Muppets and free love: The bizarre documentary that shaped the image of Sweden

Who knew that Mahna Mahna, the Muppets' much-loved exploration of scat jazz, came from Sweden? Or at least from Sweden: Heaven and Hell, a bizarre 1968 Italian shock-doc portraying the country as a land of uninhibited public nakedness, government-approved pornography and swinging couples.

Muppets and free love: The bizarre documentary that shaped the image of Sweden
"Sweden: Heaven and Hell" portrayed Swedes as sexually promiscuous. Photo: Film Poster

The film, called Svezia, inferno e paradiso in Italian, was a so-called “mondo documentary”, a genre of highly sensationalised shock documentaries, often featuring sex or death, which emerged in Italy in the early 1960s, inspired by Mondo Cane, literally “Doggish World”, a travelogue showing immoral behaviour around the world. 

The director, Luigi Scattini, is probably best known for War Italian Style, Due marines e un generale, featuring Buster Keaton. 

Purporting to be a critical documentary about sexual liberation, the film is really little more than an excuse to show scene after scene of semi-clad blonde Swedish women, and to exploit the reputation for wild, uninhibited sexuality Sweden had gained through films such as One Summer of Happiness (1951), The Silence (1963) and I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967). 

It starts off with a Lucia procession in a middle-class Swedish home. 

“Heaven,” the narrator says approvingly of the pretty, singing young women. “And in real life is she a nurse? Does she teach in kindergarten?”

Then his voice hardens to something close to disgust. 

“Or are these angels the type who change their bed partners every night in the sexiest Swedish films?” 

The scene featuring ‘Mahna Mahna’ (or mah na’ mah na’ in the original Italian version), is a transparent ruse to show a group of naked young women having a sauna or bastu and then bounding out naked over the snow. 

This is the scene that begins the trailer, and it gives a good idea of the film’s mix of feigned shock and salaciousness. 

“In America, you don’t see beautiful girls bouncing boldly out of the sauna into the snow,” the narrator declares. 

He then lists the other shocking scenes in the film you wouldn’t see in America, a little like a fairground barker drumming up customers.

They include: sex shops with government-approved porn, female parking attendants who moonlight as nude models, a topless female rock band, a “swap shop” where married couples swap partners “on the turn of a card”, a “floating sex lab”, where 15-year-old girls are taught sex education, a lesbian club and motorbike gangs violently attacking young women. A word of warning: the trailer below is exaggerated to laughably bizarre levels, but it does also contain some scenes that readers may find offensive, disturbing, or all of the above.

“In America, you won’t see any of these,” he ends. “But you can and you will when you see ‘Sweden: Heaven and Hell’. This is Sweden, where anything and everything goes! Where the new morality is old hat!”

The film did quite well internationally, and helped strengthen the image Sweden had already won as a place of wild, liberated sexuality (presumably leading to some disappointment among the young American men who fled to Sweden to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam).  

But the greatest success came to the Italian composer Piero Umiliani, whose song Mah na’ mah na’ spent six weeks on the US Billboard chart (peaking at number 55), and was then featured in the UK’s Benny Hill Show, Sesame Street in 1969, and then on the Muppet Show in 1977. 

Was Sweden ever this racy and sexually liberated? If Swedes who came of age in the late-1960s are anything to go by, it seems unlikely. 

Meanwhile, here’s the Muppets: 

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IndiskFika: The Indian dance group taking Sweden by storm

IndiskFika are a group of Indians in Sweden with a shared passion: dance. Two of the group's leaders tell The Local how they came to be finalists in Talang, one of Sweden's top TV talent shows.

IndiskFika: The Indian dance group taking Sweden by storm

“We’ve been very passionate about dance from childhood,” says co-founder Ranjithkumar Govindan, who shortens his name to Ranjith. “I’ve been dancing from childhood, like first grade. So once we got into our professional lives and career, I wanted to continue my passion.”

“Like Ranjith, I have been dancing since the age of three, ” adds Aradhana Varma, who joined the group in 2020. She’s been competing in and winning dance competitions back in her hometown of Mumbai ever since. 

With just a handful of members back in 2019, the group now numbers over 50, including dancers, videographers, choreographers, editors, and production crew, and they are still growing.

Listen to Aradhana Varna from IndiskFika on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Govindan says started by dancing at various events in Stockholm alongside fellow Indian dance enthusiasts before the idea came to form the troupe. “Then, one fine day, me and one of my friends, Vijay [Veeramanivanna], said ‘why don’t we do a cover song?'” he remembers. 

“He’s very passionate about camera work, cinematography. I’m very passionate about dance,” Govindan says of the collaboration. 

Their initial idea was to take advantage of their location in to shoot dance routines out in Swedish nature, in the same way that Bollywood movies sometimes shoot routines against European scenes such as Swiss mountainsides or Italian plazas. 

“Indians are very famous for movies, like Bollywood, so we wanted to do a cover video of a particular song from a movie which was going to be released. Since we are living in Sweden, we have plenty of opportunities to cover good locations and nature, so that was an idea,” he explains.

The name ‘IndiskFika’, (“Indian fika”, a fika being a Swedish term for a coffee break in the middle of the day) came from Govindan and Veeramanivanna’s wish to combine Swedish and Indian cultures. 

IndiskFika performing in the Talang talent show. Photo: TV4

“We started with five to seven people in 2019, that was the first thing we did, and we did a shoot and edited everything, then we realised that if we wanted to release it, we should have a name,” Govindan says.

“So we started thinking ‘what name should we pick for this team?’. We came up with the idea IndiskFika. Everyone knows about fika in Swedish, right?” 

Their videos, some of which have over a million views, became popular both among Indians at home and among members of the Indian community in Sweden, whose interest helped the group grow further.

More and more Indians living in Stockholm started asking to join, and soon they were doing live performances:  one at the Chalmers University in Gothenburg, and another at the Diwali celebrations held by the Västerås Indian Association. 

When the pandemic hit, IndiskFika didn’t let it stop them. They started planning a digital one-year anniversary for the group, and began looking for other groups to collaborate with. 

That was how Govindan began collaborating with Varma, who had been performing with a different dance team. “I had been performing at various events like Namaste Stockholm with a different dance team based in Stockholm since 2017, but during pandemic, everything had come to a halt since it was a tough time for all of us,” she explains.

When new people joined IndiskFika, it gave the group a new impetus. “That’s when the boost started,” Govindan remembers. “We became stronger and stronger. So, so many things happened.”

IndiskFika first came to the attention of ordinary Swedes with an article in Ingenjörenthe members’ magazine for engineering union Sveriges Ingenjörer. Many of the group’s members are IT engineers or students at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. “They did an article about us, about the engineers continuing their passion for dance, so that reached a more Swedish audience,” Govindan says. 

This led to more in-person performances, which in turn caught the eye of the producers responsible for Talang at Sweden’s broadcaster TV4.

“The Talang people said ‘we read about you and we’ve gone through all your YouTube videos, why don’t you come and participate in Talang 2022?’. The rest of the story you know. We participated in Talang, and we got a golden buzzer from David Batra in the prelims, so we went direct to the finals.”

David Batra, a Swedish comedian with an Indian father, is known for comedy series such as Kvarteret Skatan and Räkfrossa, as well as Världens sämsta indier (“World’s Worst Indian”), a series where he visits India, alongside public broadcaster SVT’s India correspondent Malin Mendel, and tries his hand at living and working in the country.

Batra is also one of four judges on Talang, whose golden buzzer meant that the dance team were awarded one of eight places in the final – four are chosen by votes and four are chosen by the Talang judges.

The group were among the top eight teams in the finals on March 18th, but for Indians in Sweden, reaching the final was a win in itself. They were invited for a fika with India’s ambassador to Sweden, where they were treated to both traditional Indian and Swedish treats.

The IndiskFika troupe on stage at TV4’s studios. Photo: TV4

Many of the group’s members work full-time alongside dancing, which can be difficult at times.

“It’s not easy to be so dedicated by spending extra effort after office hours, with hectic weekend schedules for rehearsals especially when everyone in the team has a full-time job,” Varma says. “There’s a lot of things that take place in the background from logistics to costumes, hall bookings, co-ordinating everyone’s availability, social media activities and so on.”

Like many foreigners, though, Govindan and Varma have taken their time adapting to life in Sweden. 

“All I knew about Sweden was that it was one of the cold and dark countries,” Varma says. “Eventually you start liking it, and you know, everything is worth it for the summers that you get here. The fika tradition, the amazing work/life balance, the nature, that’s the best part that we have here.”

“I didn’t have much of an idea about Sweden,” Govindan agrees. “The temperature, where I come from, throughout the year is between 25 to 40 degrees. In terms of temperature, nature, the people, everything is different.”

“India is very rich in culture, right?” Varma says when asked about the differences between Swedish and Indian culture. “We have a lot of colours and a lot of different flavours and you know, that’s the kind of performance we gave. That was the plan: to give a very energetic, powerful, and colourful performance.”