The Prague Bollywood Festival, now in its fourth year, all came about back in 2003, when three friends - students at Prague's Film Academy FAMU - organised a few showings of Indian films for their fellow students. The following year they decided to organise a real film festival, at Zizkov's arthouse Aero Cinema. That was such a resounding success, so they did it again the next year.
It's now grown into a week-long celebration of Bollywood and Indian cinema, and is fast becoming a regular date on the Czech film calendar. This year's theme is "Globalising Bollywood". The festival takes a critical look at current trends in Mumbai and how they're affecting ways in which Bollywood is perceived both within South Asia and among the diaspora. One of the festival's three co-founders is Sangita Shrestova, a half-Czech, half-Nepalese classical Indian dancer and choreographer.
"I think in terms of the number of films we haven't really changed much, but what's changed is the scope of our festival, and I think its reach as well. We took a couple of risks. The first risk is that we expanded our theme. We chose globalisation and under this theme we actually included a couple of films that are not Bollywood films, like 'Water' from Deepa Mehta and a Nepali film. Which was a bit of a risk, because we weren't sure if our audiences would take it not. The other big change is our guests, because we really worked very hard to bring international guests, to comment on globalisation from their own perspective."
It's a question I ask you ever year Sangita, but what explains the huge appeal of Bollywood film?
"I think it's because Bollywood brings a different experience. I really feel that Hollywood films bring a certain kind of spectatorship, and Bollywood engenders a completely different experience, much more active in a way, with its dances, its approach to narrative. I think that's what the appeal is - that people are looking for something else."
The Bollywood festival offers 25 films at Kino Aero and Kino Svetozor, most of which sell out. The event enjoys the enthusiastic support of the Indian Embassy in Prague. I spoke to Ambassador PS Raghavan.
"One has to say that Bollywood is a part of Indian popular culture, and it has actually long moved beyond India's borders. You can see that in the UK, the Indian diaspora there, and in fact the South Asian diaspora in the UK, has not only popularised Bollywood among the community in the UK, today you can see a much larger proportion of non South Asians in the UK watching Bollywood films - going to see Bollywood films in theatres and watching them at home in their drawing rooms. So this is a phenomenon which I think is gradually spreading to Europe as well and I think the Czech Republic is no exception."
So it's no surprise to you then that this festival is becoming more and more popular among Czech audiences.
"It's not a surprise but I will say that the movement into the Czech Republic has certain unique features. Almost everywhere else, Bollywood has come on the backs of the Indian and South Asian diaspora. In the Czech Republic, there isn't an Indian diaspora to speak of, there's a very small Indian community, and the increase in popularity of Bollywood films is among the Czech people in this country. And that I think is a unique feature which is interesting, and I think very gratifying for an Indian."
Sitting in the audience I'm never sure whether the Czech audience was laughing with the film or at the film. Is there a contradiction there, the way the Czech audience interprets Bollywood films? After all there are so many differences between Indian and Czech culture.
"No, there would be differences in interpretation. There would be areas where a Czech audience would find something meant to be serious in a Bollywood film funny. It's not unique to the Czech people. You'll find there are very many different views within India itself about Bollywood films. There are Indians who condemn certain films as being too melodramatic, some as being too escapist, some as being too serious, or some as being too less serious. This kind of think is part of a process of getting to know and appreciate any art form. It's not only films. So I'm really not concerned about that. Part of it may be due to translation as well. One should not forget that it's very difficult to translate an idiom into another language. I think it takes a lot of experience. So maybe with more experience and more exposure some of the translations will become better. It may be due to that. But partly it may also be due to lack of understanding of the culture. That's a challenge. You need to eventually get to understand it."
Are there any personal favourites of yours being screened this year?
"I don't want to name favourites among films. I think what's particularly good about this Bollywood film festival as it's organised in Prague is that it contains a panorama. It has films from the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, right up to the present day. It also has a variety of themes. It has a diversity as well. So there are films which you might reject as frivolous and flimsy. There are films which you have to accept as serious. So there is a wide range. There's a range for every taste. And that's what I like about this particular film festival."
Astad Deboo is a leading Indian dancer and choreographer, whose work occasionally takes him to Mumbai and Bollywood. He says Bollywood remains a pillar of Indian popular culture, but that one that strives to remain fresh and modern.
"Talking to friends, they always say - do your stories still revolve around people running around trees and singing songs? I say - well, yes, it's part of our culture which makes it unique. But we don't run around trees now, we probably run around Eiffel Towers and the Charles Bridge. I think the foreign audiences are also educating themselves in looking at Bollywood."
Some of the films aren't Bollywood at all, perhaps the title should be "the Prague festival of Indian film"?
"Well, the umbrella of Bollywood is large, so I don't see that's anything wrong. I mean, sure, they are showing a lot of films, but they're also showing films which have been made by Indian diaspora directors and producers. You have Deepa Mehta's 'Water'. You have a film-maker from Holland. So looking at these little gems thrown in, I think it's a good tossed salad which is offered to the people."
Dancer and choreographer Astad Deboo - and as he says there, Bollywood is about much more than just running around trees, and equally Indian cinema is about much more than Bollywood.
But the Prague Bollywood Festival is first and foremost about having fun, and it's the colourful song and dance extravaganzas that have made it such a success. So if you're in Prague and fancy sampling a taste of the Indian subcontinent, check out www.bollywood.cz The festival ends Sunday October 15th.
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