At some point of time in the late 80s, one man dared to dream big. He wanted to create a grand fantasy so epic in its proportions that it could kill people with its sheer awesomeness. He combined elements from popular stories like Arthurian legends, masked vigilantes standing up for the weak (Robin Hood, Zorro, Batman and others like them), Satan worship, sea monsters and sorcery of all kinds. And then he threw in good measures of Bollywood masala to create an epical epic so epic that its epicosity still echoes in the minds of everyone who saw it.
This man was Shashi Kapoor. And the film he made was called Ajooba.
In fact this film was to be so grand in scale that it was obvious that Indians could not do it alone…the Indian industry had not yet reached the levels of technical knowhow and financial wherewithal required for something on the scale of Ajooba. He needed international assistance.
Sadly, the Cold War was still on and the Socialist Republic of India, while nominally non-aligned, pretty much had only one real friend in the international arena…and Bollywood had fans in only one major country of the world. So Ajooba became an Indo-Soviet joint venture.
The story, as we know it, is one of hubris and the grand tragedy of a broken dream. The Soviet producers pulled out mid-production, the film hit several delays and by the time it came out in 1991, it cost so much that it was nigh impossible for it to make money. Shashi Kapoor ended up losing several crores on the film.
But the true story, I posit, is something else. Shashi Kapoor was working for Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Ajooba was anti-Communist propaganda intended to further foster dissatisfaction in the people of the non-Russian Soviets in the times of Glasnost and Perestroika and the Autumn of Nations. (He also exceeded his brief and tried to protect Indian interests in Central Asia, while he was at it.) The Soviet backers pulled out because the plan had been discovered. But the film still got made and was successful in its mission, despite commercial failure in India.
Here are my arguments to support this case.
If Shashi Kapoor really wanted technical and financial support for a dream film, the British film industry would have been an obvious choice for him. He had worked in several acclaimed British productions himself and was married to a British-born BAFTA winning actress. He definitely had the connections to try and swing a deal for a grand eastern fantasy film to be made simultaneously in Hindi and English, covering two of the largest global markets. Why Soviet co-producers then? It doesn’t make any sense. The Soviet industry was in no way better than the British industry. Why would you not choose the best possible option available to you?
From the point of view of the British authorities, they could trust Shashi as practically a British citizen. And of course he had the advantage of being Raj Kapoor’s brother, which would make him welcomed in the Soviet Union. He was the perfect man for this mission. All these factors combined make my theory quite plausible…and that’s all a good conspiracy theory really needs to do, establish plausibility, because proofs don’t exist in the murky world of espionage and conspiracy.
But I’m not finished yet. Let’s take a look at the movie itself and see whether it could be anti-Soviet propaganda in any way. The plot of the movie, in case you haven’t seen it (if you really haven’t seen it you’re missing out on one of the greatest experiences life has to offer you, stop wasting time on this stupid blog and go watch the film first), centers around a Zorro-type vigilante hero who fights for the marginalized, poor people against an oppressive regime. Seems pretty pro-Soviet at first glance, doesn’t it?
That’s exactly what it would have to be to be able to get the Soviet support in the first place…but if you get into the nitty-gritties of it, if you start going deep into the film and reading the subtextual messages being sent out under the layers of awesomeness and seeming pro-Sovietness, it soon becomes apparent that the movie is trying to do to Soviet minds what Leo DiCaprio and crew did to Fischer under Ken Watanabe’s direction.
The first thing you need to understand to understand the message is who is the target audience. The film did not seek converts from the Russian masses or the other European nationalities within the USSR…they had already begun dissenting against and disapproving of the Soviet system by 1989. It was aimed at the people of the Asian Soviet Republics…you know, all the ‘–Stans’ (and Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan if you’re being pedantic). (NOTE: Include Afghanistan in those ‘–Stans’, because it was also ruled by a puppet Communist regime at the time and lends itself most easily to the story thought up by Shashi, who would have known more about Afghanistan than any of the other ‘–Stans’.)
So our story begins in Baharistan (I would like to draw your attention to the ‘–Stan’), which is ruled by a benevolent and pious King and is a prosperous and happy nation. The greatest issue of national importance is the King’s lack of issue, but even that is solved as the Queen gives birth to a boy heralded by shooting stars and the whole messianic shebang.
But all hell breaks loose when the evil Vizier (He-Who-Is-Literally-Never-Named-In-The-Film-Only-Known-By-Whatever-Title-He-Holds-Vizier/Sultan) takes power in a coup and the royal family is dispersed.
The pious and super happy royal family represents the pre Communist “ideal” “golden age” for these nations and Amrish Puri is the evil Soviet regime personified. Let’s go through the parallels point by point…
- The Satan worshipping Vizier/Sultan does not like people being religious and all…”Religion is the opium of the masses” anyone? Also, for most religious people, being an atheist is pretty much the same as being an evil Satan worshipping asshole.
- There are many poor people in this absolute dick-tatorship who have to line up for substandard bread provided by the government. They also get punished if they have the temerity to suggest that the bread might not be good enough for human consumption.
- Baharistan has an ancient and loving relationship with Hind, but the new generation of the rulers of Hind (played by Tej Sapru) are cozying up to the Evil Regime and undermining this relationship.
- The working class people represented by Rishi Kapoor’s potter and the Georgian actor playing Amitabh’s foster father’s smith are worse off under this regime because they are not “party members”.
- Some of the rulers are so drunk (either on power or Vodka) that they see no difference between Dimple Kapadiya and a fat Rishi Kapoor in drag.
- Even if you manage to somehow kill the leader of this regime, the idea will come back in another form…riding the Fauladi Shaitan (literally Steel Devil) of Industrialism and Tanks!
- The only thing that can save the people now is a return to older, more religious values and a miracle, a wonder…an Ajooba!
Ajooba was clearly insidious anti-Soviet propaganda created by Shashi Kapoor under the directions of the British intelligence establishment. But did it succeed?
The Soviets got an inkling of how the movie was turning out and the Soviet producers (Gorky Studios) withdrew mid-production. Shashi powered through the crisis and put in his own money (or maybe secret UK government money, who knows?) to complete the film. It finally released in the summer of 1991 and was a commercial failure in India (it has since gone on to achieve cult status thanks to all the epicosity). It was released in the USSR as “Черный принц Aджуба” (Translation: Black Prince Ajooba) at around the same time.
By around December of that year, the USSR had fallen and all the ‘-Stans’ were independent nations. Coincidence? I say not at all.
Shashi Kapoor and Ajooba were in fact instrumental in bringing down the Eastern Bloc and changing the face of global politics forever.
Bonus Fact: Zura Qapianidze, the actor who played Ajooba’s foster father went on to become a member of the parliament of independent Georgia. (This one is really true…google it if you don’t believe me.)