An Indian film from 1951 has been seen and enjoyed by so many across the globe that it may well be the ‘most successful film in the history of cinema’, according to a leading professor of film studies.
Professor Dina Iordanova, head of Film Studies at the University of St Andrews, believes that ‘Awaara’, starring Raj Kapoor, has enjoyed more transnational success than any other film over a prolonged period of time.
Professor Iordanova makes the claim in a special issue of the academic film journal, ‘South Asian Popular Cinema’, which she co-edits with Dimitris Eleftheriotis of the University of Glasgow. The Indian issue features articles which explore the popularity of Indian cinema abroad and focuses on periods of ‘massive international interest and export’ starting in the 1930s and peaking around the 1960s.
Contrary to popular belief, Indian cinema (or the so- called ‘Bollywood explosion’) has been enjoyed around the world for decades and most unusually in places with little or no Indian populations. In many places around the world, Indian cinema has traditionally been more popular than Hollywood film. The publication of this new research, revealing lesser-known aspects of the international popularity of Indian cinema, has triggered great interest in India.
The contributors – from places such as the Soviet Union, Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Romania, Morrocco and Egypt (including the leading Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo) provide evidence of the global popularity of Indian cinema. Extensive testimonials support the claim that ‘Awaara’ may be a candidate for the title of the ‘most popular film of all times’.
Professor Iordanova said: “It is difficult to think of any other film from the 1950s that was seen in so many countries and was as widely acclaimed as ‘Awaara’. Most film history books analysed other films and mentioned ‘Awaara’ only in passing, yet I cannot think of any other film from that period that would have enjoyed such popular success transnationally’. Indeed, during those key periods, songs from Indian films were huge hits in many other countries.
Although it is known that the export of and interest in Indian cinema was massive, it is largely unrecognised since there is little documentary evidence research for the special issue involved painstakingly piecing together anecdotal evidence based on personal testimonies and recollections, including the author’s own.
Growing up in Bulgaria, Dina Iordanova remembers regularly seeing Indian films as a child. She said: ‘I knew Indian films long before I had met any living Indian. We knew next to nothing of India and the Indians.
‘However, the fascination with a film like ‘Awaara’ was everlasting; everybody knew Raj Kapoor’s ever-singing dancing persona. Nothing could match up to the experience of watching ‘Awaara’; this film was more fascinating than any other I can remember.
‘Even though repeat viewing is not typical for the cinema going practices of Bulgarians, many admit that they have seen ‘Awaara’ numerous times. Why such fascination? It was the candid praise of love and affection in the Indian movies that was truly enchanting for us… ‘Awaara’ remains a truly enduring global hit, yet one that is understudied and under-researched.’
Professor Iordanova is head of the Department of Film Studies at St Andrews, which was established in 2004.
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