Film to revive Soviet-era children’s literature

A new documentary puts the spotlight on the lost world of children’s literature in Marathi imported from the erstwhile USSR. Dibyajyoti Sarma talks to the men behind the movie

29 Jun 2015 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma

Remember those heady days of India’s brush with serious socialism, when Jawaharlal Nehru and Nikita Khrushchev were fast friends?
Whatever you may make of the political implication of the friendship, it was indeed a good time for Indian literature enthusiasts to make acquaintance with the treasure trove of the Russian literature, classics or otherwise, fromTolstoy, Dostoevsky and Gorky to sci-fi stories for young adults, to the magazines for grown ups, ‘Soviet Land’, and for youngsters, ‘Misha’.
Forget the propaganda, for socialist India those days, those books and magazines, translated to all major Indian languages and published by Progress, Mir and Raduga Publications in Moscow, were of such print quality which the Indian printers could only dream of. They had high quality papers, great binding, extraordinary illustrations, and all of it at a very affordable price. This was because it was subsidised by the USSR government.
The best of the lot, of course, were the translated children literature, in the magazine and in books. There were the science fiction novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and there were the adventure stories by Arkady Gaidar and Viktor Dragunsky.
There were other books as well, with impressive illustrations, which focused on the lives of the children of the USSR, not just Russia, but also of places like Lithuania, Belarus and so on.
For translation and distribution of the books, the Russian counterpart had several affiliate organisations across the country, including the People’s Publishing House in Delhi. These publishing houses received encouragement from the USSR’s publishing department in the form of big discounts on high-quality books.
Predictably, the golden run ended when the USSR disintegrated in 1991. Yet, childhood nostalgia dies hard.   
The lost stars
So, we have a Marathi documentary now, which hopes to bring the Soviet-era children’s literature back into the limelight. The film, titled Dhukyat Haravlele Laal Taare (Red Stars Lost in the Mist), attempts to engage in a discussion as to how the soviet books translated into Marathi could be revived.
Made by Prasad Deshpande, a Mumbai-based filmmaker, along with friends Nikhil Rane and Devadatta Rajadhyaksha, the film, in the post-production stage, brings to life characters such as Dennis, Chuk and Gek, Vasilisa, as well as the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. It also includes anecdotes by translators, personalities from Marathi literature and academicians like Vineel Bhurke, who talks about how the books nurtured his love for science.
As the filmmakers continue to receive feedback from experts and the public, they are adding new material even during the post-production work.
Rajadhyaksha’s journey began almost a decade ago, when he rediscovered his childhood stash in a sealed box. Thereafter, he started hunting for more books in old bookshops. A Facebook page — Soviet Literature in Marathi — created in 2012, helped him reach out to collectors across India and even diaspora abroad. “The response was beyond what I had imagined. Soon, we were exchanging notes, reliving memories and had become a vibrant community,” he says.
It was through this page that Rane reached out to him. “When I found an uploaded copy of Chuk and Gek after 25 years, I was overwhelmed,” says Rane, an HR professional. His father is an avid collector of books, and he was, thus, exposed to the literature at an early age. Today, the 34-year-old has a burgeoning collection of Soviet-era books translated into Marathi.
Deshpande’s expertise in filmmaking and sense of adventure (he holds a Guinness World Record for the longest journey by car in a single country, in an expedition for which he was the filmmaker) was the catalyst in the story of Soviet era children’s books being told through Dhukyat Haravlele Laal Taare.
Like a matryoshka doll 
But, why a film, instead of, say, a website? “We believe the film will convey the rich legacy of these books in a much better way,” says Deshpande. “In addition to the inherent strengths of an audio-visual medium, a film also has the advantage of conveying the perspective of book-lovers and experts in their own words.”
Rane likens the experience of making the film as opening the famed Russian Matryoshka doll. “When you open a nesting doll, you find another within. Similarly, interactions with experts have given us further references on facets of these books, which we were unaware of. Our intention is to tell as complete a story as possible, and hence, we’re taking our time to complete the film. However, while scheduling further interviews, we are working on editing of the footage in parallel,” he explains.
The makers intend to screen the film, which will be ready in July/ August, at educational institutes and Rotaract clubs. The plan is to follow the screenings with interactive talks related to the story, or have eminent Marathi artists read to the children.
According to Rajadhyaksha, the ideal audience is anyone who loves listening to a story. While this film would be a revival of memories for many, it will also introduce this fascinating topic to others. “One didn’t need prior knowledge about ships to appreciate Titanic or about dinosaurs to enjoy Jurassic Park,” he argues.
Reviving the culture of reading
Rajadhyaksha: “The dynamics on reading habits are complex.We hope to stir the imaginations of our younger viewers through the film and make them receptive to new genres of literature. Hopefully this will translate in them visiting the nearest bookstore or library (or ordering an eBook).”
A nostalgia trip?
Rane: “The film will evoke nostalgic memories for a certain generation. However, its ambit goes beyond that.The era of these books – with amazing content of great variety, great production values, and affordable prices – was a golden era for children’s literature in India. The new generation deserves to know the story of that era.”
Revaluating the past
Rane: “Sadly, the publishing houses that published these books no longer exist, and hence, no data is available. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a few hundreds of titles were translated into Marathi, with topics ranging from children’s literature, classic, technical literature and socio-political literature.
Favourite books
Rajadhyaksha: Denis-chyaGoshti (The adventures of Denis) is a collection of short stories, about the daily life of a young boy from a middle-class Moscow family. The influence of this book was such that my best friend and I used to invariably call each other ‘Denis’ and ‘Mishka’ for a couple of years.