MEHRU JAFFER | 19 AUGUST, 2018
Bollywood in Greece: If Nargis is Athens, Then Madhubala is Aphrodite
I cry out your name in pain,Mahdubala, Mahdubala.
DATELINE: When Padelis Athanassopoulou, 70, is not raging about the bankers and politicians who ruined the Greek economy, the retired teacher of mathematics likes to sing. Popular music is always playing in his home and what he switches on first in the car is the radio.
One of the songs I heard him humming was Duniya mein hum aaye hain toh jeena hii padega… from the 1957 Indian film Mother India – but in Greek.
Rewritten as Nobody Takes Pity on My Poor Heart, the song is still sung to music composed by Naushad but with brand new lyrics by Dimitris Gutis:
Rest and joy in my life
I have not felt
And even love, in which I believed
Has come only to hurt me…
Over the decades the same song from Mother India is has been performed and recorded by dozens of artistes including the very popular Stratos Dionisiou, who died in 1990.
Padelis recalls watching the film, with Greek subtitles, more than once in the mid 1960s. In Greece Mother India became famous as Sweating Earth and it enjoyed a record number of viewers during a decade-long run in the country’s cinema halls. Lots and lots of Greeks fell in love with Nargis, lead actor in Mother India.
However, Padelis and his friends do not remember the name of any male actors from India. Only Nargis is embedded in the memory of Greeks, like Athena, the ancient goddess of wisdom and warfare after whom the country’s capital is named.
If Nargis is seen as Athena, then for Greek lovers of Indian cinema Madhubala is Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. Movie fans were so crazy about Madhubala throughout the 50’s and 60’s that pop star Stelios Kazantzidis sang a heartfelt tribute to the Anarkali of Indian cinema which is popular to this day:
I wish I could see you and then die, my dear.
My soul wants only this.
Since I lost you, I’m nothing,
I cry out your name in pain,
It was a time when the rembetika and laika styles inspired by popular Hindi songs were greatly appreciated in Greece, and enjoyed even in remote corners of the country as Indo-Prepi music.
Vocalist Voula Palla who died in 1980 sang dozens of songs in Greek which were renditions of popular songs from Indian films including Mother India.
When Mother India was nominated for the Oscars, Greeks rejoiced along with Indian audiences. The mood in postwar Greece was similar to that in India those days. The people of both countries were poor but filled with hope. The world war was over, and people were full of pride at having chased the colonists from their countries.
Indians and Pakistanis were recovering from the tragedy of the division of south Asia while the civil war in Greece had brought about multiple difficulties for citizens. Now people in both countries were determined to bid their woes goodbye. They looked forward to nation building and to prosperity in the future. It was easy for the high romance and optimism found in Hindi cinema in such unrealistic abundance to make a room for itself in the heart and soul of cinema lovers in Greece.
Admiration for Indian music continued throughout the following decade. But around the 1970s, interest in the orient began to pale before the economic miracles witnessed in the occidental world. It became difficult to keep the solidarity between developing countries stitched together. The west’s economy, culture and its aggressive way of life became the demand of the day. Many people were filled with admiration for the market focused economy of the developed world and longed to become part of the economically prospering world.
In Greece too, many a heart was wrapped up in yesterday’s newspaper and abandoned on the topmost shelf at home. Expressions of emotion were less appreciated now and new temples dedicated to gods and goddesses of economic activities, to reason and to rationality alone seemed to matter.
In the decades that followed Greece even prospered. Surplus numbers in the workforce contributed to extremely high growth rates and large amounts of foreign private capital encouraged consumption. The rise in tourism and expansion of shipping activity made the economy look good. Manufacturing in the textile, chemical and metallurgical industries and construction activities led to a GDP growth rate as high as 11 percent in the 1970s.
Just when life looked good even for ordinary Greeks, the economy collapsed almost overnight. It was concluded that Greece was living beyond its means, and by the time the country joined the common currency of the European Union in 2002 public spending had skyrocketed out of control.
Analysts note that public sector wages rose by 50 percent between 1999 and 2007, faster than in most Eurozone countries. Debt kept rising while the economy began to shrink, also due to high profile and exorbitant projects like the Olympics held in Athens in 2004.
The problem was aggravated when the government was forced to spend but without earning enough income. People reeling under inflation began to evade tax payments, and by 2010 the country found it impossible to cope with an economy difficult to understand.
The result was that people like Padelis (who worked as a teacher for more than three decades) who abided by the law and religiously paid their dues to the government, lost their pension.
“If we had buried a portion of our earnings in the garden every month for more than three decades my money would still be there, but today I have lost my pension after years of hard work. Athina, my wife, worked in a bank and upon retirement her pension was cut down by half,” thunders Padelis, who blames bankers for gambling away people’s hard earned money.
Bankers are responsible for all the economic woes being faced by Greece today, nod other Greeks as well.
What makes him most angry is when anyone, anywhere in the world calls his countrymen lazy. “Padelis, lazy? How lazy? Even today I get up at 6 am. I tend my olive trees, my fowl and fodder to make ends meet,” he waves his hands in the air, looking dangerously agitated.
His audience of family and friends wait for him to calm down, which he does soon, softening to resume talk about Nargis and Madhubala.
I sing in the original Hindi:
Duniya mein hum aaye hain toh jeena hii padega, jeevan hai agar zehar toh peena hii padega…
And Padelis and his family pass another round of olive oil seasoned with salt and fresh lemon juice, scooping the homemade dip on to generous morsels of freshly baked bread at his beach house near the port village of St. Andreas, Kalamata, in the southern region of Peloponnese.
The country’s caretakers may have destroyed the economy, but solidarity among human beings remains untouched by the greed of a market economy. I have just returned after witnessing a great deal of the generosity that continues to be practised to this day by Greeks like Athina and Padelis.