Hindi films have always enjoyed a fan following across the world. Decades ago, Raj Kapoor used to be a household name in Russia, and songs like Awara Hun and Mera Joota Hai Japani picturised on him are still popular in that country. Amitabh Bachchan is one of the most popular stars in Egypt, while Peru, Germany, Nigeria go gaga for Shah Rukh Khan. Aamir Khan’s Dangal is still breaking records in China. There are several countries where Bollywood broke language and culture barriers and reigned supreme for decades.
Greece, for example, was one country that connected with India through its Hindi films and the music in them. Greek educationist Helen Abadzi had written a thoroughly researched article around a decade ago on how Hindi movies conquered Greece around 1960, millania after Alexander the Great conquered northwest India.
And one of the stars who ruled the Greek hearts was our very own Madhubala, one of the most beautiful actresses of all time.
Madhubala was born in 1933, and it’s her 85th birthday today. In her life spanning all of 36 years, she stunned everyone with her divine looks and her films took her mesmerising beauty to people across the world.
Madhubala became so popular in Greece in the late 1950s and early 1960s that the European country made the “Venus of Indian cinema” immortal by dedicating a song to her in its own language. Sung by popular Greek singer Stelios Kazantidis, the song is a tribute to Madhubala’s ethereal beauty, her poise and grace. While it is not clear who wrote it — Kazantidis himself or a female lyricist Eftihis Papayiannopoulou — the composition belongs to the Rebetico/Laiko genre of Greek music.
In her article, ‘When India Conquered Greece: Hindi Films of the 50s in Greece’, Abadzi writes how Greece fell in love with Hindi movies, their music, and actors.
The economic condition of Greece was bleak in the early 1950s, and World War II and a subsequent civil war had destroyed the countryside and killed many inhabitants. There was a climate of desperation and it was then that Hindi movies made an indelible impression, she writes.
Most of the Hindi movies made during the time were love stories set in a background of tangled family relations, poverty, exploitation, and misery with the plot interspersed with songs and dances.
“The plots of the movies resonated with the wounded Greek psyche. Suffering women, street children who had to drop out of school, jealous sisters-in-law, vengeful mothers-in-law, interdependencies, betrayals, and frequent unhappy ends resonated with the difficult choices of poorly educated Greek people subsisting in large cities. In particular, the characters appealed to poor women. The maidservants and factory workers saw themselves depicted on the movie screen, hoping for deliverance,” Abadzi writes.
According to her, Mother India, Awaara and other movies established Nargis as the great priestess of the family dramas, with Madhubala a close second. “The ability of these heroines to express pain made the beautiful and haunting songs that they sang instant hits. It was only natural that the emotions of the poor Greeks would be expressed through those very same melodies,” she writes.
Starting in 1959, many Hindi songs had their Greek versions sung by established artistes. While ‘Madhubala’, also known as ‘Mandoubala’, was a specific work dedicated to the beautiful actress, most of the over 110 Greek numbers were inspired from popular Hindi songs.
The Madhubala song is a lover’s cry for his beloved whom he has lost. It was a huge hit and has remained popular to this date. The song is also lovingly hummed in Cyprus, which speaks Greek. Loosely translated, part of the lyrics will mean something like this:
“I wish I could see you and then die, my dear.
My soul wants only this.
Since I lost you, I’m melting,
I cry out your name with pain,