On the shuttle from Nice airport to Cannes, the man seated next to me had his laptop open, and I caught sight of a couple of files on his desktop named “Dil Dhadakne Do” and “God Tussi Great Ho”. I thought they were music files, and I asked the man if he listened to a lot of Hindi film songs. He said they were subtitle files. He turned out to be a 30-year-old Mumbai resident named Abhijeet Singh Baghel, and his story turned out to be a remarkable tale of entrepreneurship. He is from Jabalpur. (His features aren’t especially Indian, though once he told me, it seemed obvious.) He moved to Mumbai after school, and in his second year, he began to work in various capacities — producer, casting director — for commercials. He then became Assistant Director on films like Desi Boyz and Main Tera Hero. On shoots abroad, he made contacts and started a production service that set up facilities (crew and so forth) for Bollywood films being shot in Central and Eastern Europe.
Abhijeet — who is here to participate in the Cannes film market — noticed that, after the DVD era, the distribution of Hindi films in these regions had practically come to a stop, so he established a company named Bollywood Europa and distributed the Salman Khan-starrer, Kick. “It was shot in Warsaw,” Abhijeet said. “I thought that would make the product relatable.” (He’s talking about a primarily Polish audience.) He acquired the rights from UTV, got the film subtitled in Polish (unlike Germany, where films are dubbed, Poland prefers subtitles), and released it on four screens. Next — on the same number of screens — came Mardaani. Rani Mukerji went to Poland to promote the film. Piku began the turnaround. It started out in seven screens and expanded to 42.
At first, these films got a delayed release: Kick (6 months after it came out in India), Mardaani (8 months), Piku (2 months). The first film to be released in Poland on the day of its release in India was Bajirao Mastani. “The big films do well,” Abhijeet said. But the multiplex films that are like “wannabe European movies,” not so much. “The people here prefer mainstream fare. That’s new to them.” On big films, Abhijeet manages to triple his investment, which is in the low thousands of dollars. But he says it’s still a cost-versus-return market. But now that the number of BPOs and software companies are increasing, Poland is beginning to see a significant Indian diaspora. This can only help. Abhijeet is eyeing other small European markets: Romania, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia. “Collectively,” he said, “EU as a territory is my aim.”
Dhanush is coming here to unveil the poster of The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir on the 11th (today), so I was surprised to see a note from an Indian PR that the actor will be unveiling the trailer of Deadpool 2 (the Tamil version), in Chennai, on the 10th. As much as we envy stars their globe-trotting lifestyle, so much of it is just work. There’s an interview scheduled with the actor. Fingers crossed that it happens. #KollywoodAtCannes
I ducked into Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (Russian, Ukrainian), for about an hour, between other engagements. While it was clear that the film was making a bigger societal point about war and today’s society, I wasn’t able to pull it all together till I read the press notes. I try to resist knowing too much about a movie before watching it, but in this case, a crash course isn’t just useful but absolutely necessary — and not just to figure out what the title means. It is an industrial region in Eastern Ukraine, developed in first half of the 20th century, employing the free labour of gulag prisoners. Their descendents have settled here now, and criminal gangs have taken over. The film is essentially a collage of frighteningly absurd sequences, linked by characters who slip from one episode to the next.
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Here’s a sampling of the film’s tone. In one episode, TV actors in the makeup room are rushed outside because bombs are about to go off. Elsewhere, a woman pours a bucket of excrement on an editor whose newspaper published a story that she took bribes. (“I felt like I was covered in shit,” she says. She is merely returning the favour.) In another episode, men are ordered to get down from a bus and line up. A bear of a woman, from the Ukrainian army, barks at a man. “Why haven’t you volunteered?” The man says it’s because his mother is unwell. The woman says, “Everyone’s mum is sick. But who’s looking after the motherland? She’s the one who’s sick, infected by the fascist plague.”
The director’s mini history lesson, in the press notes, is fascinating. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of the Soviet <<project of the future>> has essentially resulted in a mess. Ukraine is leaning towards the European way (democracy), while Russia is heading back to the USSR model (totalitarianism). So there’s constant fighting between the Ukrainian army, supported by volunteers, and separatist gangs, supported by Russian troops. (Russia wants to prevent Ukraine from becoming a fully independent state. Now you see the scene between the Russian army woman in a new light.) So why the absurd tone? Why not a more serious dramatic narrative that explains all of this (in a cinematic manner, of course) to the outside world? “Human nature reveals itself wholly and truly when societies come tumbling down,” says the director. Translation: it’s all a bucket of shit.