‘Eastend’ is India

Champagne is being uncorked by more Hollywood movie moguls than ever before at the swishy suites of Rajasthan’s palace hotels. Heavy-duty celebrities are jetting in to break into Bollywood boogies. And Yann Martel’s topselling novel — The Life of Pi — is being filmed by the Oscar-winning Ang Lee in beach-caressed Puducherry. Whoa, how come the sudden influx of international film crews? Evidently, rules and strictures have been relaxed, a thorough contrast to the bygone decades when the script of every American and European film project was scanned by New Delhi’s dense forest of ministries.

The legendary Louis Malle was blacklisted for exposing the harsh reality of Kolkata in Phantom India (1969), a marathon documentary which continues to be inaccessible to this day and age. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1993) was stonewalled. Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997),which studied the politics of Tibet, was denied a go-ahead.
Followed a near-blockade. Hollywood’s honchos were particularly sceptical about shooting in India, opting instead for Sri Lanka locations vis a vis Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) had to jump through hoops for clearances not only from the Central government but also from a group of filmmakers who objected to an Englishman appropriating the Mahatma for a biopic. The very fact that a censor certificate had been denied to Nine Hours to Rama (1963), revolving around Gandhi’s assassination, had fuelled the argument for a clampdown. Sir Richard patiently explained that his intentions were honourable, the rest, of course, is Oscar history.
Indeed, there are countless instances of “access denied”. Perhaps the most quixotic one stretches way back to 1956. George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction narrated the story of an Anglo-Indian woman — portrayed by the drop-dead gorgeous Ava Gardner — at the time of the extinction of the British Raj. The film was situated at the Bhusawal railway junction, but the Indian government would have none of it, fearing that the departing Brits would be eulogised. Consequently, locations in Pakistan were passed off as India. Today, the film has a cult following. Evidently, the fears were absolutely unfounded.
Mercifully, at long last the paranoia has subsided. Currently, at least three major units are filming in India, and many more are on the way. Even Roland Joffe, who had to spar with bureaucratic snafus and hostility from the Kolkata locals while shooting City of Joy (1992), is back in Madhya Pradesh this time to shoot a period piece titled Singularity, featuring Josh Hartnett and Bipasha Basu, as a warrior queen. Advance reports suggest that the plot could have similarities to the life of Rani of Jhansi. Heaven help Joffe if such reports are accurate because the result would ipso facto be matched with the historical records.
The unfortunately named director Michael Winterbottom has chosen Jaipur for the retelling of the Thomas Hardy tragedy Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Over three decades ago, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the classic had showcased Nastassja Kinski in the eponymous role. Freida Pinto takes over from Kinski. Titled Trishna, the project arouses immediate curiosity for marrying western sensibility to an Indian milieu.
Pinto’s Slumdog Romeo, Dev Patel, shows up in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, toplined by the grand dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. Shot in Jaipur, the film promises to be a wry comedy of manners. Obviously, the worldwide success of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire has underscored the potential of India as a thematic backdrop. Rightaway, this yielded the extremely disappointing Eat Pray Love with Julia Roberts sleepwalking-talking through an ashram which looked camera-friendly but that’s about it. Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart, shot in Pune and Mumbai, at best was just passable.
Forget quality and all that jazz for the time being though. Forget, too, the thumbs-down given to the periodically-announced biopics on Indira Gandhi and Mrs Sonia Gandhi. The point is that the X-Men hero, Hugh Jackman, is gyrating to the tune of Dhak dhak karne laga, Julia Roberts is declaring that she is bowled over by India’s spirituality. And above all, more international filmmakers are warming up to an area which was once hopelessly equated with darkness.

Khalid Mohamed is a well-known film critic

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