Jimmy Jimmy was Russia's anthem. Do Indian songs still echo there? (2024)

Hindi songs, including Mithun's 'Jimmy Jimmy', were very popular in Soviet Russia during the Cold War as the USSR had severed cultural ties with the West. Generations of Russians grew up on Hindi film songs. Russians still connect to Hindi songs and even Punjabi and South Indian music is popular there.

Jimmy Jimmy was Russia's anthem. Do Indian songs still echo there? (1)

A video tape collection of Indian movies with a family in Russia. Indian cinema and songs have found some of its biggest fan following in Russia. (Image: Emma)

On a bustling movie night in a Russian town, every seat was occupied, keen viewers fetched chairs and ladders from their homes to catch the film. This was an Indian film: 'Disco Dancer', and the crowd went ecstatic on its soundtrack, "Jimmy Jimmy". Each home was empty and the streets in front of the clubs were full. The song from the movie, released in Soviet Russia in 1984, became an anthem and several generations of Russians grooved to it. But what do Russians think of "Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja" now, and do Indian songs still find a place in their hearts?

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Disco Dancer was released at the peak of the Cold War, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), had erected a wall against cultural imports from the West. But that time is long gone, and the internet has facilitated and democratised consumption of pop culture across the globe, including in Russia.

Two years after Disco Dancer was released, then USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited India. On his visit, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi introduced him to Amitabh Bachchan and told him "He is the biggest superstar of India".

"But my daughter only knows Mithun Chakraborty," said Gorbachev.

The film Disco Dancer and the song 'Jimmy Jimmy' became a phenomenon in Russia. Even today, after 40 years, nothing has changed.

Russia's embrace of Indian culture, especially Hindi film songs as tight, if not more, than most political embraces. Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embraced each other on Modi's visit to Russia. That was visible when Russians performed bhangra and garba to welcome PM Modi.

And at the heart of that cultural embrace is Jimmy Jimmy.

"Well, you say India - and people say 'Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja' or 'I’m a disco dancer', in Russia and in other former Soviet countries. From the old to young, everyone associates the Bollywood industry and India with the song," Emma, who grew up in a small village in Russia's Ural region, near Yekaterinburg, tells IndiaToday.in.

'JIMMY JIMMY' FEVER IN COLD WAR RUSSIA

As the USSR put strict control on consumption of western music and cinema during the Cold War with the United States, Indian music and cinema became the favourite of the Soviet Russians.

The movies reached Russians through cinema clubs, which played movies on middle-sized screens through video cassette tapes. These clubs were owned by the Russian government.

Jimmy Jimmy was Russia's anthem. Do Indian songs still echo there? (2)

Disco Dancer, which became a classic hit, had the classic trope of a man, Jimmy, played by Mithun Chakraborty, rising from rags to riches. It is about a music producer who sees the potential in Jimmy and makes him India's biggest disco dancer. The soundtrack stayed with the Russian people.

The songs reached the remotest corners of Russia, through small movie halls in villages. The spread of Indian cinema and music was huge.

"My mom used to take a tape recorder with her to the movie theatre to record all the songs. Only Russian and Indian movies played in the theatres then," Emma tells IndiaToday.in.

In those difficult times, these movies made people's lives happier and the shared joy is what has been handed over to younger generations.

"Life is gloomy, dull, tedious, but in Indian films one sees so much beauty, love and music," said a music lover, Sudha Rajgopalan writes in her book, 'Leave Disco Dancer Alone: Indian Cinema and Soviet Movie-going After Stalin'.

Russian fans grooved to the song, and it could be heard everywhere. They wrote letters to magazines and journals, expressing curiosity and adoration for Mithun Chakraborty.

"The crowds had shown immense love for the protagonist of the film. They appreciated his moves in "Jimmy Jimmy" and his overall performance in the movie. One Russian magazine even wrote an article on 'The Phenomenon of Disco Dancer'. When the writer criticised the oversimplification of life in the film, fans wrote back, ‘We will not let you offend the “Dancer”’ [Disco Dancer]," writes Rajgopalan.

INDIAN MUSIC AND CINEMA KEPT SOVIET RUSSIA GOING

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"My aunties during the Soviet era used to learn songs from 'Amar, Akbar, Anthony', 'Mera Naam Joker', 'Bobby', 'Sholay', 'Disco Dancer', 'Dance Dance', 'Kishan Kanhaya' by heart," Emma tells IndiaToday.in.

Jimmy Jimmy was Russia's anthem. Do Indian songs still echo there? (3)

The music from various Indian movies has stayed with Russians. From Bobby's 'Hum Tum Ek Kamre Mei Band Ho' to Joker's 'Jeena Yaha Marna Yaha' to Seeta and Geeta's 'Hawa ke Saath Saath' have been loved by Russian music listeners.

"Most respondents paid little attention to the social dilemmas and problems that the films addressed, and were, instead, exultant about the music and dance in Indian films, which captured and held their interest for years," wrote Sudha Rajgopalan in her book.

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Rajgopalan questioned the movie-goers about what attracted them to Indian cinema. Thirty-two of the 33 fans interviewed mentioned the music as the top criteria for loving Indian films.

Russian fans loved "good music with beautiful Indian dances" and "memorable melodies, and songs with unusual rhythm". They also called the songs magnificent and of special interest in Indian films.

They listened to the songs in movie clubs, in gatherings and even on full volume in their houses.

WHAT ABOUT HINDI MUSIC IN RUSSIA NOW?

"Oh! You are from India? I love your movies. You know this 'Jimmy Jimmy' song," is how people greet Indians in Russia, according to Emma, who is also a big fan of Bollywood music.

That the song still echoes in distant corners of Russia is attested by this 2019 incident.

An Indian journalist along with three others from India happened to visit Vladikavkaz, a Russian city in the far northern region of the country.

"As we entered a karaoke bar, a guitarist who was playing a western number, switched to 'Jimmy Jimmy'. The bar owner then played the music of 'Jimmy Jimmy' on the karaoke system and invited us to sing the song," says the journalist. He requested his name be withheld because of his organisation's media policy.

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"We Indians didn't remember the song, but the Rusians did," he says.

Now, times have changed, the Cold War is over and Russians have access to the internet. They can listen to any music worldwide. But their love for Indian music still trumps everything else.

The younger generation still listens to older Indian songs, but they also have new favourites.

"Now, many people are hooked on Nora Fatehi's performance on Indian songs. The soundtrack from Shahrukh Khan's 'Pathan' created a nice wave in Russia last year," Emma tells IndiaToday.In.

The love for Indian music does not stop at Hindi music any more.

"People adore Punjabi music too. The big influence in Russia was the Punjabi MC [an artist]. The hip-hop community in Russia brought the songs to the crowd and every car that had a good stereo system played his song 'Jogi' in their cars. Music from South India is loved too - for example, 'Why this kolavari di' went viral here," adds Emma.

Music preferences are now also decided by social media trends.

"Nowadays, Instagram is the influence platform, so 'San sananan' [Asoka, 2001] is very popular and everyone in Russia knows it. As popular is Pushpa's 'Oo Antava'," she said.

People in Soviet Russia had built their perception of India because of Indian cinema and music. Now, with social media, Indian music is still building perceptions and images of India.

INDIAN MUSIC AND THE SOFT POWER OF INDIA

Many in Russia found the music and dance quite fascinating and even perceived them to be documentaries of India's material and visual culture. Many people thought the representation of emotions through music and dance was fascinating in these movies, and they found India to be a "fantasy world".

"My granny believed that Indians are beautiful and kind people, and she would always compare me to Indian actresses, saying, I’m that beautiful too," recounts Emma.

This was in the past. Now, says Emma, people have diverging opinions on Indian music.

"If you only picture India through these songs; it’s an absolutely beautiful, kind, loving, and very human-loving country, the kind of life everyone would want to experience in life”. We have a saying in Russian, “Indian love” - which has been formed through these movies and songs, as my whole country believes - India is a fabulous country of dreams with generous people, where evil is always destroyed by goodness,” says Emma.

Russians have danced to Indian music, especially 'Jimmy Jimmy' for decades now. Indian cinema and songs have helped form a positive perception of India in the eyes of the Russian people. It is no surprise that Russians are ecstatic to welcome PM Modi with Indian dance and music. Because they see Indian music as their own.

Published By:

India Today Web Desk

Published On:

Jul 9, 2024

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Jimmy Jimmy was Russia's anthem. Do Indian songs still echo there? (2024)

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