In the wake of wars, poverty, mass migration and loss, the Greek working class found solace in Hindi cinema and music of the 1950s and early 1960s.
During the closing ceremony at the 2004 Athens Olympics, recording artists Antonis Remos and Anna Vissi sang a rendition of a popular Greek song called ‘Mandoubala’.
Originally sung in 1959 by the prominent singer of Greek pop music (Laïkó) Stelios Kazantzidis, and written by the lyricist Eftihis Papayiannopoulou, the song was inspired by a movie they had watched of the legendary Indian actress Madhubala. The song, which was about a lover’s call for his lost beloved, was also inspired by a song ‘Aa Jao Tadapye Hain Arman’ from the 1951 film Awaara starring Nargis, who some say was even more popular in Greece during this time. (Images above of Madhubala and a young Stelios Kazantzidis courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
A loose translation of the song reads: Madhubala / love me sweet/ I long for you to come near me again/ Since I am lost I call your name with pain/ Madhubala, Madhubala.
Such was the popularity of the song and the actress Madhubala, it was the first record in Greece to sell 1,00,000 copies. Nargis and Madhubala were objects of several songs and poems that not just waxed lyrical about their beauty and grace, but also how the characters they portrayed expressed emotions that resonated with the suffering Greek masses.
And how they suffered! In 1923, following a devastating war between Greece and Turkey (1919-1922), both sides signed a “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations”, which resulted in the exodus of over a million ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor, Eastern Thrace, the Pontic Alps and the Caucasus in exchange for approximately 400,000 Greek Muslims who went the other way. Still recovering from losing their homes, these refugees had to further endure World War II and a bloody civil war in which thousands of Greeks died.
Sadly for those who made the long trip back ‘home’, their fellow countrymen didn’t exactly roll out the welcome wagon. Instead, they were pushed to the margins in the slums and refugee camps on the outskirts of major cities like Athens and Thessaloniki, working blue-collar or informal sector jobs, and living in unhealthy and oppressive circumstances.
As Nate Rabe, who writes regular columns for Scroll.in on music and art, explains, “In the hashish dens and coffee shops around these settlements, the refugees sang a new style of urban blues. Called Rembetiko it was played on oriental instruments like the bouzouki and tzouras and told stories of injustice, longing, addiction and hope for a better future. Though the middle classes rejected the refugees and their music, it caught on in the cities with many singers gaining national popularity. By the 1950s, in a process not dissimilar to the blues morphing into rock and roll, Rembetiko was transformed into Laïkó, the pop music of Greece.”
Around the early 1950s, there was another cultural phenomenon that was about to hit Greece—popular Hindi cinema. This was the handiwork of a small group of film importers who took a chance on Bollywood movies that were cheap on the international market.
Helen Abadzi, a Hindi speaking Greek educationist, who co-authored a fantastically researched book titled ‘The Revelation of Hindi-Style Songs in Greece’ alongside Manuel Tasoulas, wrote:
“These Hindi-language films aired in both first and second-tier theatres with no subtitles or vastly altered and often inaccurate ones. Over two decades, more films aired and their influence embedded in the popular music of the time.”
The titles of these films were often changed, while subtitles were written catering to local sensibilities, but these films caught on with the Greek masses left on the margins. The Greek elites, meanwhile, looked down upon the masses for their newfound taste in Hindi cinema and music, as they often looked westwards for ‘culture’.
During the late 50s/early 60s, 100+ Bollywood movies had been screened in Greece and Cyprus across many popular theatres, Hindi songs were rendered in their native language, and Nargis/Madhubala became household names across the country surviving a civil war. (6/13) pic.twitter.com/oRU9wniGif
— The Paperclip (@Paperclip_In) February 23, 2022
The book highlights how movies like Mother India, Awaara, Shri 420, Ghar Sansaar, Laajwanti and Paapi witnessed long lines outside cinema halls as ticket seekers gathered. More than the language, it was the themes of these movies that caught the attention of ordinary Greek.
The Paperclip, a Twitter account that brings stories from India and beyond, notes in a recent thread how the masses latched onto themes of the “unrelenting crush of poverty, a fast-changing society, new roles for women…the glamour and fantasy all captivated the heart.”
This thread adds that as India itself was still recovering from the horrors of Partition, much of the Hindi cinema it produced revolved on themes that “blended into the lives of suffering Greek families, abandoned children, poor factory workers, and immigrant labourers living in abject misery—who could see themselves on the silver screen desperately seeking a ray of hope.”
What struck the Greek masses most about Madhubala and Nargis and the films they starred in was their portrayal of pain, according to Helen and Manual. According to the book they co-authored, movies like Mother India, for example, were such a hit among the Greek masses because “the ability of these heroines to express pain made the beautiful and haunting songs that they sang instant hits”. As they go on to write, “It was only natural that the emotions of the poor Greeks would be expressed through those very same melodies.”
And artists like Stelios Kazantzidis expressed the same emotions through his melodies inspired by these Hindi songs. As he once said, “I sing for the poor, the immigrants and the suffering people, who can’t go to the expensive clubs. They regard my music as their Gospel.”
Capturing the pain of exile and migration into art, his biggest achievement according to this obituary in The Guardian “was to express, singlehandedly, the undiluted social and emotional upheaval that Greeks went through after the second world war and the ensuing civil war.”
Going beyond the popular Greek music genre of Laïkó, Helen notes how the “imitation and inspiration from Hindi created a specific class of songs called to this day ‘Indo-prepi’ (Hindi-style)”. In a bid to “Hellenize the songs”, Greek composers “often speeded them up, simplified sections where they could not reproduce the trained voices of the Indians, and changed instruments, using the string instrument bouzouki.” Although some songs were “hasty improvisations, others were good, some possibly better than the originals.”
Over time, her research captured a total of 105 Greek renditions of songs featured in Hindi movies. Little did many Indians know at the time how Hindi cinema left such an indelible impression on the Greek working class. It’s this unique meeting of cultures that finally played itself out during the closing ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics.
A rendition of the original Mandoubala song was performed by Antonis Remos and Anna Vissi at the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics, 2004. What an immortal tribute to Madhubala, the Aphrodite from India. (12/13) pic.twitter.com/lQMFzMLBSM
— The Paperclip (@Paperclip_In) February 23, 2022
‘The Revelation of Indian Songs: From the Exoticism of India To the Folk Muse of the Greeks’ by Helen Abadzi and Manuel Tasoulas
‘Greece fell in love with Nargis and Madhubala in the 1950s – and is still singing songs of love’ by Nate Rabe/Scroll.in (17 July 2016)
Obituary: Stelios Kazantzidis by Constantine Buhayer/The Guardian (18 September 2001)
‘In 1950s and 60s, Hindi films enjoyed a dream run in Greece’: An interview of Helen Abadzi by Avijit Ghosh/Times of India (27 September 2013)
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)