THE LIGHTS IN THE HALL GROW DIM. Russian flute music replaces the murmurs of the audience and on the screen a truck wobbles up a dirt path. The sky is clear blue; the truck’s wheels spin clouds of dust. In the back are containers of milk and egg trays, and on one side sits a pair of rusty tin cans that look like over-sized carrom discs. The truck comes to a halt and the driver unloads the two cans. From afar, an old man, trailed by village kids, comes to take the delivery.
The cans, it turns out, contain reels of films, and it’s only when the same old man is seen posting a notice outside the local cinema that we find out just which one: the 1982 Mithun Chakraborty-starrer Disco Dancer. “Movie from India!” a villager announces to the kids who have gathered round. “Ticket will cost two eggs... Lots of dancing and fighting in the film!” He kicks and punches the air.
The audience in Delhi’s Russian Centre for Science and Culture was laughing with delight as they watched Russia’s entry to the BRICS Youth Short Films Festival, a first-of-its-kind initiative held in March that formed the cultural leg to the fourth annual BRICS summit. The story of a boy named Ilnur who is an ardent fan of Indian movies, the film Enmesh depicts the extent to the Soviet love for Bollywood in a small village. It is a love held, too, by 24-year-old Ainur Askarov, the film’s director.
“Movie theatres were houseful whenever an Indian movie played,” Ainur, who lives in St Petersburg, says. “I can’t even remember which was the first one I saw. But I saw many. Sita and Gita, Elephants are My Friends—and, of course, Disco Dancer. We sang songs from the movies, though we didn’t understand them.” The Russian romance with Indian films began during the post-Stalin era of the 1950s, when the first Indian Film Festival was held in the Soviet Union (in 1954). The government initiated a policy to liberalise leisure and culture, and in this new political climate, called the Thaw, the USSR opened its borders to foreign films. Raj Kapoor’s Awaara touched the hearts of Soviet audiences and became a colossal success, the song ‘Sar pe lal topi Russi, Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani’ picked up as a popular tune, and many named their newborns after the stars, Raj and Nargis.
In Enmesh, 10-year-old Ilunr, who lives on the farm with his grandmother, spends his days strumming a toy guitar and singing songs from Disco Dancer. Tired of his croaking, his grandmother decrees that he cannot go for the evening show until he completes his chores on the farm. Ilnur, suddenly efficient as an elf, does one task after another. In the evening, however, he finds that his grandmother has cooked all the eggs, and his ‘ticket’ is lying sunny side up on the supper table. Ilnur runs to the barn and searches everywhere—in the hay, behind the shed and even inside a hen. Finally, he finds one egg and runs to the cinema. But by the time he reaches, the doors are locked and the song ‘I am a Disco Dancer’ is blaring from inside. Ilnur claws up the back wall to get in through the ventilator. He is about to climb in when he loses his footing and is left dangling and crying for help. Ilnur limps into the theatre long after the movie is over. Holding out the one egg, which he has somehow managed to save, he begs the old man to show him the movie.
“Enmesh is absolutely autobiographical,” Ainur gushes. “That’s how we went to the movies. The ticket was always in eggs, because people did not have money.” In a time when both money and travel opportunities were limited, Indian movies gave Soviets access to a new cultural world. In India, too, a generation that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s accessed the far-off land of the Soviet Union through Soviet literature, magazines and fairy tale collections made available by Soviet publishers and the House of Soviet Culture, which had centres in nearly every small and big Indian city. But by 1991, all that disappeared.
2012 marks the 65th anniversary of the cultural ties between the two countries. The political premise of BRICS might appear shallow to the cynics, but the shared cultural nostalgia between India and Russia indeed goes deep. For Ainur it seemed like a double victory when Enmesh won the Best Film Award at the festival in India, “It is indeed a very big reward for me!” he says.