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Posted at: Sep 2, 2017, 2:37 AM; last updated: Sep 2, 2017, 2:37 AM (IST)

Israel sways to Bollywood songs

Indian and Israeli cinema are poles apart. However, the appeal of films from the world’s most prolific movie-producing country is immense in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

Saibal Chatterjee

Deep inside the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a major hub of activity for film lovers in Israel, Indian cinema does have a significant, if not dominant, place. Among other facilities, the centre houses the Israel Film Archive, which stores, restores and conserves films made in the region in the past century, among which is footage that the Lumiere brothers shot in 1896. Also in the precincts of the cinematheque is the Edie and Lew Wasserman Film Library, a treasure trove of great films sourced from across the world.

A framed poster on the wall at the archive’s entrance is that of the 1956 classic Jagte Raho, produced by and starring Raj Kapoor, co-directed by Indian theatre doyen Shambhu Mitra and scripted by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. In the library, two full shelves are devoted to cinema from the subcontinent.

The Edie and Lew Wasserman Library has the complete Satyajit Ray repertoire as well as most of the films directed by Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta. Also in the library are Indian films that range from Bollywood blockbusters like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kal Ho Naa Ho to recent independent gems like Court and Titli with much else in between.

But by no means is the appeal of Indian cinema in this part of the world confined to the rarefied interiors of the Cinematheque. Popular Mumbai cinema and its music are a huge draw among Israeli audiences. Cabbie Pini Cohen, who drove this correspondent from the hotel in Jerusalem to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport at the end of a short trip recently, turned out to be an inveterate Bollywood enthusiast.

He has, he says, inherited his love for Hindi cinema from his mother. 

“She is extremely fond of Hindi films. She watches one every day on a streaming service that I have subscribed to,” says Pini. “Her dream is to visit India someday. I will definitely take her there.”

Pini breaks into “Humko tumse ho gaya hai pyaar kya karein” (a song from Amar Akbar Anthony) as he waxes eloquent on Amitabh Bachchan, whose films formed the core of the staple he grew up on.

“I do not watch the newer Hindi films. But I am fond of films from earlier decades that I saw as a boy,” he adds. The married man is too busy with his work and family these days to watch Bollywood films as regularly as he once did, but his mother, a retired teacher of special children, continues to devour these on a daily basis.

“Let me make a call to her,” he says. “Chances are that she is watching a Bollywood film at this moment.” He speed-dials his mom, but she does not take the call. It is mid-afternoon and Pini is probably right. The lady could well be too lost in some Hindi movie to be in a position to answer a phone call.

What is it about Bollywood that holds Pini and his ilk in thrall? 

“Hindi films are something else,” he says. “There is so much colour, music and dance in these films that they are absolutely irresistible. They transport us instantly to a magical world.”

In the Israeli theatrical circuit, Bollywood has had only sporadic presence thus far and that is how it is likely to be in the foreseeable future. But there is great room for growth given the interest that exists among people here. In 1997, Yash Chopra’s Dil To Pagal Hai, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit, was screened in Tel Aviv. The film ran for three weeks and its songs became so popular that these continue to be played by local radio stations.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas, also starring Shah Rukh and Madhuri besides Aishwarya Rai, also had a decent run in Israel in 2002. It was only 11 years later that the next Hindi film — Ayan Mukerji’s Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani — was released here.

Efforts to strengthen Indian cinema’s links with Israel have been on for several years now. In 2009, Israel hosted an Indian Film Festival in its three largest cities — Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa — and the Indian Jewish population of the country, which numbers upwards of 70,000, with the 50,000-strong Bene Israeli community that migrated from Maharashtra constituting the bulk, responded to it with enormous enthusiasm.

Six Indian films — Taare Zameen Par, A Wednesday, Anaahat, Corporate, Rock On and the 1951 Dev Anand-starrer Baazi — were screened during the festival. A handful of Indian cinema personalities were in attendance. In 2011, an eight-member Bollywood delegation attended the Jerusalem Film Festival to explore new avenues for the Mumbai movie industry in Israel. It isn’t known if anything came out of that excursion, but it is clear that Indian cinema still fascinates Israelis no end.

According to Calev Haddad, a young movie fan who got talking at the 34th Jerusalem Film Festival: “The vibrancy of Bollywood song and dance is what appeals to movie fans here like I guess it does everywhere else in the world.”

Asked if he is a fan of any Indian actor, Calev pauses a while and names Aamir Khan. “I was in my early twenties when I saw Taare Zameen Par in the Jerusalem Cinematheque eight or nine years ago. It left a deep imprint on me.”

That enthusiasm was apparent when in the last week of June a bunch of Indian Jews turned into a Bollywood-inspired flash mob in Jerusalem’s bustling Ben Yehuda Street. The locals looked on in bemusement. As the music grew on them, some of them even joined in. And therein lies a lesson for Bollywood. 

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