Long before The Kashmir Files, Israel fell in love with Hindi films
The Kashmir Files was released this week in Israel with Hebrew subtitles. Israel’s consul general in Mumbai, Kobi Shoshani, released the film’s Hebrew poster, and director Vivek Agnihotri tweeted how important it was to him, his film, and the Indo-Israeli friendship. On April 20, he tweeted somewhat enthusiastically, “I’m told that such a request for a Hindi film is the first time in Israel for an Indian film.” Here he is cocky and self-satisfied.
Hindi cinema was very popular in Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. Raj Kapoor’s films, in particular, were followed by many fans and his film Sangam (1964) was a big hit in the country even though the Indian state had no diplomatic relations with Israel. India under Jawaharlal Nehru was very critical of Israel. However, Israelis love 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 tell how Sangam became a legend in Israel. Toraty’s film is about a working-class neighborhood outside of Tel Aviv. It tells the story of people who missed their great love but still cling to their dreams and fantasies. The neighborhood is thinking about reopening its cinema hall, and one of the characters, Aaron, suggests that this is only possible if an Indian film like Sangam is screened. People will go crazy and forget their hurts, anxieties and troubles and come together to watch the movie.
The film depicts human madness but it is also about love and sacrifice. Self-denial for a greater good (in a tragic sense) appealed to the first Israelis – they came to their homeland, which was conflicted and demanded a great deal of self-sacrifice from them. They were all Jews, but divided by language, culture and ethnicity. Emotionally tense, melodramatic yet ambitious Hindi cinema resonated with them.
Monika Mehta of Binghamton University, New York, wrote about the enduring popularity of Sangam and other Hindi films in Israel. She argues that traditional themes of love, friendship and sacrifice appealed to Israelis from Africa and the Middle East – the Mizrahi. Due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab cinema and music were rare in Israel and Arab Jews had to stay 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, an identity foreign to most non-European Jews, including Indian Jews. According to Ronie Parciack, a professor of Indian studies at Tel Aviv University, Hindi cinema was loved because it offered a way around the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arab Israelis could identify with Hindi films because they were non-Western, suited to the standards of conservative, traditional sensibilities, and at the same time they depicted social realism, class conflict and melodrama.
India’s diplomatic distance from 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 labeled Zionism a form of racism. But that hasn’t affected the popularity of ancient India’s greatest soft power resource.
Israeli leaders often choose a song to greet their Indian counterparts. Raj Kapoor’s films such as Shree 420 (1955) and Aawara (1951) were hits in Israel before Sangam. The most famous Hindi movie song in Israel is Ichak Dana, Bichak Dana by Shree 420. It is an enigma that is sung on screen by Nargis (another popular star in Israel) that has lasted for generations. Indian leaders on their visits to Israel are often greeted with the song, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a special live band performance for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Delhi in 2018.
Filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and many others who made films promoting egalitarianism over chauvinism, universalism over nationalism and peace over war, were agents of Indian soft power. Many worthy things happened before the “new India” and its pseudo-cultural ambassadors.
This column first appeared in the print edition of April 30, 2022, under the title “Sangam in Tel Aviv“. Jangid is Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Israel Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat