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(photo credit: Courtesy)
India is home to the world's largest film industry, called Bollywood, which produces thousands of films a year. Bollywood is generally known for its lavish, romantic musicals which are good fun but not to be taken too seriously. However, Indian filmmakers, most famously the late Satyajit Ray, have made some of the world's greatest and most moving films. Today, contemporary Indian films with serious aspirations are getting the recognition they deserve worldwide, and you can see some recent Indian cinema at the Film Festival of India in Israel, which starts on Saturday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and will begin shortly thereafter at the Jerusalem and Haifa Cinematheques.
Indian guests who will be coming include Rituparno Ghosh, director of the opening night film, Dosar, which was selected for Les Cinema du Monde section of the Cannes Film Festival this year. Set in contemporary Calcutta, it tells the story of an adulterous couple whose affair is exposed when the two get into a car accident, and how the betrayed wife (Konkana Sen Sharma) copes with her grief. The simple story is told with great intensity and also (unusual for a contemporary Indian film) is in black and white.
A second film by Ghosh, Rain Coat, is also showing at the festival. Rain Coat received the National Award for best film of India in 2004 and was shown in competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic. Aishwarya Rai, a star equally renowned for her beauty and acting ability, plays Niru, who marries a rich man instead of her poor lover Manoj (Ajay Devgan). Years after her marriage, Manoj has to borrow a coat to see her on a rainy evening. It's been hailed as one of the greatest romances in Indian cinema.
Black, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, was selected by Time Magazine (Europe) as one of the 10 Best Movies of the Year 2005 from across the globe, as well as listed on the 25 Must See Bollywood Movies by Filmfare Magazine. Black is a kind of Indian version of the Helen Keller story. The film spans almost fifty years of the life of Michelle McNally (portrayed as a child by Ayesha Kapoor and as a woman by Rani Mukerji) who is born deaf and blind. Since she can't express herself, she releases her frustrations in violent tantrums. A teacher for the blind and deaf, Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan), comes into her life. He is an alcoholic who has never found the success he yearns for, until he meets Michelle.
India has its gangsters, just like everywhere else, and Bollywood has its fair share of gangster movies. Apoorva Lakhia's Shootout at Lokhandwala, is the latest example of this genre. It's based on a long and drawn-out shootout between the Mumbai police and local mobsters that took place in 1991. It alternates between looking into the minds of the gangsters and the bravery of the cops who put their lives on the line.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Shadow Kill is a historical drama set in the state of Travancore in the early Forties. At the time, execution by hanging was still a common practice and the state had its own executioner, who, in return for carrying out the executions, enjoyed many privileges. Now that modernity has made executions much less common, the executioner is relieved of some of the burden of his guilty conscience. Now, ordered by the prince to kill one more man, he isn't sure he can go through with it.
Most of the films in the festival are in Hindi (as are most films made in Bollywood), but one exception is Mani Ratnam's b>Kannathil Muthamittal (A Peck on the Cheek), which is in Tamil, another Indian language. Set in war-torn Sri Lanka, it tells the story of a nine-year-old girl who discovers she is adopted and is determined to make contact with her biological mother.
Not all of the films are somber. Munna Bhai MBBS is a light comedy that was enormously popular in India, about Munna Bhai (Sanjay Dutt), a small-time Mumbai hoodlum who wants to become a doctor because he has fallen from grace in the eyes of his law-abiding father (Sunil Dutt). Although he doesn't actually study medicine, he begins to pose as a doctor and gets engaged to a young woman whose parents think he is a genuine medical professional.
Reema Kagti's Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. is a romantic comedy about six married couples on a package honeymoon tour to Goa.
Parineeta (The Married Woman), directed by Pradeep Sarkar, is a musical adaptation of a 1914 Bengali novel, transposed to the Sixties. It tells the story of Lolita, an orphan who grew up in her uncle's house. She falls in love with the rebellious son of her uncle's wealthy neighbor, while another young man falls in love with her.
There's even a science-fiction film on the list, Rakesh Roshan's Krish, which features the most cutting-edge special effects ever seen in an Indian film. Krish is born with supernatural powers. He falls in love with a woman and follows her to Singapore. While there, he fights an evil doctor who is trying to change the future, in a story line reminiscent of the television series Heroes.
Anyone who has seen some of the recent Indian films at previous years' festivals know that these films are full of surprises, particularly in terms of their acting, energy, and intensity. A plot summary often doesn't do justice to the work of Indian directors and film buffs will want to see as many of these as possible.