The enduring popularity of the song Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja in Russia is proof that Mithun Chakraborty’s fan base in the former Soviet republic hasn’t eroded. Exhibit A: this video from a dance talent show on Russian television from some months ago.

Raj Kapoor, yes, Nargis, sure, but the Soviet heart also beat for Chakraborty. The working class action-cum-dancing star's films were highly popular in the former USSR, especially Disco Dancer. So popular that a line from an anguished letter writer to a Russian publication that criticised the movie inspired the title of Sudha Rajagopalan’s fascinating study Leave Disco Dancer Alone! Indian Cinema and Soviet Movie-Going After Stalin (Yoda Press).

Rajagopalan explores the ways in which Indian (mainly Hindi) cinema was imported into and distributed throughout the Soviet Republic between the late forties and the early nineties. The deep ties between India and the USSR ensured that since 1949, a supply of Indian romances and dramas were shown in cinemas with subtitles. “Hollywood productions ran successfully in Soviet theatres in the twenties, but by the Stalinist era the cultural orthodoxy officially ruled bourgeois genre cinema beyond the pale,” Rajagopalan writes.

After Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s death, the import of Indian films increased. “… When post-Stalinist leisure began to be liberalised and it became imperative that the state revive movie-going, Soviet audiences had access to genre cinema from non-socialist countries once again,” writes Rajagopalan. “Too few domestic films were being made that satisfied audience hunger for emotionally appealing mass cinema and sociologists surveying audiences in mid- to late Soviet era repeatedly chastised domestic filmmakers for not paying heed to the mass audience’s needs. The low volume of domestic foreign film production promoted the state to take recourse to foreign genre films from India and other large film producing nations to raise theatre revenues and fill cinema halls again.”

It’s the time to disco

The import policy lasted till the break-up of the Soviet Union. Between 1983 and 1991, Rajagopalan reports, 111 Indian films were screened in Soviet theatres. Disco Dancer, called Tanstor Disko in Russian, became a “landmark film in the Soviet Union”, as popular as Raj Kapoor’s socialist themed-Awara had been some decades ago. B Subhash’s movie, scored by Bappi Lahiri and a cult hit in India upon its release in 1982, is a rags to riches yarn of Jimmy, a street performer who becomes India’s disco king. Jimmy also avenges the death of his mother, who dies after touching his tampered electric guitar.

Disco Dancer “generated large volume of fan mail from fans about their deep empathy with the hero and the film”, especially among “pre-teen and teenage audiences” who expressed their profound admiration for Chakraborty’s “splendid and wonderful self”, reports Rajagopalan.

The initiative to take Indian films to Russia is now coming from private producers and distributors. Eros Entertainment, one of the biggest movie studios in the business, has added Russia to its list of overseas territories and plans to release Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, 2012’s blockbuster starring Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, among other titles.

The Kapoor scion has large shoes to fill. His grandfather, Raj Kapoor, was hugely popular in the Soviet Union, especially for Awara. “Screened in the Indian film festival in 1954, Awara surpassed Indian and domestic films on the charts in the entire decade with 63.7 million viewers,” Rajagopalan says. Kapoor stayed popular over the years, and remains one of the biggest mascots of Indian cinema for our former diplomatic and military ally.

Here is a video of Raj Kapoor from 1967, when he attended an international film festival in Moscow. Kapoor wishes his fans a happy new year and sings the song “Sajan Re Jhoot Mat Bolo” from his Teesri Kasam.