It’s an all-time high for India at the Berlinale

The 69th annual Berlin International Film Festival is kicked off from 7 to 17 February 2019.

The 69th annual Berlin International Film Festival is kicked off from 7 to 17 February 2019.Lone Scherfig’s The Kindness of Strangers will open the festival.

It is hard to imagine, but true, that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was selected for the Berlin film festival in part thanks to a Mumbai taxi driver. It is an anecdote Dorothee Wenner, Berlin Film Festival delegate for South Asia, loves to recount. She’s been visiting India every year for over 20 years. Way back in 1999, amid preview screenings and meetings with filmmakers, a Saturday evening unexpectedly freed up.

“I asked my usual Colaba taxi driver about his favourite stars and films,” Wenner says. “He said he loved Salman Khan and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was in the theatres. Immediately, I offered to buy us both tickets for a show, if he would come and occasionally translate the Hindi for me.”

International release dates were discussed with Bhansali, the selection committee saw the film, and it was selected for the Berlin Film Festival, in 2000. This anecdote tells us much about the quirky ways in which films sometimes make it to festivals.

This year, the 69th Berlin International Film Festival runs from February 7 to 17. There is an all-time high of 12 Indian and South Asian films selected.

Each festival selection paves the way for distribution internationally and especially in India, helping filmmakers find audiences.
India makes an estimated 5,000 films a year, including 2,000 feature films. Twenty-one years ago, when I began working with the Berlinale, films like Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998) and Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam were programmed in the International Forum of New Cinema section. It was puzzling to see these very mainstream films slotted in the most experimental section at the festival.

It was because Germans were trying to understand, what is this vibrant Indian cinema, this market where Hollywood is small change.

Since then, Bollywood films have moved up the programming chain. This year, Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy and Ritesh Batra’s Photograph (though not quite Bollywood, but using Bollywood stars and shot in Mumbai) both have high-profile Berlinale Special Gala screenings at the spectacular Friedrichstadt Palast, that seats nearly 1,900.

It is Shah Rukh Khan’s films that were among the first Indian ones to open at the Friedrichstadt Palast. Berlin is one of the very few cities in the world where 99% of the audience for an SRK film is blonde, and NRIs are in a negligible minority. I once asked the actor for his thoughts on why Europeans loved him so much.

“In the West you have a button for everything,” he said. “You press a button for the elevator, a button to make orange juice… I think I am their button to cry.” SRK films at the Berlinale are always screened in either the massive Friedrichstadt Palast or the Kino International, both in former East Berlin, because these are the only theatres large enough to hold his massive fan following. In fact, German filmmaker Uli Gaulke once told me, after watching My Name is Khan at the Berlinale, “This film is an important handshake between India and the West.” He saw it as an important film, fighting global Islamophobia through a popular medium like Bollywood, fronted by a big Bollywood star.

We’re now in a bit of a full-circle moment. From art-house cinema to the glitz of mainstream, this year’s selection includes Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, that is based on the real-life story of street rappers Divine and Naezy from Dharavi and stars some of Bollywood’s biggest young names (Ranveer Singh, Alia Bhatt); it will premiere at Friedrichstadt Palast.

Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra, the story of a photographer who takes a photograph of a girl and then persuades her to pretend to be his fiancée to satisfy his grandmother who is pressurising him to marry.

Rima Das, whose Bulbul Can Sing, a coming-of-age story set in Assam, where innocent teenagers on a walk in the woods are harassed, leading to bittersweet consequences. Although expectations are high after her Village Rockstars, which was India’s Oscar entry, she says simply,

“I just want to enjoy the festival.”

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