With the success at the Oscar 2023, let’s take a look at the baby steps Bollywood or rather Indian cinema in general took post-Independence unknowingly that collectively India would create a niche (albeit small) in the arena of world cinema.
Why was the great dream merchant icon Raj Kapoor so popular in Russia? The answer is perhaps the optimism of the charismatic actor that inspired them to brave through troubled times.
In the early fifties, just after the devastating war with Germany, the country was still in ruins and people were poor and their lives were full of privations and shortages. But when they saw greater hardships being faced by the poor from India and too with a smile, it boosted their sagging optimism. So, after watching ‘Awara’ and ‘Shri 420’, Raj Kapoor became a symbol of optimism for the Soviet people.
Even prominent figures like ex-President Boris Yeltsin and powerful Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov could be heard humming ‘Awara Hoon’ from the first Indian movie ever shown behind the iron curtain.
Also, the common man shares perhaps the same spiritual values as perhaps all Indian movies gives the message of ‘victory of good over evil’. This is perhaps the yearning of every downtrodden soul in the world and it is so eternally bonded.
Bollywood and films from down South have always had huge fan following in Asian countries and especially in those troubled-torn days, Bollywood movies were a source of optimism for the younger generation of Russians and they took inspiration from their Indian counterparts’ lives depicted in these films.
Believe it or not, in the late eighties this anecdote reveals exactly how big B Subhash’s ‘Disco Dancer’ was in Russia. When the then USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited New Delhi, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced Amitabh Bachchan as the ‘biggest superstar from India’, but Gorbachev apparently said, “But my daughter only knows Mithun Chakraborty.”
After ‘Disco Dancer’s’ release in Soviet Union theatres in 1984, ‘Disco Dancer’ grossed a whopping $76 million in that country. For the record, that is $100 million more than what ‘Padmaavat’ grossed worldwide. Mithun Chakraborty-starrer ‘Disco Dancer’ was the highest grossing foreign film in the Soviet Union!
But these were in bits and pieces…
‘Pather Panchali’ was released in Basusree, a Calcutta cinema on August 26, 1955 and received a poor initial response. The screenings started filling up within a week or two, buoyed by word of mouth. It opened again at another cinema, where it ran for seven weeks. A delay in subtitling led to the postponement of the UK release till December 1957. It went on to achieve great success in the US in 1958, running for eight months at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York. The West Bengal government which produced the film earned a profit of $50,000 from its initial US release, and decades later the film grossed $402,723 from its 2015 limited release.
Lindsay Anderson commented after the Cannes screening that ‘Pather Panchali’ had “the quality of ultimate unforgettable experience”. In subsequent years, critics have given positive reviews. A 1958 review in Time described Pather Panchali as perhaps the finest piece of filmed folklore since Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.
‘Lagan’, on its part, made it to a close call at cinema’s biggest stage in the world, but missed the chance to make the cut.
Even as the maestro Ray received the Lifetime Achievement from Oscar, Indian cinema had to wait in general for some more time before ‘Naatu Naatu’ and the “Trunk Call” of ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ made it big at the Academy night.
Forget the Academy awards for a moment, but still you can’t take away the contribution of Indian cinema to the world’s understanding of India. Performers like Raj Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher, Mohanlal and magical filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Rajamouli, Raj & DK, Basil Joseph, Prashant Neel, and many more, have crossed borders long, long before. They have communicated through their films in their own way silently for decades without hoping for accolades.
This year’s unprecedented night at the Academy Awards is a manifestation of years of cerebral and emotive filmmaking without the expectation of any recognition from the West.
In recent times, thanks to technology and money power, India has taken major strides in globally communicating through its popular medium of cinema and films like ‘Kantara’ (Telugu), ‘RRR’ (Telugu), ‘Pariyerum Perumal’ (Tamil), ‘Sairat’ (Marathi) ‘Mandela’ (Tamil), and ‘Asuran’ (Tamil) and ‘The Elephant Whisperers’ have been enough proof of this trend which has finally arrived. These films’ plots effectively depict the local themes with an abundance of sustainability.
Efforts by Indian filmmakers have been galore and unfathomable. In this context we must acknowledge how Bharat Bala has taken to YouTube, to bring the Virtual Bharat campaign to viewers globally and how he managed to showcase eight to 10-minute videos of human stories of India that are mostly unheard of. The inspiring stories of the Ramnami community from Chhattisgarh and the story of the tribal poet Haldhar Nag (with a mesmerising voiceover from the iconic Gulzar) are great value addition from the quiver of the master.
It is not that Indian cinema has not received recognition in the past from the Academy. But the recent bumper successes signify the Indian time-tested interests in equality, fraternity, human liberty and justice. These films and recognition will take Indian cinema to the global stage where these pieces of art actually belong.
After years of sustainable art pieces, the unstoppable Indian films have finally forced the West to recognise their worth.
(The writer is senior journalist and former Senior Associate Editor, O Heraldo)