Even as the Union government sidles strategically closer to the US, the art world is indulging in a spot of Cold War nostalgia.
On 15 July, at its ABC Series art auction in New Delhi, Osian’s will unfurl for sale five lots of Russian-release posters of classic Hindi movies. The films—Aandhiyan (1952), Baiju Bawra (1952), Mirza Ghalib (1954), Waris (1954), and Kabuliwala (1961)—date back to the heady first years of the love affair between Indian cinema and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The auction, says Aditi Mittal, Osian’s specialist in film memorabilia, will be the first such sale of Russian posters. “Each of the lots is estimated (at) between Rs40,000 and Rs50,000,” she says. “But the bidding may even top Rs1 lakh for some of these.” The posters have been sourced from collectors across India.
Soviet audiences were most famously enamoured of Raj Kapoor’s film Awaara (1951), which was released in the Soviet Union as Bradyaga (meaning the vagabond). Sudha Rajagopalan, author of Leave Disco Dancer Alone: Indian Cinema and Soviet Movie-Going after Stalin, estimates that it drew almost 64 million viewers across the Soviet Union, the highest for any film that decade.
Revisiting classics: Posters of Kabuliwala and Baiju Bawra redrawn for Russian audiences.
“You have to remember, this was in 1954,” Rajagopalan says. “Theatres were just being built or reopened or revived after a long post-war low in film production and movie-going. So, 64 million was a very high number indeed.”
But, Awaara was only the tip of the celluloid berg. “The trickle began right at the start of that decade, when director Vsevolod Pudovkin visited the Calcutta Film Society,” says Rashmi Doraiswamy, a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia’s Academy of Third World Studies. “He went back home and requested that films with a social realist bent be brought into the USSR.”
When, among others, the films in the Osian’s auction sailed to the USSR on that current of social realism, their posters would be redrawn for Soviet audiences. “Often, they were abstract renditions of the theme and the main protagonists,” says Rajagopalan. “Otherwise, they had random archetypal images of India that did not necessarily have anything to do with the film but told the viewer plainly that the film was Indian.”
The poster of Kabuliwala that is up for auction is one of the abstract examples. Set against a dark background, with only a few glowing-red window frames for relief, is the beige, carefully shaded spectre of the central character. He has no features; instead, he just lurches towards the windows, despair and futility etched in his very posture.
“Many of my respondents and interlocutors, and also people who wrote letters to the Soviet press over the years, claimed that often they knew little or nothing about the plot or the general storyline of the Indian film when they bought tickets for a show,” says Rajagopalan. “They based their decision to view an Indian film almost entirely on their first impressions of these posters.”
Almost two decades after the Cold War ended, though, India has moved culturally and politically closer to the US. Will nostalgia for Indo-Soviet warmth help these posters sell?
“We aren’t sure that collectors’ instincts are driven by such considerations,” says Mittal. “After all, people in India and Indians abroad have always collected Chinese art—especially porcelain and tapestries—despite Sino-Indian relations not always being on the very best of terms.”
Doraiswamy believes the old warmth still exists, and not only in India. “I was in Uzbekistan last December, and I met the Uzbek actor who had played the villain in the 1980 Dharmendra movie Ali Baba Aur 40 Chor,” she says. “And he told me, amazingly, that even now, when they re-release the movie locally, it plays to packed houses. That shows the bond still lives, whatever is happening in the political world.”
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