When SRK is the 'new' Raj Kapoor

global appeal
Last Updated 17 November 2012, 14:05 IST

Despite the numerous hurdles obstructing the pleasure of viewing Indian films, they have not completely lost their appeal for Russian viewers, as indicated by the appearance of a satellite channel India TV, broadcasting Indian films and programmes and the screening of a few films on the state channel Domashniy (Home) to mark the ‘Year of India in Russia’.

The new Indian cinema does indeed hold promise firstly because Russian viewers have noticed the high quality of the productions, acting and scripts even though they might not have evolved a clear notion of ‘Yash Raj films’ or ‘Yash Johar films’ as yet. Secondly, the wider variety of themes and issues explored in the new films also appeals to the new audiences.

The most well-known Indian actor in contemporary Russia is undoubtedly Shah Rukh Khan. While older generations of fans might appreciate his manner of acting and compare him to Raj Kapoor, they believe that Khan’s films are about love whereas Raj Kapoor’s were actually made of love.

Although Khan’s acting might have been influenced by others, including Raj Kapoor, his style is distinctive and has the sincerity of ‘old-style’ acting. He is viewed as emotional and lively, quick in speech and gestures, masterfully combining hand gestures (sometimes sophisticated to the point of mannerisms) with facial expressions and as possessing an intense and easily identifiable manner of acting. Yet, his work is probably better described by the word ‘performing’ rather not ‘acting’.

Notwithstanding his intensity, charm, and emotional and physical malleability, Shah Rukh Khan appears to be acutely aware of the presence of cameras, often displaying more self-control than interiority, in contrast to Raj Kapoor who appears to be totally absorbed in, relaxed, and even carried away by his character.

Kapoor’s sincerity and spirit appear to be internal, natural, accentuated, and supported by acting, but not ‘acted out’. This is the reason why his words and gestures, even if ‘subtle’, are seen as containing profound meaning. In other words, he is viewed as an actor who does not need a stream of tears to persuade his viewers and can send out a more dramatic message with a single close-up portraying the faintest hint of a tear.

Yet another of his ‘trademarks’ is the seamless switch from one mood and one pose to another. With his versatility, the choreographed song-and-dance numbers featuring dozens of dancers in the background might have appeared like an overload in his films.

Coming back to Shah Rukh Khan, it should be said that he, as an actor or performer, is surprisingly universal. Given any kind of role, he appears to put in his best, be it the ‘Raj/Rahul’ character that he appears to have patented, the stammering (his trademark) young man in Darr (1993), or even the Asperger’s syndrome–stricken Rizwan Khan in My Name Is Khan (2010), which is definitely his strength, appealing to the audiences around the world.

Such universality is, of course, grounded in the diversified plots and themes of the new Indian cinema. With love and romance remaining the dominant theme, it is set against such new backdrops as migrating abroad and preserving traditions as in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Pardes (1997), and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001); terrorism, as in Dil Se (1998), Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Main Hoon Na (2004), and, obviously, My Name Is Khan (2010); and even Indian cinema itself and its social impact and meaning, as in Om Shanti Om (2007) and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008).

As love stories become increasingly complex and edifying, foregrounding the issue of moral choice as in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006), Mohabbatein (2000), and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, they would definitely appeal to Russian audiences.

Speaking of Kal Ho Naa Ho, the only possible plot-related question impeding its interpretation might be the strong message of sacrifice, leading to their perceiving it as an improbable surrender (the same would be true of Sangam, for example) because, in Russian thought, sacrifice might be viewed as a noble and uncontrollable act but not greater than love. For this reason, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and even Dil Se, despite its tragic end, would definitely be more credible and ‘culturally open’ in Russia.

The themes of emigration, loneliness, the threat of the loss of tradition and self-identity (and terrorism, for that matter) are also identified with, even though they do not have a cultural resonance for Russia as they do for the US, Ireland and Israel, for example. Films like Om Shanti Om and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi would require high-quality translation and adaptation more than any other films.

If Kal Ho Naa Ho and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna might have been completely lost on the audience due to the low-quality translation and dubbing ‘litter’, eventually ruining Shah Rukh Khan’s performance, Om Shanti Om, with its unusual plot structure in which one story is embedded within the other and contains plenty of allusions to earlier films, might have gotten reduced to a flat and naïve musical comedy with a supernatural twist. Speaking of a ‘typical’ Indian film of today from a Russian perspective, the first thing that comes to mind is Paheli (2005).

This harmonious and well-balanced film, containing a wonderful mystical love story and full of traditional charm, as well as song and dance, completely matches the expectations of Russian fans.

In conclusion, it would not be an exaggeration to assert that Indian cinema in Russia, even after the long period of ‘silence’, still holds promise and has a future as cultural and political ties between India and Russia grow closer again with Indian films playing a significant role. For example, when the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, visited Mumbai at the end of December 2010, he met Shah Rukh Khan and mentioned the first Indian film he had ever seen back in the 1970s.

In Mumbai, he was also introduced to the Indian actors who took part in the shooting of Russian–Indian TV series, Indus (Hindu) (2010), the first joint cinematographic project between the two nations in 20 years. All these signs are very positive, indicating that the Russian interest in Indian films still continues and Indian cinema still has plenty of loyal Russian fans.

(Published 17 November 2012, 14:05 IST)

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