How Films Helped Incorporate Foreign Folklore and Indian Culture

As we all know, India and the Indian subcontinent in general, is a land of stories. There are countless tales that we have heard from childhood and what is remarkable is that in many cases the stories have been absorbed into the Indian heritage of foreign kingdoms. For example, the stories of One Thousand and One Nights and the fables of Central Asia and Afghanistan have been told so widely that almost every Indian child has heard of them.

The magic of Arabian Nights has influenced not only Indian literature but also the western world. There are references to Arabian Nights in renowned works of English literature. Authors such as Henry Fielding, Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth and Rudyard Kipling to name a few, have referenced these tales in their own works. In France, Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers) referred to the stories, as did Alexander Pushkin and Leo Tolstoy in Russia. In 1845, American writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story called “The 1002nd Tale of Scheherazade”.

In India, Hindi films have played a key role in integrating the appeal of these tales into the Indian milieu and mood. Some of the most popular tales are those of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, Laila Majnu, Rustum and Sohrab and Aladdin and his magic lamp.

In 1980, a film made with Indo-Soviet collaboration was released titled “Ali Baba Aur 40 Chor”. It was directed by Uzbek director Latif Faiziyev and Indian director Umesh Mehra. The film starred Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman along with Russian actors. The music was composed by RD Burman and, unsurprisingly, it became the most successful Indo-Soviet co-production, becoming a smash hit in both India and the Soviet Union.

But Ali Baba’s story is not only popular with the Hindi speaking public. In the past, there was a Telugu movie called Ali Baba 40 Dongalu which starred NT Rama Rao, the former Chief Minister of United Andhra Pradesh and Jayalalitha, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. While NTR played the role of Ali Baba, Jayalalitha played the role of Marjiana. The music was composed by the famous Ghantasala.

The story had also been made into a film in other Indian languages. In 1973, a Bengali movie titled Marjiana Abdulla turned out to be a huge hit. There were very catchy songs and good music composed by Salil Choudhury, a well-known musical director in the world of Hindi and Bengali cinema. The songs and the slightly altered story were a hit with Bengali audiences.

The stories of Laila Majnu and Shirin Farhad have come from overseas to India and are now as much a part of Indian storytelling as any other legend born on Indian soil.

The story of Laila Majnu (originally Layla Majnun) moved from Arabic to Persian to Turkish and finally to Indian languages. The well-known British poet Lord Byron called the tale the Romeo and Juliet story of the Eastern Hemisphere. It is said to have been first composed centuries ago by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi as part of a much larger composition which is considered a masterpiece of Persian literature. But according to some scholars, the story existed in Persia in one form or another, even before Nizami wrote it down. It was part of earlier oral folklore.

The story of Laila and Majnu was portrayed in several Indian language films as far back as the 1920s. Perhaps the best known Indian film version was the 1976 release which starred Rishi Kapoor as Majnu, Ranjeeta Kaur as Laila and Danny Denzongpa as Prince Baksh. In this film too, the songs were excellent. Lata Mangeshkar’s song “Husn Hazir Ho” still resonates in our ears while others like “Tere Dar Par Aaya Hoon” and “Barbad-E-Mohabbat ki Dua” reached the top of Binaca Geetmala’s annual lists in 1977 .

The story of Rustom and Sohrab is a moving tale that can rival any Shakespearean tragedy. It is part of a longer work “Shahnameh” by the famous Persian poet Ferdowsi. It is the story of a father (Rustom) and his son (Sohrab) who did not meet because the son was born after Rustom had a brief relationship with a woman named Tahmina living in a foreign country. The first encounter takes place on a battlefield where father and son are the most heroic figures on the opposing sides.

The two, not knowing each other’s identities, get involved in a man-to-man fight and after a tough battle, Rustom breaks Sohrab’s back and stabs him. Before dying, Sohrab tells Rustom that his father will avenge his death and reveals that his father is the invincible Rustom. It also displays a keepsake that Rustom had given to his mother Tahmina. Hearing this, the father is shocked and deeply sorry. He realizes he killed his own son. When Tahmina learns that Rustom killed their son, she too dies of grief.

The famous English poet and critic Mathew Arnold wrote a narrative poem based on the story and it became popular in English literature. In 1963 a Hindi film was produced by FU Ramsay titled Rustam Sohrab.

Prithviraj Kapoor the famous patriarch of Kapoor family acted as Rustom and Prem Nath was Sohrab. Actress and playback singer Suraiya played the role of Tahmina. It was Suraiya’s last film and thereafter she gave up acting and singing. In her farewell appearance, she left us the immortal song Yeh Kaisi Ajab Dastan Ho Gayi which is considered one of her greatest hits. It has a beautiful and haunting melody.

Through the efforts of our filmmakers and writers who brought us these tales from foreign lands, we have gained knowledge and understanding of many different cultures. The stories have enriched and enhanced our understanding of the world that exists outside our own shores and yet is bound to us by centuries of contact and mutual friendship.

About Kevin K. Zuniga

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