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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Long before The Kashmir Files, Israel fell in love with Hindi films

Khinvraj Jangid writes: Filmmakers like Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt who made films promoting egalitarianism, universalism and peace were agents of India's soft power

Written by Khinvraj Jangid |
Updated: April 30, 2022 4:18:58 pm
The Kashmir Files was released in Israel with Hebrew subtitles this week. (File Photo)

The Kashmir Files was released in Israel with Hebrew subtitles this week. Israel’s Consul General in Mumbai, Kobi Shoshani, released the Hebrew poster of the movie, and director Vivek Agnihotri tweeted how significant this was for him, his film and the India-Israel friendship. On April 20, he tweeted somewhat enthusiastically: “I am told that this such a huge demand for a Hindi film is the first time ever in Israel for an Indian film”. Here, he is presumptuous and self-congratulatory.

Hindi cinema was very popular in Israel in the 1950s and ’60s. Raj Kapoor’s movies, in particular, had a great fan following and his film Sangam (1964) was a super hit in the country even though the Indian state did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. India under Jawaharlal Nehru was very critical of Israel. However, Israelis have been fond of Hindi cinema, Indian philosophy, yoga and food. Popular cable companies, like HOT, have had an exclusive channel for Indian movies since 2004.

In 2001, Israeli filmmaker Benny Toraty made Kikar Ha-Halomot (Desperado Square) to narrate how Sangam became a legend in Israel. Toraty’s film is about a working-class neighbourhood outside Tel Aviv. It tells the story of the people who missed their great love but continue to hold on to their dreams and fantasies. The neighbourhood is thinking about reopening its cinema hall, and one of the characters, Aaron, suggests that it is only possible to do so if an Indian film like Sangam is screened. People will go crazy and forget their wounds, agonies and annoyances and reunite to watch the film.

The film depicts human folly but it’s also about love and sacrifice. The renunciation of the self for greater good (in a tragic sense) appealed to the early Israelis — they came to their homeland, which was in conflict and that demanded plenty of self-sacrifice from them. They were all Jewish, but divided by language, culture and ethnicity. Emotionally tense, melodramatic but aspirational Hindi cinema resonated with them.

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Monika Mehta of Binghamton University, New York, has written a paper on the enduring popularity of Sangam as well as other Hindi movies in Israel. She argues that the traditional themes of love, friendship and sacrifice appealed to Israelis coming from Africa and the Middle East — the Mizrahi. Because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab cinema and music were scant in Israel and the Arab Jews had to keep away from their heritage, language and culture. Israel was, and still is, a country of immigrants. European Jews were the pioneers who established the state, enjoyed more power and shaped much of the Israeli identity, one which was alien to most non-European, including Indian, Jews. According to Ronie Parciack, professor of Indian Studies at Tel Aviv University, Hindi cinema was loved, because it provided a way to bypass the Israel-Arab Conflict. Arab Israelis could relate with Hindi movies as they were non-Western, attuned to norms of conservative sensibilities, traditional, and at the same time they depicted social realism, class conflict and melodrama.

India’s diplomatic distance with Israeli and vocal solidarity for the Palestinian cause did not sour Israeli affinity for Indian culture in the 1950s or later. In 1975, India voted for a UN Resolution that dubbed Zionism as a form of racism. But that did not affect the popularity of old India’s biggest soft power resource.

Israeli leaders often pick a song to greet their counterparts from India. Raj Kapoor’s films such as Shree 420 (1955) and Aawara (1951) were hits in Israel before Sangam. The most well-known Hindi film song in Israel is Ichak Dana, Bichak Dana from Shree 420. It is a riddle that is sung on screen by Nargis (another popular star in Israel) that has lasted generations. Indian leaders, while visiting Israel, are often greeted with this song, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi organised a special live band’s rendition of it for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visited Delhi in 2018.

Filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and many more who made films promoting egalitarianism, rather than chauvinism, universalism rather than nationalism and peace rather than war, were agents of India’s soft power. Many worthy things happened before “new India” and its pseudo-cultural ambassadors.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 30, 2022, under the title ‘Sangam in Tel Aviv’. Jangid is associate professor and director, Centre for Israel Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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