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‘Bollywood and Bolsheviks’ Exhibit Explores Indo-Soviet Cultural Ties and the Legacy of Film and Literature Exchange

Jessica Bachman, PhD student in Modern South Asian History, stands near her "Bollywood and Bolsheviks" exhibit in UW's Allen Library.

April 11, 2017

Bollywood and Bolsheviks: Indo-Soviet Collaboration in Literature and Film, 1954-1991 will be on display in the Allen Library at UW through May 31, 2017. The exhibit is sponsored by the Ellison Center, South Asian Studies Center, the Center for Global Studies, the College of Arts & Sciences, and the Simpson Center for the Humanities. To visit the official website, click here

While the Soviet Union’s hard power interactions with foreign states are well known, its soft power cultural exchanges have received far less attention. One such exchange, between the USSR and India, became a cultural highway that informed and educated Indian readers while delighting Soviet moviegoers suffering under the weighty monochromatism of socialist realism.

From colorful Soviet children’s books teaching youngsters the basics of science to the song and dance of Bollywood films, a new exhibit in UW’s Allen Library seeks to explore and celebrate this cultural exchange between the Soviet Union and India during the 20th century. Jessica Bachman, PhD student in Modern South Asian History, spent the summer of 2016 interviewing Indian film legends and translators and gathering artifacts for this interactive display.

Following India’s independence in 1947, the country embarked on an ambitious campaign to boost literacy, but a paper shortage meant that books were hard to find and often prohibitively expensive for regular Indians. So the Soviet Union stepped in to provide reading material.

“When I was in India, a lot of people I met would talk about their childhood memories of reading Soviet literature,” Bachman said. “One person I interviewed talked about how he would write letters to the Kremlin asking for books and then receive boxes of of them in the mail. There was a paper crisis in India at the time and books were very expensive, so it was a big deal for little kids to receive books and to have the ability to build libraries and collections. That’s how the idea got started.”

Bachman spent the summer in India on a Mellon Grant, which allowed her to interview people who read Soviet books during their childhood and to explore the cultural relationship the two countries developed during that time.

The flow of culture wasn’t a one-way street. India left its mark on the Soviet Union as well. Bachman’s exhibit also focuses on the influence of Indian cinema, which became wildly popular in the Soviet Union beginning in the 1950s.

“Soviet cinema under Stalin was really dull and boring,” Bachman said. “There was a deficit of film, and nobody wanted to watch the films that were being produced. Nobody was really going to the movie theaters. When Khrushchev came to power, leaders wanted to boost the presence of cinema in the country. They didn’t have enough filmmakers. They had some, but they were kind of old school. A lot of the very creative film directors were purged under Stalin, so they had to kind of rebuild the cinema industry. They began importing films. Importing films under Stalin was basically banned, but under Khrushchev they began importing more from the West.

What’s interesting about the Indo-Soviet exchange is that the Soviet Union’s primary goal was to get its films into India. It wasn’t to bring films into the Soviet Union, but they had to do that as a way to get their films shown on Indian screens. Indian theaters didn’t give Soviet films much time on their screens. They would maybe show them early in the morning when nobody was going to the theaters. Soviet films were often war films that just weren’t popular with Indian audiences.

The Soviet Union decided to push these bilateral agreements to get their films shown. The Indians drove a hard bargain on these agreements because they were aware that their films were really popular in the Soviet Union, so they kind of got their way. The primary goal of the Soviet Union was to get screen time in India, so there would be reciprocal agreements in which the Soviet Union would have quotas and agree to important a certain amount of Indian films in exchange for Soviet films.

In the Soviet Union, all the theaters were state owned, so it was easy to dictate screen time for Indian films, but the Indian state didn’t own the movie theaters. What happened was the Soviet Union would get frustrated that its films weren’t being shown, but the Indian state didn’t have control over its independent theaters or distributors.”

Bachman said Indian films found a receptive audience in the Soviet Union because they were a welcome change from the sober, socialist-themed works promoted by the state.

“Indian film from the 1950s, the ‘Golden 50s,’ had a lot of song and dance sequences,” she said. Some Soviet films had those, but in the Soviet Union they were all about the kolkhoz, or the glory of the great war, or the collective. Indian films of the same period were about individual emotions — an individual fighting his way through the world, or individual love, not collective love for the nation.

Soviet audiences really liked that individual aspect of the films and could relate to it. They hadn’t seen anything like that before. The exoticism of these films was important as the Soviet Union came out of the Stalin era — the costumes, the melodrama, the fantasy sequences. Those types of scenes were kind of anathema to Socialist Realist style. Audiences loved that these films didn’t always try to depict reality.

A lot of people say the escapism was appealing, as a way to escape reality. Of course, Soviet film critics, academics, and filmmakers couldn’t stand Bollywood film. They liked what is called ‘Art Cinema.’ There was a tension over what to import. The Communist Party members wanted to import appropriate, progressive cinema. There was a ton of progressive cinema by talented filmmakers in India, but that wasn’t popular with large audiences. Those films were always screened at Soviet film festivals, but they were rarely purchased for wider distribution.”

A large part of Bachman’s research focuses on literary exchange. The Soviet Union found a new market in India as the country made its transition to independence.

“One of the things I’m trying to challenge is the notion that the Soviet Union was just trying to push propaganda on South Asia as some kind of Cold War push,” Bachman said. “The first thing you can see in the exhibit are these books on math, science, and education books. After India gained independence, developing these fields was a priority, so there was a demand for these types of books.

There was a market that was basically untapped. So, yes, there were ideological reasons Khrushchev was pushing literature and translation programs, but that is not the focus of the exhibit. I want to show how these were received in India, not necessarily the goal behind the decision-making.

One book is meant for really little kids, and it’s early binary code. You might even say it’s not for kids, it’s for tots — for really little kids to learn binary code.

In this part of the exhibit, I also talk about the wireless literary exchange — over radio as India was developing its transistor capacity and electrification was happening. The Soviet Union was able to broadcast translated radio plays to India, and vice-versa.”

The books the Soviet Union sent to India haven’t been forgotten. During the course of her research, Bachman found that many South Asians who grew up during that period have fond memories of reading Soviet books and have been seeking them out online.

One feature of the exhibit is a display of books owned by Philip Dion, a resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, who keeps a large collection of Soviet books that were translated into English.

“I learned about Philip when I was in India because Indian collectors who are becoming nostalgic for these books all mentioned him,” Bachman said. “All of them read his blog. It’s unbelievably popular among Indians because he documents his collection. If you look on his comments page, it’s almost all South Asians who use the blog as a way to connect and share memories about books from childhood. That’s how I found out about him. I drove up to Vancouver and brought back some of his books.

The Soviet Union had the offset printing press, which India didn’t have at that point. Indian audiences loved that the images and the text were on one page of the books. Before offset printing, text would be one page and the image would be on the other.

I want people to take away the technology exchange that made this possible, as well as the economics of book production, and the ways in which postcolonial state-building and the Soviet Union’s ideological goals kind of coincided to create a market for these books.”