Hooray for Bollywood

The Herzliya Cinematheque offers audiences its first Indian Film Festival.

Bollywood Indian couple 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bollywood Indian couple 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One might not normally associate Herzliya with Indian culture, but the local cinematheque will host its first Indian Film Festival next week (November 23-26).
If Herzliya Cinematheque director Nir Ramon was looking to draw in a wide cross section of the public to the four-day event, he has certainly laid the groundwork. The program draws on a variety of cultural, stylistic and ethnic sources and culls from artistic terrain beyond the strict confines of Indian cinema.
The linchpin of the program is the late iconic actor, director and producer Raj Kapoor, a natural enough choice. “Kapoor founded Bollywood,” says Ramon. “There is simply no bigger figure in Indian cinema.”
Kapoor, who died in 1988 at the age of 53, was a Punjabi refugee from Pakistan who found fame and fortune in the nascent Indian film industry. Besides the stock long products based on romance and numerous musical vignettes, Kapoor also made some movies that won acclaim from Western fans and critics alike. Awaara (1951), which he produced, directed and starred in, and Boot Polish (1954) were nominated for the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Many of Kapoor’s films address serious topics, such as poverty, unemployment and patriotism, and several of his leading characters struggled to overcome economic and social injustices. Kapoor’ performed in 67 movies, directed 10 and produced 17.
Next week’s festival program includes Kapoor’s Bollywood epic Sangam as the closing slot, which tells the story of two childhood friends who vie for the attentions of their beautiful neighbor. The story takes numerous twists and turns as the boys try to cling to their friendship through thick and thin. The screening will be followed by a lecture by film producer and scriptwriter Oshra Schwartz.
The heyday of Indian cinema in Israel was in the 1960s and 1970s when, according to Ramon, the public was generally offered double features. “There was normally an action movie, with lots of people smacking each other around, and the other was a romantic film,” he says, adding that there are still significant pockets of interest in Bollywood here. “I spoke to a man recently who runs three cable TV channels that show Indian movies. He said the channels draw 70,000 viewers. That’s pretty impressive.”
Elsewhere on the festival program, the Friday lineup includes Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 classic The Kid (8 p.m.). “Chaplin was a strong influence on Kapoor,” explains Ramon. “I think you can see that in his films.”
That will be preceded by Kapoor’s 1955 film Shree 420, which tells a tale of poverty, despair and eventual triumph similar to the Chaplin work.
Stretching the cultural boundaries even further, the Friday screenings will end with the delightful Israeli film Desperado Square (9:30 p.m.) directed by Benny Torati and starring Yossef Shiloah. Torati’s film features a motley crowd of characters in a small town, one of whom dreams of reopening the disused local cinema. In the film, the movie they choose for the reopening is Kapoor’s Sangam.
Torati will attend the screening and will enlighten the audience about the machinations and sources of inspiration of the film.
However, the festival is not just a nostalgia trip for older fans of Indian cinema and former backpackers in the subcontinent. “I studied film and TV at Tel Aviv University and I took a course on Indian cinema,” says Ramon. “There were only two of us on the course who hadn’t been to India. But I think that today there is a wider audience for Indian movies, and I wanted to bring as wide a range of films as possible, and I got a lot of help from the Indian government and embassy with this. They did their best to bring all the movies I asked for.”
Indeed, the program also includes a more recent item, the 2009 comedy Three Idiots, which should appeal to the younger crowd.
Even so, in the Western world the name Bollywood does not generally conjure up images of serious cinematic projects. “Yes, it has an image of something like a conveyor belt with tons of movies churned out one after another, Ramon admits, “but maybe there are things we don’t know about India and Indian culture. Don’t forget that India is enormous, and the film industry is so big, so it looks like just a mass production sector. There are the conveyor belt movies but there are plenty of others that address specific aspects of life.”
Ramon hopes the public will come to the festival in droves but is also looking for a longer-term effect. “I want to offer Indian films to fans of the genre but also to introduce Indian cinema and Indian culture to sectors of the public that haven’t encountered them before. I hope there is some continuity to the festival because Indian cinema has a lot to offer.”
The Indian Film Festival will run at the Herzliya Cinematheque from November 23 to November 26. For more information: www.hcinema.org.il and (09) 956-5008