Madan Theaters’ 1921 “Nala Damayanti” was co-directed by India’s Jyotish Bannerjee and Italy’s Eugenio de Liguoro. The success of this led Madan to team with Societa Italiana Cines for what seems to be India’s first-ever international co-production, “Savitri Satyavan,” in 1923. Directed by Giorgio Mannini, the film starred Italian actors Rina De Liguoro and Angelo Ferrari playing the Indian roles of Savitri and Satyavan.
And Debaki Kumar Bose’s “Seeta” won an honorary diploma at the Venice fest in 1934.
But the greatest contribution Italian cinema has made to India was turning Satyajit Ray, arguably the greatest filmmaker the country has ever known, into a filmmaker.
In 1950, while working with an advertising agency in London, Ray caught a screening of Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves,” as it was known in the U.K.
“I came out of the theater, my mind firmly made up,” said Ray in a 1982 lecture. I would become a filmmaker. I would make my film exactly as De Sica had made his: working with non-professional actors, using modest resources and shooting on actual locations.”
Ray’s debut, “Pather panchali,” employed the Italian neo-realist style and went on to win much acclaim, launching a glittering career culminating in a 1991 honorary Oscar.
In the 1950s, India prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited Italian director Roberto Rossellini to film in India, resulting in the 1959 documentary drama feature “India: Matri bhumi” and the television miniseries “L’India vista da Rossellini” that aired on RAI.
But the most recognizable face in Indo-Italian film relations is Indian actor Kabir Bedi. In 1976, he played the title role in the Italian television series “Sandokan” that was a smash hit in Italy and extremely popular in its dubbed version in India.
“The extraordinary success of ‘Sandokan’ created a tsunami of interest in the exotic East, not just in Italy but all across Eastern and Western Europe,” Bedi says “They called me the ‘Indian Valentino,’ though I’d played a swashbuckling, romantic Malaysian pirate in love with an English girl. Malaysia and India had fused into inseparable lands in their Oriental fantasies. This led to an unprecedented boom of Italian tourists in India, many of them seeking spiritual destinations.
“The ‘Sandokan’ series continued with two other major sequels, both shot in India. But, strangely, it didn’t lead to a flood of Italian producers rushing to make more films in India. They preferred to make films closer to home,” adds Bedi.
In his opinion, this was because of the lack of a co-production treaty, which wasn’t signed until 2005.
Bedi’s personal success in Italy continued, as he worked on film and TV projects such as the recent “Un medico in famiglia.” Though Indian films in the 1970s did shoot in Italy, including the hit “The Great Gambler,” it was post-treaty that Bollywood rediscovered Italy in a big way, with a push from the Italian tourism board. Recent Bollywood hits “Bachna ae haseeno,” “Kambakkht ishq” and “House Full” have taken advantage of Italy’s incentives and film-friendly commissions.
The reverse is happening too.
In 2006, Indian actor Sonali Kulkarni was tapped by director Lamberto Lambertini to play the role of Graziella, an Italian, in his historical drama “Fuoco su di me.” The pair had some history — in 1996, they had teamed on “Vrindavan Film Studios” that was set in India and Italy.
Both films were produced by Indophile Sergio Scapagnini, whose next film, “The Story of Lala,” based on his eponymous bestselling children’s book, will be directed by Indian director Gautam Ghose. Italo helmer Italo Spinelli’s India-set “Behind the Bodice,” based on a story by Indian writer Mahasweta Devi, is in post. And Bedi’s first venture as producer “The Vow” to be directed by Indian director Ketan Mehta will “star at least one major Italian actor or actress,” says Bedi.
Bedi hopes that “Italy will open the European door for an Indian film designed for international audiences.”
For Kulkarni, the experience of working with an Italian crew and learning the language was “a fruitful journey.”
“I feel that Italy has much more care and concern for creativity and manpower,” she says. “It pinches me to say this, but, in India, since there is a large population, manpower is cheap so they don’t value it that much.”
She feels that working conditions are slowly changing now for the better in India.
Film commerce between the two countries is at an all-time high with RAI dedicating airtime to Bollywood content featuring films such as “Jodhaa Akbar” and “Race,” and Cinecitta Luce announcing a long-term agreement with the National Film Archive of India, including plans to step up co-productions with the country, exploiting each other’s archives, with the Italian entity also helping to restore some of India’s vintage reels.
Festivals play their part, too, with Venice and Rome regularly selecting Indian films, and Indian film festivals tapping Italian pics. River to River Florence Indian Film Festival, which runs this year from Dec. 3-9 in Florence, is celebrating its 10th year of showcasing Indian cinema international films about India.
Festival director Selvaggia Velo does her best to get Indian films distributed in Italy by sending inviting distributors to screenings and sending them screeners. But the recession has hit the indie sector hard, as Velo says, “there is no money at all.”
Bedi agrees, but is optimistic about the future, saying: “The real problem is the crisis within the Italian film industry. Production has dwindled dramatically. But, with new tax incentives in place, we could see a resurgence of Italian cinema, known for its historic greatness. Once that happens, I’m sure that some Italian filmmakers will want to explore the exotic East once again.”
The final scene of Italian director Luca Lucini’s 2009 “Oggi sposi” (“Just Married”) perhaps sums up Indo-Italian film relations best — it ends with an Italian-Indian wedding in Puglia.
Ratnam to receive Venice award
Director changed Bollywood conventions
By Shalini Dore
Indian writer-director Mani Ratnam will receive the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker kudo at the Venice Film Festival, where his “Raavan” will have its fest premiere in its Hindi and Tamil versions.
The award recognizes Ratnam’s achievements in the Indian film business: He scaled down the traditional histrionics of Tamil films and tackled tough subjects in his Bollywood offerings while also working in South Indian languages including Malayalam, Telegu and Kannada.
“Mani Ratnam used to make movies only in his native tongue, Tamil, but has been one of a handful of filmmakers to successfully handle the transition to the all-India market,” said Venice fest topper Marco Mueller when announcing the kudo.
Starring Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, “Raavan” updates an ancient Hindu epic about a princess who is stolen away by a rival, shifting the story to a town where the police chief’s wife is kidnapped.
Surprisingly, filmmaking was not Ratnam’s first career choice even though he was born into the biz — his father, Gopal Ratnam Iyer, was a producer, as were both his brothers.
He was a management consultant before switching careers in 1983 to work on Kannada-lingo “Pallavi anu pallavi,” starring Anil Kapoor.
He quickly joined the vanguard of Tamil filmmakers who changed that industry’s style, which favored the heavily melodramatic. Ratnam’s 1986 romance “Mouna ragam” was hailed at the time as a realistic portrayal of urban Tamilians.
He followed that up with “Nayagan,” a combo of “The Godfather” and the true-life story of South Indian gangster Mudaliar Varadarajan. Starring Kamal Hassan, the pic was India’s entry to the foreign-lingo race Oscar in 1987.
The following year, Ratnam married Hassan’s sister Suhasini, a writer-director in her own right who also appears in “Raavan.”
The helmer’s breakout hit was 1991’s “Roja,” starring Madhoo and Arvind Swamy with music by the then little-known A.R. Rahman. Tackling the topic of terrorism, to which Ratnam would return again and again, the pic was a box office smash while winning kudos in India and at the Moscow Film Festival.
“Roja” was so popular that it was remade in Hindi, a practice that followed for another terrorism-centered tale, “Bombay,” a love story between a Muslim and a Hindu set in the midst of 1993’s riots in Mumbai. The pic did boffo B.O. and won kudos at the Jerusalem and Edinburgh fests.
In 1995, he and brother G. Srinivasan (who died in 2005) launched Madras Talkies to make films and TV, a shingle he now runs with Suhasini.
Although Ratnam is a groundbreaker in many ways, he also kept to the Indian tradition of song and dance numbers, and his films can be counted on for excellent music, scored early on by Ilaiyaraja and then later by Rahman. “Dil se” (1998) includes the famous “Chaiyya chaiyya” song sequence set atop a running train.
Rahman is not the director’s only find. He launched Aishwarya Rai’s film career in 1997’s “Iruvar.” The Tamil-language pic is loosely based on the professional and political rivalry between M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi.
Many of his recent films have been made in Tamil as well as Hindi, including “Raavan,” “Guru” (again starring Rai) and “Yuva.” The Tamil “Raavanam” was well received while “Raavan” took a beating at the box office and among critics.
Tamil is Ratnam’s native tongue. “I am more comfortable with Tamil than Hindi,” he was quoted as saying in Indian newspaper the Hindu. “While in the Tamil version, I held the reins, in Hindi, I trusted my writer and asked him if something sounded right.”