Bollywood in Jerusalem

The first Indian movie to be shot in Israel is, surprisingly, about the life of Jesus.

bollywood 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bollywood 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the years, thousands of young – and some not so young – Israelis have made their way across Asia to spend time exploring the cultural, religious and geographic recesses of India.
The cultural, artistic and culinary impact of those backpacking forays has left its imprint on Israel in musical and alternative therapy slots in New Age festivals, such as Shantipi and Beresheet, in colorful apparel to sold in clothing stores, and in the Indian restaurants that have sprung up around the country.
This month, India will come to Israel – big time – when a large-scale film company sets up base here to make a $30 million movie about the life of Jesus. The cast will be headed by 39-year-old Bollywood star Pawan Kalyan, who is not Christian, with the rest of the acting crew comprising a slew of 10- to 14-year-olds.
Kalyan was in Jerusalem last week and, together with 79-year-old director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao, producer Konda Krishnamraju and scriptwriter JK Bharavi, talked about the new film at a press conference at the King David Hotel. Rao was understandably enthused about the forthcoming project.
“A number of films have been made about Jesus over the years, but this is unique, as a presentation from India,” he said. Rao, who started his directorial career almost half a century ago and has more than 60 films to his credit, said that the choice of cast also gave the film special added value. “We decided that children should perform these roles in the film. We find that this way, the message will reach millions of people. We found that the innocence, sanctity and purity of the child actors come across more than the realistic portrayal of the life of Jesus Christ.”
Naturally, though, it is early days, and Rao says he is not entirely sure how the film will eventually pan out. “I cannot, at this stage, divulge exactly how the script will be, but Kalyan will play a very important role, together with the children.”
Considering the Bollywood penchant for song and dance routines, one could be forgiven for expecting the new film to follow suit. Rao immediately puts that idea to rest. “There will be music but it’s all inspirational.
There will be no song and dance.”
The film will keep Rao and his colleagues busy for a couple of months here, with more than 200 crew members and actors on board for the project. Filming will take place at a number of locations, both here and in the Palestinian Authority. These locations include Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho and in Galilee.
Rao, Krishnamraju, Bharavi and Kalyan were part of a reconnaissance team that came here to scope out potential locations and to get a feel for the place. “We came to Jerusalem to see all the holy places, and I must say we are very enriched, enthralled and thrilled with what we have seen here. It will inspire us ahead of the start of shooting the film.”
Kalyan is a megastar in India and earns a nice crust on the Bollywood circuit. He says his decision to take part in the film was prompted by a couple of recent events which, for him, were of great spiritual importance.
“A few months ago my five-yearold son fell and bruised his knee, and I could feel the pain myself,” said the actor. “So I thought about Jesus, the son of God, about the bond between fathers and sons. That was instrumental in my decision to act in this film.”
The other incident did not involve Kalyan personally but still left a deep impression on him. He talked about a terrible tragedy that took place in India in which a father and his children were shot by gunmen. “The mother was in Australia at the time, and when she returned to India, she said that she forgave the killers.
The amazing compassion she showed moved me very much and also made me think of Jesus.”
For most people, in religious terms India is associated with Hinduism or Islam, so the choice of the theme for the first Indian film production to set foot in Israel is somewhat surprising. But not according to Kalyan. “There are millions of people in India who follow Christianity. Also, in India there is great religious tolerance and understanding of other religions.”
In that context, were Kalyan and the rest of the senior film crew members wary of any political obstacles they may encounter during the course of making a film in Israel and the PA? According to Krishnamraju, at least in terms of his new movie all is rosy in the Middle Eastern garden. “We have had no problems at all, either in Israel or with the Palestinians,” he says, adding that he hopes the film might even help to repair some political damage. “We want there to be peace everywhere, not just in the Middle East. We have our problems in India, too.”
There may be an added circular twist to the Indian filming expedition to this part of the world. Since the mid-19th century there have been several unsubstantiated theories that Jesus spent some time in India. In the New Testament there is an undocumented gap in Jesus’s life, between the ages of 12 and 30.
While many Christians believe he lived in Nazareth during those years, writers and religious figures such as Louis Jacolliot (in 1869), Nicolas Notovitch (in 1894), Levi H. Dowling (in 1908), and German author Holger Kersten (in 1981), in his book Jesus Lived in India, argued that Jesus traveled to Kashmir as a young man. Robert Beckford’s 2007 documentary The Hidden Story of Jesus looks into the possibility that Jesus may have studied the secrets of Buddhism in his youth.
While realizing that such theories may add some spice to the forthcoming Indian-Middle Eastern movie synergy, Kalyan says he does not take the idea too seriously.
“No one has proven that particular idea yet. We’ll just concentrate on the facts as we know them.”
Meanwhile, Israeli producer Sharon Schaveet of Biblical Productions is looking for some positive professional and economic fallout from the filming. “They will probably rent all sorts of equipment when they get here. We have top-quality filmmaking equipment here,” she says. “I’m sure there will be all kinds of professionals taken on board during the work – like local producers, interpreters, assistant cameramen. This is a major production.”
The film will be in English and three Indian languages and is due to be released worldwide in the latter half of 2011.