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May 31, 2000


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'Awara was phenomenally popular'

Ambassador (rtd) K Gajendra Singh

Awara It was a cold December evening in Bucharest, the beginning of the worst period of dictator Ceausescu's regime. The year was 1983 and I was in a cold military guest house with General A S Vaidya. We were on an official visit to Romania. After the usual professional small talk, there was a long silence. To break the ice, I enquired if any one had seen Awara. Instantly, there was an animated conversation in a language every one understood and comprehended.

During the Communist era, Indian films and their music reached great heights in terms of popularity. Many Romanian girls and boys learnt to mimic Indian film songs by repeating the lyrics. Some even blossomed into professional pop artists, performing at their own Indian film music concerts.

One re-christened herself Nargita (from Nargis) and cut albums which made her a household name. She often visited India and sang for Indira Gandhi, wearing a saree gifted by the latter, when she visited Romania in 1981.

General Vaidya was a soldier of rare courage. As old acquaintances at the National Defence College, New Delhi, in 1976, we got talking about everything from tank warfare to metallurgy. When I asked him if he had been abroad earlier, he smiled and replied, "Yes, but without passports and visas."

About his MVC , he modestly replied that he could have either been court-martialed or honoured for his action. His wife, Bhanu, seemed to have some kind of premonition about the future though. She remained very tense throughout the visit, although Blue Star and his assassination lay in the future.

Notwithstanding the claims of the west -- which felt The Sound Of Music, Star Wars, its sequels and Jurassic Park have been the most popular films in the world -- Awara will probably be the only film seen by the largest ever percentage of humanity, perhaps for all time to come.

There are very few sexagenarians who wouldn't have seen the film during their youth. It was phenomenally popular everywhere, except in North America and West Europe. Even the Russian Nobel laureate, Solzhenitsyn, mentions it often in his One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch.

In the early 1950s (the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai days), the Chinese also saw Awara -- that sure added up to a large number. The Turk who imported Awara became a multi-millionaire with the proceeds (it is still telecast on Turkish channels, as it is in many other countries). Fifteen years later, the man who bought the exhibition rights for Sangam earned millions too.

Algiers, 1965. We had set up a pavilion to promote Indian tea. But, handicapped with the usual delayed sanctions and financial stringency, we couldn't even get a power connection in time. So we used candles and had to literally drag Algerian President Boumedienne to our pavilion. We weren't attracting large crowds but, from time to time, young boys would come singing Awara hoon.

Dara Singh In Algeria, mainline films were not the hot favourites. The reigning Indian hero and heroine were the grade two stars, Dara Singh and Mumtaz. Young boys would talk of Dara's muscles. So we hit upon a plan. First Secretary Iyengar was rather broad and burly and spoke charming French. We lied a little and made it known that he was Dara Singh's younger brother. Viola! We had huge crowds of young urchins flooding our stall and pumping Iyengar's hand vigorously. He seemed to be enjoying himself till we let him into our little secret. But he fell in with the idea and, soon, was even signing autographs.

As part of a delegation to the West African nations in 1975, we visited Guinea Conakry, a poor country that was rich in resources. It was ruled by the fiery socialist leader, Sheiku Toure.

While being driven from the airport to the President's palace, I saw posters of Indian films. When I expressed my surprise, the President's chief of protocol, who was travelling with me, remarked with great enthusiasm that Indian films were very popular in his country. His favourite star was the dancing queen, Helen. He was keen on meeting her if he ever made a trip to India.

In 1989, after reaching Amman, the capital of Jordan, I went to the nearby Mount Nebu, where the Jewish prophet Moses is believed to be buried. There is a sixth century Byzantine temple and other mosaic-studded monuments nearby. While I was admiring the magnificent panoramic view, a bunch of Arab school boys came up to me time and again, repeating, "Bukkan, Bukkhan."

I ignored them till one boy was more specific and added Amit. God Almighty! I just couldn't escape Lamboo, could I?

Of all the countries I have visited, the most amazing one was the former French colony, Senegal. The Senegalese have no film industry of their own. And they are not too fond of French films, except for a small French elite and some Franco-phone Senegalese.

It was the Lebanese, Christians mostly, who occupied the same position as the Indian trading community in East Africa. They had only a few film theatres screening Lebanese or Egyptian films. A majority of cinema theatres screened Indian films. Every week, there had to be two fresh releases. The state monopoly which imported, distributed and exhibited the films, grossed 80 per cent of its profits from Indian films.

The Senegalese adopted the Indian film industry as their own. When, at the height of his popularity, Amitabh played brother to the heroine, the film flopped instantly. The crowds would accept him only as the hero.

It was an experience for my children, Bulbul and Tinoo, to see the Senegalese watching our films with such awe and wonder, clapping as an actor made his entry, even of it was Mukri or Sundar. They lapped up the Indian masala film and all its myths. They even began to believe that, if you killed a snake, its mate would strike back in revenge.

During my 28 month stay at Senegal's capital, Dakar, I saw more Indian films than ever before. By the time I left, I could differentiate between all the Kapoors, Khannas, Kumars and even between Rekha and Rakhee.

The Senegalese love for Indian films and what they took from it as Indian culture blossomed into music clubs and groups. The Mohammed Rafi Club held its annual singers competition to crown the Mohammed Rafi of Africa.

Mohammed Rafi Soon after his death, while I was riding the elevator to my office, a young lady hesistantly asked if I worked at the Indian Embassy. When I replied in the affirmative, she enquired if Mohammed Rafi was dead. I said yes. Her face lost color and she started sobbing. She told me, through tears, that she had come only to confirm the tragic news. There were many messages of condolences.

Another club, for some inexplicable reason, was called the Rajasthan Club.

I also attended a commercial show of the Dosti Bandhan club. It was a house full event, even though the entry tickets were priced at $2 each. Apart from singing of Indian film songs, they made a valiant attempt at reproducing Indian dances, with young Senegalese boys and girls dancing and miming the words with an LP playing in the background.

The piece de resistance was a dance by a tall, willowy, ebony-colored Wolof male. He was as flexible as rubber and gracefully replicated whatever he had imbibed from Indian films, about Bharatanatyam, Oddissi and Kathak -- all put together in a most sinewy way, outdoing even Sridevi in Naagin (I learned later that he performed at Paris' famous night club Moulin Rouge).

I invited them to a reception one evening and presented the clubs with LPs of Indian folk and film music. Coming from the conservative middle class, they did not like Indian heroines donning western dresses, aping the west.

The Senegalese love and understanding of our culture through Indian films had a comic, tragic example. A young Senegalese boy, who came to study at Pune's Film Institute, thought singing to Indian girls in the streets would charm them. But that didn't work out too well!!

Now, Indian films are not very popular with the East Europeans and the Turks, who are determined to join the European Union. Still a couple of private channels telecast Indian films, dubbed in Turkish. You can see Dharmendra, his sons and Mithun speaking fluent Turkish.

But, in Central Asia, Indian films and their music remain popular because of their similarity to local music.

In 1998, when on a lecture series, I stopped at a chaihane between Bukhara and Samarkand. Its owner, apart from Indian music, also played songs of a local singer whom they called the Mukesh of Uzbekistan. Of course, he would not accept money for the tea.

In Ferghana valley's Andijan (Emperor Babur's birthplace), a school where Hindi continues to be taught, put up a show of Indian dances and music in my honour (the good old Echakh dana of Shree 420 interspersed with the present day's pop tunes).

Perhaps, the word Awara is of Central Asian origin and has been assimilated into Hindustani like many hundred other words of Turkish origin -- top, tamancha, bahadur, achar, sahib, naukar andchakar for example.

But what took my breath away was an enquiry in 1969 about Dilip Kumar from a veiled Muslim lady in Eastern Turkey near lake Van, close to the Iranian border, an area as remote as the wilds of Bastar or Sundarbans. And an enquiry about Rajendra Kumar in the heart of Africa, as I was on my way to Timbuctoo, in 1979.

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