vivian Le:
But even though seven years had passed since they listed their addresses in that magazine, these two Russian girls who were teenagers at this point actually wrote back. Deepa actually still has a lot of these old letters and read me one from one of her pen pals named Marina.

Deepa Bhasthi:
“Dear Deepa, how are you? Thanks for your letter and photos. I was glad to see your letter. I have a family – mother, father and sister. Our town is very small, but I like it.”

Vivian Le:
It starts off pretty predictable, but then Marina starts talking about some of her favorite actors.

Deepa Bhasthi:
“My favorite actors are Shah Rukh Khan, Ahmir Khan, Govinda, Anil Kapoor, Akshay, Karisma Kapoor.”

Roman Mars:
They were all Indian.

Deepa Bhasthi:
“I like India. Indian films, dances, songs, etc. I have the collection, photos, actors, songs from Indian films.”

Vivian Le:
Deepa’s Russian pen pals were obsessed with Indian films, more specifically Bollywood.

Deepa Bhasthi:
They seemed very, very interested in Bollywood.

Roman Mars:
Bollywood is the Hindi language film industry that comes out of Mumbai, India. It’s a portmanteau of Bombay, the former name of Mumbai, where these films are produced and Hollywood. Bollywood is often conflated with the film industry as a whole, but really it’s just one very flamboyant slice of it.

Vivian Le:
It’s usually packed with elaborate song and dance sequences, a fight between good and evil, and a beautiful hero and heroin.

Deepa Bhasthi:
There is very little that is left for interpretation, so you know that, okay, there is this guy, there is this girl, they’re going to fall in love and then end up happily ever after. It’s a fairy tale. I think that’s the best way to describe it.

Vivian Le:
When she first got these letters, Deepa didn’t think much about her pen pal’s Bollywood fascination. It wasn’t until years later that it struck her just how odd it seemed that these girls all the way in Russia knew so much about Shah Rukh Khan and Anil Kapoor.

Deepa Bhasthi:
I don’t think I really processed what they meant that somebody is sitting so far away in some small town, which probably was just like the small town I was growing up in, way before the internet. Why were they interested in movies that even we probably weren’t watching as much?

Roman Mars:
What Deepa didn’t know at the time was that Russian Bollywood fandom wasn’t unique to her pen pal’s childhood experience at all. From the 1950s right up to the collapse of the USSR, people in the Soviet Union were completely infatuated with Indian cinema. While the United States was in the grips of Beatlemania, Bollywoodmania was taking over the USSR.

Vivian Le:
There is even a famous story about an Indian actor in the 1960s who was visiting Moscow. He was quietly waiting for a taxi when out of nowhere he was swarmed by Russian Bollywood-crazed fans. He jumped into a taxi to escape, but instead of the car racing forward, it started rising up into the air. These fans had lifted the taxi over their heads and carried it down the street.

Roman Mars:
It’s possible that story has been embellished over the years, but it speaks to a very real, very intense connection between the two countries. India and the Soviet Union had completely different politics, languages, and cultures. But for a brief time, these two nations found they actually had a lot in common and realize this through a love of movies.

Kirill Razlogov:
In the beginnings, in the 20s especially, film started to be very important economically. Together with vodka, it brought lots of money to the state.

Vivian Le:
This is Kirill Razlogov, film critic and historian based in Moscow. He is basically the Russian Leonard Maltin.

Kirill Razlogov:
I am watching about 1000 films per year.

Vivian Le:
And in the early years of cinema, Razlogov says that Soviet directors were at the forefront of filmmaking, not just within the USSR, but in the world.

Roman Mars:
Lenin himself said, “Of all the arts, for us, the cinema is the most important.” He believed that a film had the power to reach the masses better than any artist’s medium, and that it could operate as art and propaganda at the same time. But when Stalin came to power, the scales tipped dramatically in favor of propaganda.

Kirill Razlogov:
Well, everything was controlled even personally by Stalin, so the censorship was very hard.

Sudha Rajagopal:
You had the crystallization of a cultural policy that says that all cinema, and the arts, and literature, and everything else needs to follow a set of rules.

Vivian Le:
This is Sudha Rajagopal, senior lecturer of Eastern European studies at the University of Amsterdam. She says that this set of artistic rules was called “socialist realism”.

Sudha Rajagopal:
Socialist realism dictated in a sense that all books and films needed to have a standard narrative.

Roman Mars:
Film will show glory of Proletariat struggle. Comrade does heroic acts. All will see the ideal Soviet society and understand the true meaning of communism. Roll credits.

Vivian Le:
Socialist realism, limited artistic creativity and World War II didn’t help.

Sudha Rajagopal:
A lot of the factories or a lot of the industries and cinema houses and theaters had to be closed down.

Vivian Le:
Kirill Razlogov explains that the war caused a shift in the Soviet Union’s movie making priorities. Rather than spending money on making a bunch of movies a year, the Soviet Union wanted to concentrate on just making a handful of well produced films.

Kirill Razlogov:
Before the war, Russia – Soviet Union – made about 70 films per year. After the war, it became five to 10 films per year. The idea was to make fewer films, but to make only successful films, which was impossible.

Vivian Le:
The state wanted to focus on quality over quantity, which in some circumstances could be a good thing, but even at its best, imagine if Hollywood was only producing five movies a year and those movies were Schindler’s List, Million Dollar Baby, Sophie’s Choice, The Deer Hunter and 12 Years a Slave. They are masterpieces, but going to the movies would be such a drag.

Sudha Rajagopal:
These were hard years for Soviet cinema.

Roman Mars:
The USSR was producing fewer movies than ever. The trajectory of Soviet cinema mirrored that of Soviet life, strict censorship and a rejection of anything remotely bourgeois. But by 1953, that would finally began to change with the death of Stalin.

Kirill Razlogov:
After the death of Stalin, there were great changes in the film industry.

Roman Mars:
In 1953, Nikita Khrushchev came to power and he wanted to chart a new course forward for the nation.

Sudha Rajagopal:
In 1956 you have this momentous event when Khrushchev gives what is called “The Secret Speech” only it was not so secret because it turned out that within a few days everyone knew about it.

Vivian Le:
Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s cult of personality and kicked off a period known as the Khrushchev Thaw. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners were released from gulags, political repression subsided and censorship was relaxed.

Roman Mars:
But Khrushchev also wanted to make ordinary citizens feel more free and happy in their daily lives.

Sudha Rajagopal:
Part of this whole de-Stalinization as it’s called in the 1950s is a shift in the rhetoric about how to address issues of everyday life. Part of this large debate on personal consumption is, are people really having a good time? I mean it really is as simple as that.

Vivian Le:
“Are people really having a good time?” Is a simple question that marked an important shift in the government’s priorities. Khrushchev decided that one way to ensure that people were having a good time was to get them back into movie theaters.

Sudha Rajagopal:
You’re also giving people a sense of stability, right? That war is over. That now these are normal times. You can also just go to the movies. You can just hang out with friends. It’s also practicality. Okay, you need to rebuild your economy. You need to draw people back into the theater. You need to generate revenues.

Vivian Le:
But in order to get people to go to the movies, the USSR had to increase the amount of films playing in theaters, which required importing more foreign films. America was the biggest movie producer at the time, but this was the middle of the Cold War and a majority of Hollywood films were seen as inappropriately capitalist.

Roman Mars:
And so the USSR went looking for someone else, a new fun friend who could entertain millions of fun starved Soviets without offending their political sensibilities. It found the perfect candidate in India.

Sudha Rajagopal:
It was very important to the Soviet Union to have a friend in India at the time.

Roman Mars:
In 1947 after years of fighting British Colonial rule, India became an independent nation.

Vivian Le:
The Soviet Union at the time was looking to build relationships with developing countries and even though India wouldn’t take an official side during the Cold War, it still looked like a promising choice for friendship.

Sudha Rajagopal:
It was a country that had a very strong anti-Imperialist politics and political sympathies among its intellectuals, and so both of these things made it actually a very attractive site for the Soviet Union to try out its geopolitics.

Roman Mars:
The idea was that this would be a cultural exchange between the two nations. The Soviet Union would import Indian films and India would import the same number of Soviet films. They would become cinematic pen pals.

Vivian Le:
In 1954, the Soviet Union took a big step towards this artistic partnership by hosting an Indian film festival in Moscow.

Kirill Razlogov:
It was a very huge event in the beginning of the 50s because the Indian films came to Russia.

Vivian Le:
This is Kirill Razlogov again. Razlogov was just a kid in 1954, but he still remembers this festival because it was the debut of a Bollywood film called “Awaara”, which translates to “The Vagabond”. (Awaara Hoon song plays)

Vivian Le:
Awaara centers around a Charlie Chaplinesque tramp character who is forced into a life of crime, but true love makes him see the error of his ways. It’s full of sentimental music, lessons in morality, a lot of deep longing stares, and some troubling misogyny.

Kirill Razlogov:
It was the biggest ever commercial success in the Soviet Union at that period.

Roman Mars:
Awaara was literally the number one movie 1954 in the USSR, selling over 63 million tickets. To put that into perspective, the top grossing movie of 2017, Star Wars The Last Jedi, sold 57 million tickets in the U.S.

Anton Seyduzov:
I was born in 1966 long after, but I do remember people singing that song, and that movie had such an impact on the Soviet audience.

Vivian Le:
This is Anton Seyduzov. He grew up in Uzbekistan when it was still a part of the USSR. He remembers just how huge Awaara and other Indian films were for Soviet audiences. After that first film festival in Moscow, the film’s star Raj Kapoor quickly became a mega celebrity throughout the Soviet Union.

Anton Seyduzov:
Truck drivers had a photo of Raj Kapoor on their windshields next to Stalin.

Roman Mars:
That Indian actor that we mentioned earlier, the one who was mobbed by Russian fans and was hoisted into the air in a taxi. That was Raj Kapoor.

Sudha Rajagopal:
They were so excited to see him that they apparently lifted his taxi and carried it over their heads. I mean, it sounds incredible, but yeah, yeah such was his popularity in the USSR.

Vivian Le:
Raj Kapoor became kind of a cultural ambassador between the two countries. When he visited Moscow in 1956 he spoke about the ways in which movies could bring their countries closer together and even quoted Lenin’s original feelings of what cinema could accomplish.

Raj Kapoor:
“The cinema is the greatest weapon to mold your country, and to bring about different countries into one.”

Roman Mars:
At the peak of their Bollywood craze, Soviet movie theaters were constantly showing Indian films.

Anton Seyduzov:
There will be 20 movie theaters operating from 10AM till 10PM – 12 hours a day – and yeah, a good half of them will be playing Indian movies.

Roman Mars:
And even the music from these films became popular, maybe a little too popular.

Anton Seyduzov:
Neighbors in the apartment complex that my family lived at were playing Indian songs on their vinyls from 6AM till practically midnight. Sometimes the same song over and over again.

Vivian Le:
The USSR’s intense love of Indian cinema sometimes even seeped into the content of Bollywood films. Deepa told me about a Roger Pore movie from 1955 called “Shree 420” in which the main character nods to the close relationship with the Soviet Union in one of the songs.

Deepa Bhasthi:
There is this very old and very popular song called “Mera Joota Hai Japani.”

Vivian Le:
Can you please sing it for me?

Deepa Bhasthi:
Oh, I can’t. I mean, I’m not a singer.

Vivian Le:
Ah, no one on the show is a singer.

Deepa Bhasthi:
Okay, this is going to sound really bad. (sings)

Vivian Le:
The lyrics in Hindi translate to, “My shoes are from Japan. My trousers are from England.” But most importantly, there is a lyric that says, “The hat on top of my head is from Russia.”

Deepa Bhasthi:
It’s very curious that there is this “laal topi roosi”, the red hat, obviously a communist reference. Knowing that they have a very wide Russian audience and that it’s always good marketing strategy to include them in the song.

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to say exactly why Bollywood became such a phenomenon in the Soviet Union, but part of the reason is that they offered something you simply couldn’t find in Soviet films.

Sudha Rajagopal:
You do not see the kind of unbridled personal emotion that you see in Indian cinema. I mean, those who don’t like it say it’s over the top, right.

Vivian Le:
Here’s Sudha Rajagopal again.

Sudha Rajagopal:
It’s in a sense where you have a man and a woman and they fall in love, and then you have four songs that are only about falling in love, right? And then you have dance sequences shot out in the nature, and then you have a rainfall that falls. They’re drenched, and they’re in love, and they’re exultant. There is an unbridled sense to Indian cinema, right? A sense that there are no boundaries to what you can feel and how you can express those feelings.

Roman Mars:
But, it wasn’t just that Bollywood felt exotic and different. The exuberant sentimentality was certainly unfamiliar, but there was also something deeply relatable at the core of Indian cinema.

Vivian Le:
Indian and Soviet films were both often about self sacrifice, a world divided into good versus evil, and class struggle. But Rajagopal conducted a number of interviews of Indian film fans in the former Soviet Union, and a lot of them pointed to something that we don’t quite have a word for in English.

Sudha Rajagopal:
A lot of Russians would say to me, we used to watch Indian movies and our “dushas”, they matched. “Dusha” is the Russian word for soul.

Vivian Le:
The soul she is talking about isn’t an individual soul. Instead, dusha is a national essence or a collective identity.

Sudha Rajagopal:
The dusha that the Russians like to talk about, “their soul”, is one that endures. It has been through hard histories, but it endures. It’s resilient. It’s spiritual in that sense of not being attached to material pursuits. This dusha they believed was one that they shared with Indians.

Roman Mars:
Bollywood films played on theater screens in the USSR right up until the later years of the Soviet Union. But towards the 1980s a new technology changed this cinematic relationship forever.

Anton Seyduzov:
The end of the Soviet Union coincided with the new era of VHS. That’s exactly when Arnold and Stallone they completely removed Raj Kapoor and other Indian actors from the screens of ordinary Soviet audience.

Roman Mars:
In the final years of the USSR, rather than watching “Shree 420” or “Seeta and Geeta”, a lot of people preferred watching bootleg videos of “Conan the Barbarian” and “Rambo”. When the Soviet Union collapsed, American film and television quickly flooded the market.

Vivian Le:
But Bollywood isn’t totally gone. There is still a channel on Russian TV that broadcasts Indian films and television 24 hours a day. And if you ever do karaoke in Uzbekistan, you might just hear an old man singing songs from Awaara. (Awaara song plays)

Roman Mars:
Okay, so that’s the first half of the story. But this was a one-to-one exchange, right, so now we got to talk about all this Soviet films that were popular in India and how Deepa Bhasthi they grew up with posters of Soviet film stars in her bedroom.

Vivian Le:
Not so much.

Deepa Bhasthi:
We never watched any Russian film in India in those years.

Roman Mars:
Oh, that’s awkward.

Vivian Le:
Unlike Indian films, which were widely beloved in all parts of the USSR, Soviet films were just not popular in India. Indian movie theaters weren’t great at distributing Soviet movies, and when they did they often screened them late at night when no one would even want to go see a movie.

Sudha Rajagopal:
These were very serious and somber films. I mean, you watched them at 11 at night. It’s not the best hours.

Roman Mars:
Seriously, you try watching Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” at 11PM and staying conscious. I tried. I failed. I never looked back.

Sudha Rajagopal:
They bought far more from us. They distributed them much better than we ever did theirs. Our films were much more popular there than their films were in India. That was the reality.

Vivian Le:
Soviet films just didn’t have the same mainstream appeal as Indian films did. Of course, there were surely Indian film nerds with thick framed glasses who could appreciate Russian art house cinema, but on the whole, people in India just weren’t as drawn to socialist realism.

Roman Mars:
But even though Soviet film never really took off in India, the goal of a two way cultural exchange wasn’t a total failure. It just took another forum. Here is Deepa Bhasthi again.

Deepa Bhasthi:
Soviet books were flooded into the country in our languages.

Vivian Le:
The USSR made Soviet literature widely available all over India. Beautiful hardbound Russian classics were translated into multiple Indian languages and available at incredibly low prices.

Deepa Bhasthi:
There were several generations of Indians who grew up on these books, so we had everything from Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky – all the greats of Russian literature – to children’s books, to science and technology textbooks.

Vivian Le:
Deepa told me there wasn’t even a bookstore in her town, but her bookshelf at home was filled with great works from Russian authors.

Deepa Bhasthi:
In fact, I think I was about 10 or 11 when I picked up a Maxim Gorky’s “Mother”. That I remember was my first big adult novel. For me, it was fascinating because it was like a big book. It was fat and it was hardbound.

Vivian Le:
She went on to read Pushkin’s selected works and Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” all before the age of 17. Deepa grew up and became a writer. She believes she owes a lot to growing up surrounded by Russian literature.

Deepa Bhasthi:
Obviously, reading these books at that age definitely influenced the way I read now, the way I think now, the way I write now because I read them at a very formative age. I still have a deep connection to these books.

Vivian Le:
As I was talking with Deepa, I kept thinking about the intention of this whole cultural exchange to influence, so I asked her if she thought at all about the fact that those books were part of some larger geopolitical propaganda scheme?

Deepa Bhasthi:
Yes, I do think about this whole propaganda side of it, but for me it was literature for itself to be enjoyed because it is great writing. I don’t think anyone is going to… no one is going to remember a politician’s speech, but you talk about books, or you’re talk about cinema, or you talk about music and that stays with you possibly for the rest of your life.

Credits

Production

Producer Vivian Le spoke with Deepa Bhasthi; Sudha Rajagopalan, Senior Lecturer of Eastern European Studies at the University of Amsterdam; Kirill Razlogov, film historian and critic; Anton Seyduzov, Elmar Hashimov, Professor of English at Biola University

Special thanks to Jessica Bachman and Deepa Bhasthi

Comments (7)

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  1. uthor

    To this days, American films in Poland are still translated (not dubbed) like the clip of the Russian movie in the episode. You’d think someone would make proper dubbings.

    1. Piotr

      I actually prefer this voice over to dubbing. Dubbed movies and TV series, especially badly dubbed ones (so a majority on TV) sound extremely awkward. And the connection between actors’ voices and the sounds of their surroundings is very hard to replicate. Every time I went abroad as a kid [to countries with dubbed movies] it struck me how unnatural and weird this foreign TV is :)

  2. Kunal Ghevaria

    Loved this episode.

    Growing up in Mumbai in the 1980s we definitely had a lot of Soviet science books. I remember one quite vividly called ‘Flying Trains’ by Mir Publishers that had a lot of the science (and complex equations) for MagLev train systems.

    When I moved to the USA in the early 2000s, I definitely had Russian cab drivers sing me Bollywood songs, which shocked me as I had no idea Bollywood was so popular there.

  3. Piotr

    If you like the outlandish grassroots Russian voiceovers of bootleg Hollywood blockbusters, you’re going to love this:

    In Poland in the 90s, there was a huge bootleg market for computer games. They were usually sold on bazaars and often by people from the former USSR.

    Some of these games were actually translated AND dubbed by Russians/Belarussians/Ukrainians to… err… something like a hilarious, half-baked version of Polish read with this strong, signature ‘russian spy in a hollywood movie’ accent.

    I still have Age of Empires and Commandos translated this way. It’s triple the fun :D

  4. Lewis Orz

    I loved this episode! It is the quirky and esoteric details that I love about this podcast. What is the music behind Sudha Rajagopalan around 15:40? What she says is so beautiful… and “an unbridle sense that there are no boundaries to what you can feel and how you can express those feelings…”

    1. 99pi

      Thank you! We love it too! The music is an original piece by our brilliant composer, Sean Real.

  5. joseph

    I actually HAVE watched Tarkovsky’s Stalker at midnight. I found it captivating and couldn’t sleep afterward.

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