One of the things I love about my fascination with Indian movies is how I am constantly learning, constantly surprised by where they take me. The day the Russians in Film blogathon was announced I happened to be watching (yet again) Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker, the film he considered to be the culmination of his life’s work, and which ended up being such a dismal failure instead.
Madhu Jain, in her book The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema, writes that “Raj Kapoor’s films are so thoroughly autobiographical that what he showed was what he was.” Because of that, Mera Naam Joker provides a fascinating glimpse into the man – and it was no suprise to me that part of the film involves the relationship between Kapoor’s circus clown and a pretty Russian ballerina (Kseniya Ryabinkina, a dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, who more recently appeared in a cameo with Raj Kapoor’s son Rishi in the film Chintu Ji), given how popular Raj Kapoor’s films (especially Awaara and Shree 420) were in Soviet Russia. Even today, the song “Awaara Hoon”, which was immensely popular, can be found in the most far-flung of places, including the subway of my home town, Toronto:
Raj Kapoor and his leading lady, the beautiful and talented Nargis, shared more than their fabled on-screen chemistry – Madhu Jain describes them as a “working pair, travelling to festivals everywhere including Moscow twice.” She quotes Dev Anand, who went as part of the first delegation to Moscow in 1954: “Whenever we went anywhere, they would play “Awara hoon” on the piano.”
But the relationship between Soviet Russia and India went beyond simply dubbing films into Russian – Indo-Soviet co-productions began as a result of cultural exchanges between the two countries, in part because the Soviets were keen on connecting with India on a political level (not the first, and certainly not the last time that culture has been used in this way).
I will confess that I knew of some of these co-productions, but have done little more than scratch the surface of them – and, truth be told, in doing some reading for this blog post, discovered more of these co-productions than I realized existed, including the first co-production, Pardesi (Foreigner)/Khozhdenie za tri morya (Travels Beyond the Three Seas) in 1957.
Happily, I’ve discovered as well that Mosfilm has put the Russian version of the film up on its YouTube channel. Sadly, they’ve not actually put subtitles on it (which are known to have existed at some point, but I could not turn them up no matter how hard I searched), relying instead on Google translation to add decidedly unintelligible English captions to the film.
And this is a shame . Now, I’ll fully admit that both versions of the film are probably slipping into a kind of oblivion partly because they are, well, probably more cultural curiousities than they are compelling viewing. The films are based on the well-known accounts of 15th century traveller Afanasy Nikitin’s commercial voyages to India, and they never really seem to figure out what the focus should be – they are equal parts travelogue, adventure story, love story (our hero, played by Oleg Strizhenov, meets and falls in love with the lovely local girl Champa, played by the equally lovely Nargis – my bias is showing, as I adore Nargis). As a result, it’s all too easy just to drift off and get lost as our Pardesi wanders in India.
That said, there are some lovely moments in the film, and a true sense of India seen from the point of view of both the insider and outsider, which makes me wish even more that Mosfilm would add subtitles to their version of the film (there’s also something very beautiful, I’m discovering via the Mosfilm YouTube Channel, about Russian films from the 50s and 60s, there’s a colour sense that is so unusual to my eyes, and so distinctive that it captivates me thoroughly). I can’t help but contrast this with Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic (The Indian Tomb/The Tiger of Eschnapur, deliciously described as “currywurst” ), where India is filtered through western eyes and an exotica lens.
And I have to smile at the scene where the Pardesi sits down to eat a meal with Champa and her family, and Champa smiles and whispers to her mother: “Mirchi” (“chillies”). It’s a classic moment that is replayed frequently in Indian films, the westerner taking a first bite of Indian food and finding it overwhelming on the spice-o-meter.
Pardesi/Travels Beyond the Three Seas loop back and connect me to Raj Kapoor not only with the appearance of Nargis, of his own father, Prithviraj Kapoor, but also with the appearance of Padmini as a temple dancer, in one of her prettiest dances.
And that connects me back full circle to Mera Naam Joker:
But I cannot close out this post without adding the one bit of either film I found with English subtitles -- the lovely song "Phir milenge jaane wale", sung by one of my favourite singers, Manna Dey. In it, the Pardesi boards a boat to leave India and return to Russia, and as he sails away, he is serenaded by the words, "We will meet again."
To watch the Russian version of the film (with questionable subtitling):