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Take One: Prague, CZ. October 2006.
For a few days, lovers of India and Indian cinema would be indulged—it was time for Prague’s fourth annual Bollywood Festival.
The large hall of the Kino Svetozor theatre in downtown Prague was absolutely full, and I wondered if everyone realized they would be stuck in the wooden plank chairs for the next three hours. But no one shows up to a Bollywood festival by mistake, do they?
My American friend from class arrived, handing me a Ziploc bag (wow, where did you find Ziploc bags in Prague!) of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. She apologized for any unfamiliar taste since she had to use honey instead of vanilla, which she had not been able to find anywhere. The cookies were a nice touch of home, and combined with the anticipation of watching Taal on the big screen for the first time, one of my favorite Hindi films of all time (and also one of the first ones I’d ever seen, when I was still in the early stages of my Bollywood education), the night couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
The movie began, and within the first ten minutes, the audience was giggling. I looked around and saw that many of those who did not understand the English subtitles had rented headsets to listen to the Czech translation on audiotape. I studied the subtitles, confused; was there something wrong with them, were they delayed? Maybe the Czech translation was not very good? In the row in front of us, two women in their late 20s were intermittently convulsing with loud, cringe-inducing laughter. I knew there were some moments of comedy in the film, intentional funny scenes and dialogues and expressions, but the audience seemed to all be laughing at something that I could not figure out. I turned to my friend, who raised her eyebrows and shrugged in return.
Memories of the first time I had ever seen Taal rushed back to me. I had been in college, sitting on the floor in a desi friend’s tiny dorm room. There were probably seven or eight of us packed in around the small TV. It must have been a school night, because none of us made any protest against starting a three-hour film close to midnight.
Now as I recalled filmy first viewing of Taal, I questioned myself: had I laughed, too? No, surely not. That was impossible. But I also had to admit that Taal had not been my first Hindi film. The first Hindi movie I had ever seen had actually been a couple of years before, when I met Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. The music I loved instantly, but didn’t I complain after Kajol’s ninth costume change during just one song? Mustn’t I have giggled like these Czechs were now giggling?
Regardless, I felt my stomach drop. Each communal laugh that shook the theatre was like someone shaking me by the shoulders. As the audience dispersed at the end of the film, I could look no one in the eye.
Take Two: Prague, CZ. October 2007.
At the 2007 Bollywood festival, I was determined not to go through the same experience as I had the previous year. I quickly found a solution: go to the weirdest, most un-Bollywood film, which this time happened to be a collection of animated shorts. The fact that this was to be shown in the smaller hall of the theatre secured my decision and I bought a ticket.
My wish came true that night when I entered the small darkened hall, after cutting through the pedestrian traffic clogging the door to the large hall where Dhoom 2 was about to put on quite a show for an unsuspecting audience. The 50 or so seats of the small hall were only half full when I found my seat, but by show time, there were a couple people forced to sit on the stairs inside the entrance.
A young woman who I recognized from last year’s festival appeared enthusiastically amidst the hanging sense of uncertainty that had been building in the tight space. Her name was Sangita Shresthova and she spoke reassuringly in English, welcoming us to the festival, explaining we were in for a treat. In collaboration with NoMasala (Berlin, visit www.nomasala.com for more information) and Short Circuit (Bombay), the festival had secured a bundle of non-commercial short films, and this was a very unique opportunity to view India through a different kind of lens—which basically meant that you better not be expecting the usual Bollywood melodrama.
Just when it appeared that she would go on to describe the films a little more, she hesitated, and suddenly, she was speaking Czech. This, I thought, was interesting, because she had already seemed to assume that the majority of the audience who would come to see a non-Bollywood film would not be Czech, but, more likely, English-speaking expats—like me. She reverted to English to let us expats know that there would be an intermission after about 30 minutes; we were about to endure an onslaught of two- to eight-minute shorts, rapid fire. I felt like someone had just strapped me into a seat on the tallest roller coaster ride in the amusement park.
Even if I was prompted at intermission, I could not have perfectly distinguished each of the many shorts in my memory, but what now most stands out in my mind, weeks later, is the achingly refreshing originality of the animated shorts. Bollywood this definitely was not. One especially memorable short film depicted the vivid and surreal story of a woman who travels, with her cat companion, into the illustrations on matchboxes for adventures, to get away from her lonely day-to-day life. It was poignant, sad, and breathtakingly unique. Within a few minutes (which meant after three or four of the films had already flickered by over the dazed and confused audience), I was feeling so terribly proud to be part of Indian culture, and so relieved to know I was right in thinking that there had to be those, hidden by the glitter and glory of Bollywood, who were on track with their artistic dreams, not selling out, not pandering to the masses. Several members of the audience left the theatre at intermission. I smiled wider.
These filmmakers are rebels, the (hidden) independent, art cinema movement of India, doing what must be done in order to eke out that which is new, taking the next step toward a revised and refreshed cultural state, counteracting and inverting society’s “valuables” which have been so long revered that they have become very, very stale.
Several of the shorts in the first half were overtly, severely critical of Bollywood worship—think South Park meets Yash Chopra—and I couldn’t have enjoyed them more. I thought, it’s really too bad that there are no other Indians in this theatre. Then again, those Indians that were in Prague were likely older—couples with children, adults who had left India to come and work here—and now were of course missing the celebratory culture and sunny society that is so well-portrayed, albeit exaggerated, in Bollywood films. These shorts just may not have been their cup of tea.
Behind the Scenes
When the film academy in Prague, FAMU, hosted the first festival in 2002, the local media promoted it as a “Hollywood” festival, thinking that “Bollywood” was a typo. Now, Bollywood runs off the Czech tongue as smooth as lassi, thanks to festival organizer Sangita Shresthova’s dynamic and passionate efforts over the last several years.
I spoke with Sangita a few days
after the festival was over, and a day before she was to fly back to California, where she is a PhD candidate at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures.
Being half Czech has of course helped her in promoting Bollywood in Prague. Born in the Czech capital, Sangita spent her formative years in her motherland of Nepal, in Kathmandu. At 18, she moved to the U.S. for university, and since then has spent most of her time traveling between Los Angeles, Prague, and Bombay.
The Bollywood Festival was established just five years ago in Prague, but Sangita’s passion for film took root when, as a child, she began watching Bollywood films in her cousin’s video store in Kathmandu. She fell in love with the Bollywood style of film and consequently the Bollywood style of dancing.
“I love the way they dance. Good dancing is good dancing anywhere,” she said.
She initially trained in traditional Nepali dancing, and then started learning Bollywood dance. Now, at UCLA, Sangita is studying the globalization of Bollywood dance and the teaching of Bollywood dance throughout the world. She also has her own small dance company and has made several documentaries on Bollywood and Nepali dances.
When the Bollywood festival premiered in Prague, the theme was “Decades,” an intentionally simple one that ensured no one would be scared off by the sheer volume and intensity of the Bollywood genre. That year, Praguers were introduced to a filmic India of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Sangita mentioned mixed results for the inaugural festival.
“Some people really went into culture shock. One woman had driven over two hours to come to Prague and see what a Bollywood film was all about. But she couldn’t handle it; it was too much drama for her, and she left. But then we also had people who sat here for two or three films in a row.”
For the Indians of Prague, it’s a different story. Sangita recalled one Indian man who came up to her after a screening one year and told her that he and his wife, along with many other Indian couples in Prague “‘always need babysitters during the festival because we wait all year for this.’”
This time around, the handholding was over, and the 2007 festival featured a broad spectrum of films, ranging from Bollywood blockbusters, to poignant documentaries and “mockumentaries,” to the experimental anti-Bollywood animated shorts.
As Sangita pointed out, there are different kinds of Bollywood films that meet different needs and serve different functions. But they all deserve a space in the theatre.
“We selected these various films intentionally,” Sangita said, “because India is a country of such paradoxes: your cell phone works the minute you step off the plane, but there’s no running water. It’s a country in shift, with so many elements, and for the festival we put these elements back to back on purpose.”
If India’s cultural landscape seems a-jumble even to natives, then you can imagine that the Czech people, recently emerging from the severe oppression of two consecutive regimes, would find India rather overwhelming and chaotic.
“With this festival, we are battling the preconception here of India as simply a poor, exotic, and overly spiritual country. There is still a long way to go. We’re saying, ‘Take India seriously.’ And with the 60th anniversary of India’s independence this year, the media is taking us seriously. Looking west is not the only option,” Sangita pointed out.
I had to stop and ask Sangita, why is a Nepali girl not introducing the Nepali film tradition to western audiences?
“I feel a lot of momentum in India,” she responded, “and the scope is broad, so if you focus only on Nepal, you reduce the excitement.”
I told Sangita about my experience at the festival in 2006, during the screening of Taal, and how upsetting it had been to see the entire audience laughing throughout the film.
“Many Czechs are very uncomfortable about emotions,” she attempted to explain, “so they weren’t necessarily laughing at the film. People in Bombay know it’s funny; it’s such a different aesthetic. But this is part of the educational process.”
Eventually, Sangita wants to see the festival move beyond the confines of Prague and into the rest of the Czech Republic, eventually even outside the nation’s borders.
“We wanted to create a space for ourselves, and it’s high time we pushed the boundaries. The vision has shifted and grown in scope. The space is there now, as of two years ago actually, and now it’s about defining Prague as a multicultural city—what networks can we form, why can’t it be like London? These networks are the positive part of globalization.”
The 2007 festival lasted for three days, and aside from film, offered its attendees a variety of snacks and sweets catered from a local Indian restaurant. On the final day, the event ended with a bang—a colorful, high energy dance party of desi DJs spinning bhangra and Bollywood beats old and new, while Bollywood film clips were projected on the wall. Czech youth dressed up in saris and kurtas (proudly brought back from recent month-long treks through India and Nepal), and the teetotaling desis of Prague (pretty much all of them in the city come out of hiding for this one night) showed off their suave Bollywood moves to the awestruck, eager-to-imitate Czech crowd.
Maybe the decadent stories of the sing-along Bollywood blockbusters were already fading in the minds of festival attendees as they hit the dance floor. Or maybe some attended the screening of animated shorts and are still perplexed by their incongruity to the view of India they already had. We humans enjoy familiarity, feel safe with predictability, but venturing “outside of our comfort zone,” is bound to leave an impression. What we do with that fleeting sensation is entirely up to us.
Suchi Rudra Vasquez is a writer and journalist living in Prague with her husband.