Camera, action: Moscow woos Bollywood with a soft power weapon of the new, multipolar world
Though the craze over Raj Kapoor and Mithun Chakraborty came to an end along with the Soviet Union, Indian and Russian filmmakers are trying to revive old cultural links
It's a thrilling high-speed motorbike chase sequence over a frozen Lake Baikal in southern Siberia in this year’s Bollywood blockbuster ‘Pathaan’, starring Indian film stars Shah Rukh Khan. Deepika Padukone and John Abraham are part of a trend of Indian filmmakers looking to unexplored, gorgeous shooting locales in the Russian Federation.
Other films on this bandwagon include this month’s action-thriller ‘Tiger 3’ starring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif, which was partially shot in St. Petersburg, showing the splendor of the Russian Empire’s former capital. Several south Indian Tamil-language films were also shot in Russia, including Ajith Kumar’s ‘Valimai’ and Ajay Gnanamuthu’s ‘Cobra’, starring Chiyaan Vikram. The upcoming ‘Agni Siragugal’ was shot in, among other places, Russia, Kazakhstan and Central Asia, under extreme weather conditions.
Cinema as a core of cultural exchange between the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and India began with Raj Kapoor’s classics of the 1950s, ‘Awaara’ and ‘Shri 420’. Kapoor continued to be an icon for the next 20 years; ‘Awaara’ – dubbed in Russian and released as ‘Brodiaga’ – became a rage that not only warmed the heart of an Indian visitor to the USSR, but also played on loop at official banquets.
In 1970, Kapoor’s ‘Mera Naam Joker’ featured Russian ballerina and actress Kseniya Ryabinkina. Other Bollywood stars like Nargis, Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha and Mithun Chakraborty had millions of fans across the USSR. Kseniya made her return to Bollywood in 2009, acting in ‘Chintu ji’ that starred Raj’s son Rishi Kapoor.
Fast forward to 2015, when the Filmmakers Union of Russia organized ‘Russian Film Days’ in Mumbai. On the sidelines of the screenings, industry professionals discussed how to revive the Soviet-era passion for Bollywood in Russia, but also how to make Russia’s attractions, from its European architectural heritage, to the breathtaking landscapes of Lake Baikal, to the Caucasian mountains that have been posited as an alternative to the Swiss Alps, a favorite for Bollywood shoots.
That process got a boost at the ongoing 54th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa. The buzz for exploring more shoots in Russia was audible as Indian directors and producers made a beeline to the Russian pavilion at the IFFI’s Film Bazaar, South Asia’s largest global film market.
Among them was award-winning producer Gautham from Chennai in Tamil Nadu, who plans to shoot his next film in Russia.
Gautham was encouraged by his discussions with representatives of Russian companies that offer location scouting and production services. “I have been mulling over shooting my next film in Russia, and this year’s Film Bazaar was handy,” he told RT. “The interactions gave a clear picture about the options available. It is not just about location, Russia is ready to help Indian filmmakers with paraphernalia for movie production,” he said.
Hundreds of Indian filmmakers reached out to two government-supported entities at the Film Bazaar: Roskino and Moscow Export Centre.
Roskino brought 11 service companies while Moscow Export Centre lined up 14 companies with expertise in production, visual effects, subtitling, animation and post-production. They also showcased animation movies, feature films, sports dramas, comedies, series and documentaries for potential buyers.
Established in 1924, Roskino, which functions under Russia’s Ministry of Culture, has been promoting Russian films worldwide for the last 100 years.
“We ensure the participation of Russian film companies in global film markets. They showcase our expertise to potential clients,” Roskino’s Public Relations Director Svetlana Kabanova told RT.
“We are keen to explore film markets in Japan, Vietnam, China and Dubai,” Kabanova said. “But our main focus is India because of the historical ties between the two countries.”
Moscow Export Centre’s India representative Evgney Konev said the response from Indian filmmakers was positive. “It is not just about business, it is about cultural exchange too,” he said.
Cinematic Cooperation Blossoms between India and Russia RT's TA Ameerudheen (@visual_orbit) caught up with members of the Russian delegation on the sidelines of International Film Festival of India in Goa.With decades-old deep cultural ties between the countries, Russian… pic.twitter.com/0R2WMDdNMo— RT_India (@RT_India_news) November 27, 2023
A majority of the discussions revolved around the prospects of Indo-Russian co-production, which would offer a win-win situation for filmmakers from both countries.
“Indian filmmakers will benefit from Russian technical expertise while Russia can tap the potential of the Indian market,” Roskino’s Kabanova said.
Indian movie buffs’ love affair with Russian movies dates back to the early 1970s. Russian films were regular fixtures in film festivals across India until the end of the USSR.
Elena Remizova, Director of Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Mumbai told RT that Indian filmmakers have been flocking to the Russian Centre in Mumbai to watch Russian movies since its inception in 1975. “Indians are hungry for Russian movies. They love Russia,” she said. “That is why I feel Indian-Russian collaboration in film production is definitely going to happen.”
Indian film professional Subash Babu, co-founder of Bangalore-based subtitling company One Inch Barrier, agreed. “India and Russia enjoy a strong cultural relationship. Russian language movies played a key role in fostering ties between the two countries,” Babu told RT.
“Russian movies came with English subtitles, but it couldn’t connect with a majority of the rural Indian audience because of the language barrier. The movies would have gotten a wide reach had they screened the movies with subtitles in regional languages. There is scope for cooperation in this segment too,” he said.
Russian firm Cyrillica has already realized the importance of content localization. The Moscow-based company dubbed the Mahabharata series in Russian language with the support of an expert group.
“It took eight months to complete the 267 episodes of the epic series. It was well-appreciated in Russia. This shows the importance of content localization,” Cyrillica’s head of South Asia content, Sergey Yaroshinsky, told RT.
WORK IN PROGRESS
Many Indian filmmakers felt that India and Russia should capitalize on the current geopolitical situation to popularize films from both countries.
“It is time to bust the myth that Hollywood produces the best movies in the world. Russia produces high quality movies that can challenge US hegemony,” film student Govind Navelkar told RT.
He cited the huge appreciation for Tina Barkalaya’s ‘Hoffman’s Fairy Tales’, the only Russian film among the 15 movies vying for Golden Peacock Award at the IFFI. “I was overwhelmed by Barkalay’s craft. Such a great filmmaker can produce world classics,” he said.
An ardent fan of India, Barakalaya herself has announced that part of her next film will be shot in India. “The production will start soon,” she told RT during an exclusive interview recently.
The talk of joint film ventures by both countries, however, has been going on for almost a year. Russia sent a huge delegation to the 2022 Film Bazaar in Goa. Despite a lot of deliberation on various projects, only a few yielded the desired results. Roskino’s Kobanova said:
“The joint ventures are a work in progress. It will take some time for big budget projects to materialize. Indian filmmakers have already realized the huge potential that Russia offers.”
The delays, however, have not dampened the spirits of actors and producers from Russia.
Anna Eshchenko has been dreaming of getting a role in Indian movies for a long time. “Being a big fan of Indian movies, I have been nurturing my dream,” Eshchenko told RT. “The discussions at the Film Bazaar are very encouraging. I remain positive,” she said.
Actor and producer Svetlana Bolshalova met many Indian directors and producers and discussed the prospects of working together. “This forum has opened up fresh prospects for India and Russia,” she said.
Even as the discussions continue, Roskino and the Moscow Exports Centre are trying hard to convince Indian filmmakers of the merits of beautiful shooting spots in Russia.
“A big Indian contingent of producers and directors recently visited Russia to see the filming locations. We hope Russia will emerge as a major destination for Indian filmmakers,” said Roskino’s Kabanova.