Hindi Films of the 1950s in Greece – The Latest Chapter of a Long Dialogue – By Helen Abadzi

Editor’s Note: A few years ago, in New York City, a cab-driver from Russia asked me whether I liked Bollywood songs. I knew that Hindi films were popular in Russia. Still, I was amazed at his knowledge of films and songs from the 1950s. I was even more amazed when I was told about the popularity of Hindi films in Greece by Dr. Helen Abadzi, a Senior Evaluation Officer at the World Bank. Dr. Abdazi has done pioneering work on the influence of Hindi Films of the 1950s in Greece. Please download the PDF below to read her article on full. This is a scholar’s work and a Rasik’s work. . We present below excerpts from this article.

Most people know that Alexander the Great conquered northwest India in 327 CE.  But very few people know that India conquered the heart of Greece around 1960.   Not even Indians know of this remarkable event.

Fascination with Hindi Films

            The years 1945-65 were a golden period in Indian cinema. Though made with limited means, many of the films produced then became timeless masterpieces.   Most were dramatic love stories set in a background of tangled family relations, poverty, exploitation, and misery.

The plots of the movies resonated with the wounded Greek psyche..They enabled the audiences to see people like themselves improving their conditions, but also to be transported to a reverie far from reality.   Thus, India managed to package and export its main problem, poverty, with its main attraction, exoticism.  And Greece at that time was a willing buyer. 

            At least 111 movies are known to have been imported in 1954-1968. They were most popular in 1958-1962, when at least one out of the 35 movie theaters of Thessaloniki played one or two Hindi movies in per week (For example, Awaara in 1957 played for six weeks in Alkazar, a working class movie theater in Thessaloniki.)   The films were always subtitled in Greek, challenging people with limited education to read.

           These movies were considered working-class fare.  They had much less appeal for the middle class, which looked westward for entertainment, wanted more humor, and was not plagued by the social dilemmas of the poor and the limited solutions available to the heroines.   Nevertheless, the Hindi masterpieces were seen by many.  Mother India premiered without much advertisement in Kotopouli, a downtown theater on a snowy day in February 1960.  The  first few curious spectators were so moved by it, that they stopped strangers on the way out and told them not to miss that “social gospel”.  Four hours later,  a waiting line two city blocks long  had formed, and the movie played in some Greek town or other at least for the next 10 years.

            Eventually, Greek producers imitated the Hindi success recipes.  The result was Greek films with 8-12 songs (mainly set in bouzouki night-club scenes) and tragic plots and titles.  To lure the audiences of Hindi films, Greek titles were sometimes almost indistinguishable.

Fascination with Hindi Songs

            “Mother India”, “Awaara”, and other movies established Nargis as the great priestess of the family dramas, with Madhubala a close second (Tasoulas 1992).   The ability of these heroines to express pain made the beautiful and haunting songs that they sang instant hits.  It was only natural that the emotions of the poor Greeks would be expressed through those very same melodies. Thus, starting in 1959, Greek-language renditions of many songs appeared. For example:

Sad Nargis!  Where do I come to find you? with a bitter song you can sing my own pain.

My tortured Nargis, who sings songs and wails, please cry tonight about my own separation.

I am the only one who knows your poor tears,  because I have been wounded heavily

and I can’t forget her because I love her so deeply.

(Kis se malum tha ek din – “Saqi” 1952)
            Since there were practically no Hindi-speaking Greeks at the time and movies did not clearly render the words of the songs, the lyrics of the Hindi and Greeks songs almost never coincided.  Instead, the themes of the indoprepi and other laika songs echoed the concerns of the folkloric composers and their audiences.  The principal concern was migration abroad and subsequent separation from loved ones.   Thus, a large number of the Hindi songs were transformed into emigration dirges, often depicting the lonely dependent mother waiting for a son to return.  One version of ”Gao tarane man ke” became the “bitter letter” which tells the recipient that the beloved will not return. “Pyar hua ikrar hua” (Sri 420), a song well known for its optimism, yielded four Greek versions, each one a sad emigration song.  The best known version starts with the sound of a train and has the following lyrics:

A train, a cursed train, a train will take you away. It separates us and breaks and tears my poor heart apart.

Tears are rolling in the station, mothers are wailing disconsolately but I shed no more tears, because my eyes have no tears left.

Such a pain, such a wound, may the enemies never feel, please write me every day before I die of sorrow.           

The Controversy

            In the 1960s, many educated Greeks did not look kindly on the Hindi movies and songs.  They saw them as a threat to the country’s drive for modernization.   The middle class admired the West.  Its members associated the indoprepi with refugees from Turkey, poorer people, uncouth villagers, and backwardness in general. Emigration was not a middle-class concern. 

            Students often ridiculed or parodied the laika songs and the tearful movie titles. In particular, young women, who had brighter prospects than their mothers through education and salaried work, wanted to have nothing to do with them. 
The negative middle-class attitudes towards the Hindi imports were expressed through articles such as the following:

                                                    Sinking low

            The historical moment when Alexander the Great conquered India was fateful.  So fateful and defining that thousands of years later we are paying for the consequences.

            This conclusion is completely true.  India conquered Greece in every artistic expression, to the point that we imitate it and follow it slavishly..     

            It is not permissible, when we fight to stand in the geographical space of Europe to have become a spiritual colony of India..  Except if, as we wrote in the beginning, we are now paying for the consequences of Alexander’s conquests…  But even then, the price is too high (Matsas 1961).         

            Clearly, people loved Hindi songs, and profits were large. Copyright laws were lax or non-existent at that time, and the bardic tradition (dating from Homeric times) of adapting existing melodies to suit the conditions of the time was still strong. The folkloric musicians were often poor and poorly educated, and saw a way to make some extra money.  Some people who lacked significant talent became known composers by taking Naushad’s works in their names. The tendency of musicians to reproduce Hindi songs resulted in humorous episodes, as in the case when three composers went to a studio at the same time to record different versions of the same Hindi song (Tsitsanis 1979).

            This scandal could not be hidden for long.  Audiences often did remember the movie originals, and the outcry started a controversy that raged for years.           

            But nostalgia in cultures often brings back old productions. The generation born in the 1970s did not find the eastern-sounding songs threatening and made them fashionable, releasing new renditions.  Thus, in 1998, one could hear again on the radio melodies from movies that had been long forgotten in India and Greece, such as  ”Mera naam raju” and “Gao tarane man ke” (“Mangala, the daughter of the maharaja”). At the time the research was undertaken, the Hindi, Arabic, and Turkish songs that had once been copied or imitated were again in full swing.  The resulting book, “Hindi-Style Song Revelations” (Abadzi and Tasoulas 1998), was widely reviewed by the press in the summer and fall of 1998. Many articles wrote that in the 1950s Athens and Delhi had had remarkable similarities and the people had very similar concerns (Keza, Bakounakis, Kessopoulos, Zografou, Papadopoulos; 1998).
Forgotten Connections

            Did the indomania of the 50s have any historical significance?  Hindi films became popular in many countries the outside indic world, such as Russia, Turkey,  Tunisia, Egypt, Uganda, even Colombia; the plots generally resonated with the concerns of the poor, and the songs were uniformly considered melodious.  Some songs were adapted in many countries, such as “Awaara hou”.  But it appears that Hindi songs were not copied outside South Asia as widely as they were copied in Greece.  Few are known to exist in Turkey and in the Arab world, which have specific musical traditions.  By comparison, at least 26 Greek musicians are known to have adapted Hindi songs.  The systematic Greek acquisitions may be due to commercial ingenuity that found opportunities in a country that was too far to protest.  However, profit alone is not a sufficient explanation.  Perhaps there is an affinity that created this special allure.

Ethnomusicological Search for the Hindi Movies and Songs

            Interest in the indoprepi songs started as a hobby for author (a Hindi-speaking Greek educational psychologist), who remembered seeing some Hindi movies as a child.  In partnership with Emmanuel Tasoulas, a dentist in Athens who had a large collection of Hindi-movie posters and pictures, an amateur ethnomusicological research project was carried out in 1996-1997.  The researchers tried to find:

– which Hindi movies were played in Greece;

– the songs of those movies;

– which of the movie songs had engendered Greek songs (through a search of Hindi songs);

– which “suspicious” Greek songs were Hindi (through search of Greek songs);

           The research also brought out some issues of psychomusicology that had not thus far been identified in field research.            

            It is unfortunate that the Hindi adaptations were not seen as a positive cultural phenomenon.  The musicians that used them deserve congratulations and praise for the work that they did.  They heard a distant sound of a common cultural past, which they tried to transmit.  In turn, this article transmits it to the readers of the 21st century.

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