If you have visited Istanbul and been serenaded by peddlers or music store owners with the title track from Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951), you have Avare to blame.

The Turkish dubbed version of one of Kapoor’s most acclaimed films was released in Istanbul on February 15, 1955. The characters were given Turkish names – Raj became Raci, Rita became Selma and judge Raghunath Hakim Mithat – but the essence of the drama stayed the same, as did its impact.

Starring Kapoor as a Chaplinesque vagrant who comes to terms with his estranged father, the judge Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor), with help from his childhood sweetheart Rita (Nargis Dutt), Awara was a huge success not only in India but also in West Asia, China and Africa. In the opening sequence of Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000), which traces the effects of the Cultural Revolution on a small town, Awara plays in a local theatre.

Awara was particularly admired in the erstwhile Soviet Union, which embraced the movie’s socialist themes and Shankar-Jaikishan’s timeless score. Turkey, which was slowly emerging from the authoritarian rule of the Democratic Party in the mid-’50s, wasn’t far behind in falling under Awara’s spell.

A screening of ‘Avare’ in Istanbul. Image credit: Evren 1998:123/Ahmet Gurata’s ‘The Road to Vagrancy’.

Indian films were being released in Turkey right after 1947, but they were not as popular as Egyptian cinema, probably because of the language barrier. However, Awara put Indian cinema on Turkey’s map. An instant box office hit, Avare was watched by over 100,000 people in its first week, said Ahmet Gurata, the chair of the Department of Communication and Design at Turkey’s Bilkent University in a research paper titled “The Road to Vagrancy”: Translation and Reception of Indian Cinema in Turkey.

Like Soviet viewers, Turkish audiences too seemed to have embraced the seamless blend of revolt and optimism in Awara, Gurata told Scroll.in. The film’s costumes, music, culturally unique settings and “the proficiency of its technical features” were among the reasons for the success of Awara and its imitators over the subsequent years.

Apart from cutting down the running length by 15 minutes – achieved by excising a few scenes and two songs, including Naiya Meri Manjhdhar – the Turkish version stayed true to the original. The cuts were made to ensure that Avare fit the standard running time of Turkish films rather than “moral-political concerns”, Gurata pointed out. Although it was common practice for distributors to alter soundtracks in imported films, Avare retained most of the original’s songs.

The title track Awara Hoon, written by Shailendra and sung by Mukesh, later inspired several Turkish renditions, which can be ascribed to the catchiness of the accordion-based track and its resonance with local folk music. The song, called Avara Muu in Turkish, became a part of local culture, and is sometimes played with traditional instruments at weddings and other ceremonies, Gurata explained.

Awara Hoon from Awara (1951).

The exceptional success of Avare also led to an uptick in the export of Indian films to Turkey. At least 101 Indian productions were screened in Turkey between 1952 and 1962. Shree 420 (1955), Mother India (1957), Sangam (1964), and Mera Naam Joker (1970) were widely distributed in Turkey. Awara was voted as the best movie of the year by the readers of the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, beating the American films Roman Holiday (1952) and Limelight (1952).

A cartoon on the song’s popularity in Turkey. Image credit: Hurriyet, May 19, 1955/Ahmet Gurata’s ‘The Road to Vagrancy’.

The success of Avare inspired at least five more versions between the ’60s and the ‘70s. “Sometimes the filmmakers changed the story and characters, so it was difficult to recognise,” Gurata said. “But in most cases, they copied the film scene-by-scene, and included the hit song.”

One of the earliest remakes is Semih Evin’s Avare (1964), which stars prominent Turkish actor Sadri Alisik. The film introduced its own touches to the original, such as a happier ending, in which Raghunath’s character is reunited with his wife (he accidentally runs over her in the original). In the 1968 remake Ağla Gözlerim, the titular vagabond is played by a female character. Iconic Turkish actor Turkan Soray plays Leyla, a nonchalant pickpocket, who is defended by her handsome lover (Murat Soydan) in court.

Ağla Gözlerim (1986).

In some cases, the new versions mirrored the political and social currents of their times. The handful of Awara knockoffs in the ’70s, for instance, reflected a belief in vigilante justice, in keeping with the emergence of the angry young man character in cinemas around the world. “The ’70s was the time of vigilantes both in Indian and Turkish cinema,” Gurata said. “People believed vigilante characters more than judges and lawyers. You can see the effect of this in ’70s remakes. For example, the 1978 remake includes some populist left-wing discourse.”

Like the 1955 dubbed movie, these remakes were equally popular. “It is interesting how people never get tired of watching the same story over and over again,” Gurata said. “Even today, when you tell a Turkish person that you’re from India and they will sing you Awara Hoon. I’m not sure whether the younger generation is familiar with the film. But anybody over 60 will remember the film and talk about it.”

Istanbul Girls Orchestra play Awara Hoon.