Bollywood’s golden age in Australia’s Greek community

Source: SBS

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    (Source: Courtesy of Peter Yiannoudes)
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    A poster, partly in Greek, for The Son of India (Source: Courtesy of Peter Yiannoudes)
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    Advertisement in Greek for Mother India (Source: Courtesy of Peter Yiannoudes)
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    (Source: Courtesy of Peter Yiannoudes)
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    A poster, partly in Greek, for The Son of India (Source: Courtesy of Peter Yiannoudes)

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio – click on the audio tab to listen to the item):

As Australia prepares for a visit from one of Bollywood’s biggest actors Shahrukh Khan, Greek-Australian Peter Yiannoudes is looking back at another era of Bollywood cinema in Australia.

Peter Yiannoudes imported films from Greece for Australia’s Greek community and then expanded to include Indian films, mainly Bollywood features which played to packed houses of mainly Greek migrants in the 1950s and 1960s.

He’s now setting up a museum in Melbourne with some of his favourite movie posters from that era.

Peggy Giakoumelos has the story.

(Sound effects of movie):

That’s actors Raj Kumar and Nargis, from the 1957 Hindi epic film Mother India.

The movie tells the tale of a poor rural village woman named Radha, whose family is in debt to a money lender.

With her husband losing his arms in an accident, she struggles to raise her children.

This tale of social injustice and rural hardship resonated with Greeks overseas and in Australia at the time, as did many Indian films.

Peter Yiannoudes says so much so, that at the first screening of Mother India in a Greek cinema in Australia, police had to be called control crowds angry at not being able to get a seat.

“Mother India was the biggest success we ever had outside of the Greek film Golfo. It was 1964 when we released the film in the National Theatre on Bridge Street in Richmond. It was a small theatre about 1000 seats. The theatre was pre-booked nearly two weeks earlier. So on that particular day nearly 5000 people came to see the film. So we called the police to send the people away and allow inside the cinema only the people who had the tickets pre-booked. And the Sun-Herald wrote that never before had that happened in cinema like that.”

Peter Yiannoudes, who migrated to Australia in the 1950s from Cyprus, says his love of cinema was forged from necessity.

Forced to leave school early to make ends meet, he took a job at a local movie house before migrating to Australia and running more than 40 cinemas around the country.

His cinemas mainly catered to Australia’s large community of Greek migrants who like those back home in Greece, were mad for Indian musicals.

After a meeting with an Indian superstar, Peter Yiannoudes decided to introduce Indian films to Australia.

“In 1959 I met the Indian actress Nargis. Nargis was the most popular actress in India and in Greece as well and in Egypt. So she persuaded me to go to India and start showing Indian as well as Greek films. So I went in 1959 and I stayed a couple of weeks in India and then I came to an agreement with two studios there, and in 1961 we brought the first Indian film to Australia, just to see how Greeks can accept this Indian film and really it was a very, very big success.”

Why the appeal?

Dramatic themes of social adversity, poverty, migration, meddling families, and of course everyone’s perennial favourite, love – were themes prominent in the films of both cultures.

Add to this a backdrop of highly choreographed singing and dancing – and the allure of Bollywood became a perfect fit for Greeks looking for some escapism after the country’s brutal civil war.

And while the cross-cultural influence mainly went one way from India to Greece – there was one Greek actress who did manage to break into the Indian market – bleached blonde Aliki Vougiouklaki.

Here she is singing a number influenced by the Bollywood genre.

(Sound of singing)

That’s a song from the Greek film The Lady and the Tramp, released in the late 1960s – reflective of the Bollywood influence on Greek cinema.

The University of Sydney’s Professor of Modern Greek Studies Vrasidas Karalis has written widely on the history of Greek cinema and its Indian influences.

“The connections between Greece and India go back to the historical and especially they can be traced back into the music especially India has influenced Greece in the production of the songs that we have, the most popular Greek songs, are originally of Hindi origin. According to the research of Dimitris Eleftheriotis, He proved that essentially the Greek melodramas of the mid 60s and late 60s were of were essentially modelled along of Hindi musicals and Bollywood musicals.”

Vrasidas Karalis says it was a simple yet successful formula.

“The recipe was so successful that is to say drama, songs, drama songs, and finally in the end you have this huge explosion of both drama and songs that made everyone cry and was really successful.”

Anupam Sharma is an Indian-Australian film-maker and was also one of the judges of Australia’s first Bollywood reality show on SBS TV.

He’s also written a number of research papers about the history of Bollywood cinema.

Anupam Sharma says the connection between Australia and Bollywood goes back to the 1930s when an Australian of Greek and Scottish origin became one of the biggest stars of Indian cinema.

Largely unknown in Australia, Fearless Nadia got around in a mask and hat and with whip in hand, became one of India’s most successful female actors and stuntwomen.

“Blue-eyed blonde from Perth, Mary Evans became the first franchise and lead actress in Bollywood known as Fearless Nadia or the Fearless Hunterwali. SInce then there have been ups and downs, we have had sporadic exchanges, until about 1996 when a major Indian film shot a major song and dance sequence with the Opera House in the background and that kind of ignited interest for Australian locations in Bollywood. And then in 1998 Feroz Khan, India’s Clint Eastwood, decided to script Australia into his film, and shoot here and I believe that was a major milestone. There have been over 300 projects which include feature films, music videos, tv serials, film festivals, seminars, discussions delegations, books and a lot of Australian crew going to India and working in India on Bollywood films lots of specialist crews going there. I call it like an Indian goddess it has many arms.”

Anupam Sharma says Bollywood cinema has been popular in many other countries outside India – mainly in the Middle East, Greece, North Africa and Russia.

But in Australia, except within migrant communities, it’s been slower for the genre to catch on.

The 2011 Australian Census showed there were close to 300,000 Indian-born people living in Australia, up by 200,000 in a decade.

Add to this increased migration from other South Asian countries where Bollywood films are also widely watched, and the popularity of the genre is increasing.

Anupam Sharma says it’s too early to tell how much of an impact Bollywood will eventually have in Australia.

“It’s still to be decided whether they’re getting more into Bollywood cinema as a novelty factor or on a regular basis. And that’s a very important discussion. That’s very important research on its own. A lot of people go and see Bollywood film tongue in cheek with a wine glass, and say ok, we have had a Bollywood experience and they are others who get hooked on to it, something like the Greeks did or the Russians did ages ago. There are others which are getting hooked onto Indian cinema which is more than just Bollywood. So there are different sectors and sub-sections out there. But it is fair to say that Bollywood is certainly the music the dance, the colour is certainly catching on in Australia to good results.”

Peter Yiannoudes is planning to open his Melbourne museum to the general public later this year.

He says it will feature some of his more than 10,000 Greek and Indian movie poster collection as well as other items from his more than 50 years in the film industry.

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