Back in the USSR: A Bollylover's Adventures in Soviet Cinema Part I

I've always enjoyed culture and places a la Eastern Europe . . . and one of the best traveling experiences of my life was backpacking through the Balkans (Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia) five years ago.

India? Nope. Sarajevo, Bosnia . . . a city highly influenced by Persianate/Ottoman style. 

Ugly communist architecture inexplicably turns me on, and the Slavic languages always manage to hold my attention longer than I expect. I almost went into Russian or Southeastern European Studies, but somehow, my brain couldn't handle the chill, if you will. Immersing oneself in a language or a culture is an intimate thing . . . and it places one in a vulnerable emotional/mental position. Just like marrying a person, one has to be able to handle large doses of of a culture to commit to studying it and enjoying its company in the long term. 

Tsar Sultan Eavesdropping, 1905. (Ivan Bilibin)

So, Russian studies/Balkan studies didn't happen. We dated, we broke up. No big deal. I found Bollywood and Hindi and the riches of South Asia. I'm much the better/happier for it. 

Surprisingly, however, my journey through Hindi cinema has led me back where I started . . . to Soviet Cinema, AKA the Cinema of the Soviet Union. 

I've realized that Bollywood Brain is an excellent jumping off point for enjoyment of other world cinema. It's a happy pill that protects one from the slings and arrows of OTHER people's problems (whoever that sociological "other" may be). Furthermore, the discipline one gains from watching obscure Hindi films is useful in any obscure cinematic endeavor. I'm not exactly at 4DK level of obscure--but I certainly watch things now that I would have never considered watching a year ago. Best of all, after being mentally strengthened by the rich diet that is Hindi Cinema, I now feel I can handle short journeys into the cold. Below is the record of one such trip. I'll keep you updated on the ongoing forays as they happen! 

For now . . . 

The Girls -- Девчата (Russian language, Soviet Union, 1961). 


The Story  . . .

Tosya (Nadezhda Rumyantseva), alone and just out of culinary school, arrives in a logging town somewhere deep in the black forests of Russia. She has apparently been appointed as the new canteen cook for all the lumbermen. However, she also seems rather naive to the toughened inhabitants of the tiny town. She hasn't brought a pillow or EVEN proper snow boots with her. (Horrors!)

Tosya makes herself comfortable immediately (somewhat to the distress of her housemates). The audience immediately realizes that this is a girl who doesn't know the meaning of fear . . .  and doesn't worry about how other people will perceive her. She's consistently upbeat, never stops moving, says the wrong things, and touches other people's things without asking. However--nobody really minds--because she is SO adorable and well-meaning. 

Well, almost nobody minds. The glamorous and cynical housemate, Anfisa, immediately takes a dislike to Tosya . . .perhaps because Tosya is everything she is not.

However, the other girls quickly step in and essentially tell Tosya not to mind Anfisa's attitude. It certainly doesn't bother Tosya for long. She soon settles in at the canteen . . .

 . . . and attends the Saturday/Friday night social scene of the little town. Almost immediately, she manages to step on some toes, and not by way of her dancing, either.

Within 10 minutes, Tosya gets a quick, culture-shock-esque lesson on the power dynamics of the small town. She helps hang the portrait of the "star" lumberjack in town, Ilya (the Russian equivalent name to Bollywood's Ram or Raj--a hero's name if there ever was one). Immediately after, Ilya walks in with his lumber crew, to an awed, red carpet treatment by the entire room. This is a guy who expects to be treated like royalty.

Ilya is the guy in the fur hat. I mean, the guy in the fur hat that's second from the left. 

Instead of coupling off, Ilya (Nikolai Rybnikov) stomps over to a checkers game, and proceeds to act like he owns the room.

So much so, that he even tells his friend to stop the record player . . .  making everyone in the room stop dancing, so he can concentrate better on his next move!

Tosya, who's ended up dancing with another girl in order not to be a wallflower, doesn't take kindly to the removal of the music and stomps right over and turns it back on. This is quite to the surprise of the crowd of dancers--who are obviously used to catering to Ilya's whims. (Note: throughout the film she tries to make simple household tasks fun, often through music and dance . . .  quite like a Disney-heroine . . . or a Russian fairy-tale-heroine, I suppose.)

After a short battle of wills, Tosya is "made" to wait to turn the music back on, and told to watch the "amazing" checkers move. Ilya wins, but is intrigued by the minx that dared to challenge him . . . He asks her to dance.

Tosya is still incensed and in a brilliant stroke, manages to take his ego down a notch in front of everyone. (I won't ruin it for you, it's really a perfect scene.)

His wounds still smarting, Ilya makes a bet with his logging rival (they bet a Cuban hat and a Reindeer), that he can make the firebrand Tosya fall in love with him.

From there on, the plot is rather recognizable, with some lovely Russian twists. I mean, we all know the basic story. "Playboy makes bet that girl will fall for him. They really fall in love and he reforms, but she finds out about the bet and leaves him . . . he has to find a way to get her back, etc. etc." But I didn't care that I knew what the "end result" would be. I was thoroughly entertained trying to see how they would get there.

The Standout-Bits

1. Chemistry, chemistry, and well, charisma. This story is really very simple (as Wikipedia points out), but the interaction (both scripted and acted) between all the characters sets it a notch ahead. The two leads are delicious. Ilya is a hero and a playboy, and Tosya is a feisty ball of energy. Neither has much respect for authority . . . and both are larger than life in everything they do. The latter aspect of their pairing really sold it for me. Even though the town (and film) is full of funny little characters, you certainly can't imagine these two being happy with anyone else. 

2. The balance between humor and melodrama. The sequences and gags are all quite funny . . . 

 . . .but also manage to achieve the right amount of pathos. During several scenes in the last act, both leads spend quite a bit of time moping around (during their separation) . . .  and although you have to laugh at their antics, you also feel for them. It's a good balance. 

3. The Coziness Quotient. I really enjoy films that can make the winter seem like a magical thing, not the blustering, biting, inconvenient thing that I as a Minnesotan know it can be. Not only do the characters seem to mind the cold less than they perhaps should . . .

But here the cold and the character's indoor cozy social gatherings go hand in hand. You need the deep freeze to appreciate the embrace between two people sharing a coat or the space in front of a stove. Overall, the watching experience is  akin to spending a weekend at a winter retreat with friends. Fun and laughter and jolliness abounds. For all the highs and lows of emotion it portrays, this is a very lighthearted film . . . and is bound to put you in a good mood.

Why you (Holly/Bollywood watchers) might like it . . .

1. If you are one of those people who watches Sharmilee (1971), or Fanaa (2006), or Lootera (2013), and just want the Himachal Pradesh or Kashmir cozy/snowy bits to go on and on . . . then this might be for you.

Sharmilee (1971)

2. If you want to see something that crosses the snow and the precocious innocence of Gold Rush (1925), and the battle of the sexes humor of Harvey Girls (1946) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) . . . then this might be for you.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

3. If you like your heroines plucky, entrepreneurial and nurturing (quite the combo). . . with a gift for physical comedy and a habit of standing up to tough-guy types (like Jaya Bhaduri or Neetu Singh), this one might be for you. Heck, if you want to see MORE female driven stories of any sort, then this one might be for you.

Zanjeer, 1973. 

Where to find it?

Luckily, you don't have to venture all the way into the wilds of Rus to track this one down.

The Russian Studio Mosfilm seems to be the Russian equivalent of Rajshri--in the sense that they've been kind enough to upload "quite a few" (not as many as Rajshri) movies on to their Youtube channel--with English subs. It doesn't get easier to access than that!

Do svidaniya, cinema comrades!


  1. First off, I love your photo of the National Library in Sarajevo. Secondly, this movie looks overwhelmingly cute. I see another addition to add to my rapidly-growing list...

  2. I'm glad you knew the name of the building, cause I didn't remember! It's been a while. Yes, this movie is entirely adorable. It's definitely worth re-watching at interval, which is always my biggest compliment. Also, given a week of it sitting in the back of my brain, percolating, I realized that these two look remarkably like another onscreen couple, Logan and Veronica from Veronica Mars. Weird comparison, but true. Also, this heroine is rather Anne of Green Gable's like . . .

  3. Oh, perfect - I was trying to think of which character Tosya reminded me. Certainly Anne of Green Gables. I really loved this movie, and would be embarrassed to say how many times I've watched it over the past two weeks. I will admit to watching it twice, back to back for starters. It's THAT sublime.

    1. I know, right?! I love this film. There's such a nice progression in the relationship, a lot of spunky choices by the heroine, and a picture perfect ending. Probably time for a rewatch. :)

    2. Yes, it may end up being my favorite movie of all time, because it seems so close to perfection. I can't find any flaws. My heart breaks for each of them in their turn, and sings when things are working for them. Movies don't have to be great epics, or complicated, to move our hearts forever. Can you imagine it makes Siberia seem like a wonderful place? Oh well, I guess where there is true love, heaven exists. Thanks for posting this review!


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