India’s soft power in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan, the largest of the five stans, is enjoying a revival thanks to a new breed of Indian entrepreneurs.
Forget Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Indira Gandhi. They now evoke smiles and a sigh. No matter a 15-year old Devushka (young girl) or a 60-something Zenshina (lady) are called Indira, Mira or Gita. Enter Balika Badhu and Shahrukh Khan in Jab Tak Hai Jaan .
Also meet Sameer Gandotra, ex-Stephanian and a former peripatetic with KLM Airlines, who has now made Almaty his home. He is now changing the image of India from the sepia tinted 50s to the ebullience of today along with other Indians such as Gurvir Singh Khera, who married a local and now has two children. “Now it’s up to you to decide whether I am a Kazakh or an Indian, or both,” he says.
When I first came to Almaty in 2008, Kazakh TV channels would show youngsters dressed in their version of Indian costumes gyrating gently to the lilt of Raj Kapoor film songs especially the Raga Todi-based “Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi Pyas Bujhi Meri Ankhiyan Ki” (My eyes have been satiated, now that my stranger has returned).
That is now over. Thanks to Sameer, who had first-hand seen his mother sell Indian documentaries to a much more discerning audience at Cannes. “I was initially sceptical,” he confesses because of the regressive themes as it revolves around child marriage.
To his relief it didn’t matter. The Kazakh audience took to it instantly. Although not too popular in cities like Astana, Almaty or Shymkent, it was dubbed in Kazakh and subtitled in Russian and became a huge hit in all tier II towns and villages.
“We were initially hesitant because it portrayed child marriage. So we even added a disclaimer. But as soon as it was aired, it became the top show because Balika Badhu matched with their value system – it was the same family structure. Some liked the mother-in-law who, as in many joint Kazakh families, is a strong and ebullient character. The younger crowd likes Anandi,” he says.
The show entered popular consciousness when it began to appear as satires and jokes in other mainstream TV shows in Kazakhstan. In its second season, Balika Badhu has led to another serial, Rani Laxmibai. “Now we have offered 10 movies. The success of Jab Tak Hai Jaan had pleased its producers no end,” says Sameer as he breaks away for a conversation with a Kazakh entrepreneur.
Old India endures in Kazakhstan. A present of a small packet of Indian tea (Chai in Russian and Kazakh) produces a delighted squeal. And now new India has made an entry. Of the Khans, Shahrukh surprisingly, and not Salman or Aamir, leads the sweepstakes. Among the ladies, Neha Dhupia, Vidya Balan and Deepika Padukone are the new heart-throbs.
It is time Indian policymakers leveraged this new found enthusiasm brought about by the dynamism of young Indians to make up for the lost opportunities of the previous decades.