Sandokan in Prague: Notes from the Prague Bollywood Film Festival

Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague is a historical site of revolution, protest and celebration. It is a warm October evening and broad rays of sunlight bathe the historical churches, castles and museums that make this breathtakingly beautiful city one of my favourite places in the world. The square is bordered by the city’s old and new town districts at one end and the National Museum at the other. As the golden autumn leaves flutter down past the crowded trams ambling along the wide tree-lined avenues flanking the square, I step into an India simulacrum in the Svetezor cinema. Brightly coloured lamps are hanging overhead, Bollywood posters cover the cinema reception walls, and a life-size brocade draped cow welcomes visitors in the foyer. Moo hoo, honey! I’m home.

Inside the screening hall, I find the jam-packed audience hooting wildly as Shah Rukh and his six-pack grind to ‘Dard e Disco’. The moves are duly replicated at the Bollywood dance party that closes the festival at which Germany based DJ collective Munich Masala rock the audience and a group of Czech dancers present a stage performance that fuses Czech folk, Bharatanatyam, salsa and tap dancing. I find the Prague Bollywood Festival unique because unlike its counterparts in the US or UK, almost everyone here, from the organisers to the audiences, is local Czech. They are crazy over samosas (the foodstand in the theatre does brisk business) bindis (every second girl is wearing one) and Kabir Bedi.

“You have to understand,” says new best friend, festival organiser David Gwozdziewicz. We are trying on denim and brocade jackets at veteran fashion designer Helena Fejková’s spacious atelier, and downing glass after glass of burcák, a partially fermented wine from the eastern Czech region of Moravia, that’s so light and orange juicy that we reckon we simply need to keep on having more… for health reasons. “Sandokan was compulsory viewing for me as a child. My mom made me watch it because it is her favourite TV series. Everyone here has seen it.” He explains that because the Czech Republic was under communist rule in the ’70s and ’80s, there were very few TV programmes that were allowed from the outside world. Sandokan happened to be one of them. “It was so exotic and wonderful that we all fell in love with it and Kabir Bedi.”

I witness the mass adulation first hand. Bedi is the festival guest of honour this year in Prague, and as he makes his grand entry (regal black sherwani, girlfriend Parveen Dusanj by his side) at the festival reception party, a shiver of excitement runs through the crowd. The women want to touch him and have their posters signed by him. Prague must be the only place in the world where Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal gets a full house, merely because of Bedi’s presence in the cast. I learn that the festival organisers conspired with Parveen to whisk Kabir away from Rakesh Roshan’s film set in LA, and bring him to Prague in time for the reception. It’s a good move; he is a wonderful ambassador. I watch him later that night charming the pants off local TV talk show host Jan, sportingly wearing a turban for the delighted live audience and visibly basking in his success.

I try and learn more about the mechanics of an event of this nature. The core organising committee is all Czech. Leader Sangita Shrestova is a half-Czech, half-Nepali, trained Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer and scholar, who divides her life between Prague and Los Angeles. She tells me that what makes the event happen each year is pure passion. But passion doesn’t pay the bills, and Sangita and her team are astutely riding on the fast-growing business-government nexus that is actively promoting brand India in the Czech Republic. They have roped in sponsors like the Indian embassy, the Czech cultural ministry, large companies like Infosys and Gulf Air with a Europe-wide presence as well as smaller local restaurants, cinemas, advertising agencies and media partners.

The soft power push is perfectly timed. At the festival, I encounter Czech yogis, businessmen who visit India regularly and Indology students, as well as desi entrepreneurs, students and tourists all of who have stumbled upon Prague’s potential. These include folks like Sanjeev, who shifted here from London some years ago and now runs a mini hotel empire and Shanu, a former Channel V writer for Lola Kutty, who came to the Prague Film School for a semester and promptly fell in love with the city. “I don’t want to leave,” she pouts, while dramatically posing for me in front of a tram outside the Svetezor. Like Shanu, Bollywood too is mesmerised by Prague’s beauty, with films like Meenaxi, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Drona having been shot there, and several more on the anvil. Each of these phenomena is feeding off the other.

I spend some time talking to the network of young Czech volunteers that operates the nuts and bolts of the festival machinery. Some, like Honza, are 18-year-old high school students who are volunteering to make some new friends. Others, like Vendula, are part of dance collectives like Garam Masala that train enthusiastic groups of NRICzech teens to sway gracefully to ‘Mahi Ve’. College student Jacob considers himself a global citizen; he has just returned from spending six months working in Oxford, and is volunteering to explore a different culture. The festival line-up is eclectic (documentaries like Paromita Vohra’s Q2P, arthouse flicks like Ammu and Vanaja and multiplex hits like Life in a Metro share space with masala staples like Partner.

A place like Prague is a fascinating Petri dish to observe what works as Bollywood grows its tentacles overseas. The NRI audience is finite. A majority of Hollywood’s revenues are made overseas, while the reverse is true for Bollywood. If Bollywood is to grow significantly, it will have to increase its overseas numbers by expanding beyond the NRI market. As I witness first hand, the market already exists and informal exhibition and distribution platforms are being built by passionate fans the same way that anime fans in the US created the advance platform for its subsequent commercial success. 

* This post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder which appears in Vervemagazine every month.