A growing interest in Indian films in Germany shows that cinema can be an ambassador of culture.
WOWING THE GERMANS: Siddharth Anand’s “Bachna Ae Haeesno” proved popular at the Hamburg Film Festival.
Most commentators tend to concentrate on political relationships, trade figures and tourist numbers while analysing international relationships. The role of cinema, in inspiring interest in a nation and its culture, is overlooked. Yet films are more than entertainment; they are ambassadors that provide foreign audiences with insights and impressions of a land and its people.
In recent years, interest and awareness of Indian films has grown considerably in Germany, despite statistics revealing that only five per cent of the films commercially released in German cinemas come from Asia. Much of the interest in Indian cinema can be attributed to an initiative taken by the television channel RTL2, to provide regular screenings of Bollywood movies. This started in 2004 with the blockbuster “Kabhi Khushi Khabhie Gham”; watched by almost two million viewers. Since then, screenings, including “Mohabbatein” and “Hum Tum”, have drawn audiences of close to a million, a considerable niche in the German market.
Joyce Mariel, a spokesperson for RTL2, has been quoted as saying: “Despite the cultural differences that separate people from the West with people from India, there are the feelings of joy, pain and passion which bind people together and moreover, people can relate to human failings and feelings which are the same everywhere.”
This is a sentiment shared by Siddharth Anand, the director of “Bachna Ae Haseeno”, which was given its German premiere at the recent Hamburg Filmfest and nominated for one of the festival’s prizes, the Art Cinema Award. “I think cinema speaks a universal language and all film lovers are able to connect with the basic idea of telling a story,” says Anand. His film, “Bachna Ae Haseeno”, a romance set in Austalia, was not the only Indian film to be screened at the Hamburg Filmfest, “Four Women” (released in India as “Naalu Pennungal”) also received its German premiere. In all, 134 films from 53 countries were shown at the festival, which drew 35,000 cinema goers to screenings between September 26 and October 2.
Hamburg hosts the third largest film festival in Germany, behind those of Berlin — which attracted Shah Rukh Khan to its red carpet this year— and Munich. Participation in such a festival offers an opportunity for filmmakers to make their film available to audiences that may otherwise not have been reached. “I am honoured and happy that my film has been selected for such a prestigious festival. We all have put in a lot of effort, time and money in making this film and I am glad that due to this festival a lot more people will see the film,” says Anand.
Anand, who wrote the script for the hit “Hum Tum”, is upbeat about the interest being shown for Indian films in Germany: “After the U.K., I think Germany is the new home of Bollywood and the interest in our films is very encouraging and promising. The German audiences have really proved that that art in any form is truly universal.”
Similarly, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the Keralite whose “Four Women” was screened in the Agenda 08 section of the Hamburg Filmfest, views involvement in German film festivals positively. “From my experience in Berlin as well as Munich, the German audiences have always been responsive and it has been a rewarding experience for me to show my films in these festivals.”
But does a lack of exposure to the culture and environment in which a film is set mean that, fundamentally, there is a danger that the audience will fail to understand the message a director wishes to convey? Not according to Gopalakrishnan, “A film like ‘Four Women’ can be appreciated at different levels. Those who have some knowledge of life in India (or even particularly Kerala) may be able to appreciate certain cultural nuances more deeply than others. But I have no reason to think that the regular German audiences will be less responsive.”
What better way to cross-check this view than to speak to German cinema-goers? Asked why Indian films are currently so popular in her home country, Angelika Pantelon responded, “I like the colours and the ‘real’ acting in them. I always enjoyed watching musicals — ‘Westside Story’, ‘Oklahoma’, and so on — so these movies are like that, well the ones I like watching. I have not seen many so far; “Monsoon Wedding”, “Lagaan”, “Kamasutra”, “Namaste London” and “Om Shanti Om”... Maybe because they are so colourful, and the stories are more like a fairytale. Also the more critical ones don’t touch our culture, so one is not directly confronted with social problems that are present to us.”
Munich resident Nadja also sees escapism as one of the factors accounting for the popularity of the Indian films she has seen, “I think it’s the dancing style…most people like happy endings… I have to admit that the films are a feast for the eyes: very colourful and exotic. The women are drop-dead beautiful.”
At present, Bollywood-produced movies represent the mainstay of the Indian cinema accessible to German audiences. Much of the German public is still unaware that regional variations exist, meaning there is a tendency to term any film from India as “Bollywood”, regardless of the production’s language or place of origin. Yet as the audience matures, and learns more about Indian cinema, this is likely to change.
And in the meantime increasing numbers of tourists from Germany are spending their vacations in India. Some, undoubtedly, will take a trip to the cinema while they are here to catch the latest releases.
~ Don't wait for life to happen to you. Rush into life with open arms. Go for it. ~
~ Shah Rukh Khan in Berlin, 08.02.2008 ~