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Yash in Berlin: Honour or sop?

Yash Chopra on the Berlin film fest jury seems to be just a friendly backhander.

india Updated: Jan 19, 2006 17:40 IST

The decision of the 56th Berlin Film Festival organisers to appoint Bollywood movie mogul Yash Chopra as a member of the Competition jury is certainly a personal honour for the veteran producer-director. But more than anything else, it is probably another gesture of recognition for the growing global profile of the Mumbai’s mainstream film industry.

The fact is that Chopra, among the best known and most successful of Bollywood’s dream merchants, is indeed the first mainstream Mumbai movie personality to earn a place on the jury of a festival of the magnitude of the Berlinale. Indian filmmakers, as opposed to stars, who usually sit on juries are the ones who work outside the veil of the commercial movie machinery.

Berlinale 2006, which runs from February 9 to 19, is expected to have an official selection of 26 films, including several entries that will play out of Competition.

Among the films that the jury will be required to consider for the Golden and Silver Bears are Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s psychological thriller Invisible Waves, Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (Germany), Marc Evans’ Snow Cake (UK), the opening film of Berlinale 2006, and Neil Armfield’s Candy (Australia).

If the intention of the Berlin festival organisers is to pay a tribute to Bollywood, then there couldn’t anybody more deserving than the ubiquitous Chopra to do the honours. But if it is Indian cinema that is being sought to be promoted as a whole, the choice of the king of fluffy romances as a representative is yet another facile, misplaced attempt to equate Mumbai masala with the entire cinematic output of this land.

Yash Chopra’s first all-out brush with one of Europe’s top three film festivals – Cannes and Venice are the other two – occurred last year when Veer-Zaara played to a packed house in Berlin. The elevation to a berth in the Competition jury was only a step away after that.

Seasoned British actress Charlotte Rampling, 60, will head the eight-member Berlin jury this year. The other members: 38-year-old American multimedia artist Matthew Barney, Dutch director Marleen Gorris, top-flight Hollywood cinematographer and Steven Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski, South Korean actress Lee Young-ae, veteran German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl and U.S. film producer Fred Roos.

Pleased as fans of Bollywood melodramas and NRI romances might justifiably be, the question cannot but be asked: is being a mere member of the jury good enough for a 73-year-old filmmaker who has been in the business for nearly half a century? Chopra directed his first film, Dhool Ka Phool, way back in the late 1950s. Nobody on this year’s Berlin jury has put in more years of active work in the movie industry. Moreover, the only person who comes close to Chopra in terms of age is the 71-year-old Fred Roos.

So, shouldn’t Chopra have been placed at the head of the panel? Sadly, despite his obvious vintage value, he hasn’t quite done enough in purely cinematic terms to command that position as a matter of right. What does that imply? No matter what brand gurus and Bollywood apologists say, real artists and mere entertainers can never be on the same plane.

Especially when Mira Nair, an internationally recognised Indian filmmaker who started out at least 25 years after Chopra did, was the chairperson of the jury at the same festival in 2002, one can only surmise that while the world of serious cinema might be more willing than ever before to indulge certain sections of Bollywood, it still knows where to draw the line.

Just as well. The sort of cinema that Chopra and his ilk represent isn’t quite the kind that Berlin usually promotes – it isn’t quite Cannes after all. So, mainstream Hindi films might serve the purpose of providing an occasional dose of diversion, as Veer-Zaara did last year, they can never hope to become the dominant flavour of the festival.

Veer-Zaara was balanced off in Berlinale 2005 by another Indian film that was in a completely different league – debutante Shonali Bose’s Amu, a sensitive human drama that probed the effects of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots on an individual and her family. The simplistic nature of the overlong, overwrought, overly dramatic Veer-Zaara provided a sharp contrast to the more complex political overtones of Amu.

Let’s face it. Chopra’s trip to Berlin will amount more to a sort of a friendly backhander extended to a quirky moviemaking stream that arouses more curiosity than admiration rather than to a major tribute to a filmmaker who has, with uncommon flair, undeniably entertained millions of Indians over the decades. It is pretty clear that the world’s acknowledgement of Bollywood as a force still has a condescending ring about it. Is anybody surprised?

First Published: Jan 19, 2006 20:00 IST