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Parmesh's ViewFinder
Published: Volume 16, Issue 11, November, 2008

Urban friendships, hot Czech moves and Fashion Week musings are all on Parmesh Shahani’s radar this month

There’s something so random and beautiful about friendship. You meet a complete stranger serendipitously and before you know it, a connection happens. The connection might be strong or weak. It may last for just a few hours on a nine-hour plane ride, or it might be life long and survive divorces, illnesses, deaths, an empty nest and several other milestones. Sometimes the relationship drops, and you savour it for what it was and what it meant to you at that point in your life. Then unexpectedly, it might magically recur years later and you continue right where you left off.

While the specific contours of each friendship might differ, friendship itself is the universal defining theme of contemporary urban living worldwide. Series like Friends and Sex and the City have astutely tapped into this phenomenon. As our lives become more stressful and way more complex, our friends are our refuge from the external world and often from even our own blood families, workplaces or romantic relationships. They are the safety-vests we wrap ourselves in so we might not drown in the chaotic waters of modern life, where agency increasingly seems to be an illusion. You might be unable to choose the values of your parents or the politics of your country or the fate of your Sensex-linked portfolio, but you certainly can choose your friends. So you swim through this complicated world, in which geography is no longer a restraint but a construct, navigate birthdays on Facebook and tuck your children to bed on a Skype videoconference, and assemble a thali of friends that fulfils all the different aspects of your hyphenated personality. I think that more than what you wear or eat today, you are the sum total of your Facebook contact list and your cellphone address book.

This is why I am excited about Dostana; it is a film about urban friendship, a theme that has been quite under-explored in big-budget Bollywood’s recent obsession with the patriarchal family drama. (Incidentally, I’m writing this while listening to a ’70s playlist that includes Sholay’s Yeh Dosti, Zanjeer’s Yaari and the Qurbani title song. Those were the days, true, but I also couldn’t find anything more contemporary; I looked!) KJo and company have their finger on our pulse yet again. Sure, modern India is still very much all about loving your parents, but in our age of aspirational migration – whether from small town India to a large city to work in an IT or BPO company, or from within India to other parts of the world for studies, work or a better lifestyle – it’s also very much about loving (and living with) your friends.

The relevance of the premise resonated with us at Verve when we decided to accept Dharma Productions’ invitation to play a character in the film and I’m hoping that many of you will make it to the cinema halls this month to catch our Bollywood debut. Until then, check out the different Dostana features in this issue, as well as Sitanshi Talati-Parikh’s heartfelt conversation with cover girl Priyanka Chopra, who plays a Verve staffer in the film. On a personal note, I’m glad that even though the gay angle in the film is comical, it is not superficial or derogatory. In fact, the film is pretty progressive, with characters like a cool and accepting mom as part of the plot, and it’s fabulous to see how actors like John Abraham are going out of the way to emphasise its political correctedness while doing press for the film. Dostana is one example of global Bollywood in action, and to witness another, I pay a visit to the Czech Republic during the sixth Prague Bollywood Film Festival.

Sandokan in Prague
Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague is a historical site of revolution, protest and celebration. It is a warm October evening and broad rays of sunlight bathe the historical churches, castles and museums that make this breathtakingly beautiful city one of my favourite places in the world. The square is bordered by the city’s old and new town districts at one end and the National Museum at the other. As the golden autumn leaves flutter down past the crowded trams ambling along the wide tree-lined avenues flanking the square, I step into an India simulacrum in the Svetezor cinema. Brightly coloured lamps are hanging overhead, Bollywood posters cover the cinema reception walls, and a life-size brocade draped cow welcomes visitors in the foyer. Moo hoo, honey! I’m home.

Inside the screening hall, I find the jam-packed audience hooting wildly as Shah Rukh and his six-pack grind to Dard e Disco. The moves are duly replicated at the Bollywood dance party that closes the festival at which Germany based DJ collective Munich Masala rock the audience and a group of Czech dancers present a stage performance that fuses Czech folk, Bharatanatyam, salsa and tap dancing. I find the Prague Bollywood Festival unique because unlike its counterparts in the US or UK, almost everyone here, from the organisers to the audiences, is local Czech. They are crazy over samosas (the foodstand in the theatre does brisk business) bindis (every second girl is wearing one) and Kabir Bedi.

“You have to understand,” says new best friend, festival organiser David Gwozdziewicz. We are trying on denim and brocade jackets at veteran fashion designer Helena Fejková’s spacious atelier, and downing glass after glass of burcák, a partially fermented wine from the eastern Czech region of Moravia, that’s so light and orange juicy that we reckon we simply need to keep on having more... for health reasons. “Sandokan was compulsory viewing for me as a child. My mom made me watch it because it is her favourite TV series. Everyone here has seen it.” He explains that because the Czech Republic was under communist rule in the ’70s and ’80s, there were very few TV programmes that were allowed from the outside world. Sandokan happened to be one of them. “It was so exotic and wonderful that we all fell in love with it and Kabir Bedi.”

I witness the mass adulation first hand. Bedi is the festival guest of honour this year in Prague, and as he makes his grand entry (regal black sherwani, girlfriend Parveen by his side) at the festival reception party, a shiver of excitement runs through the crowd. The women want to touch him and have their posters signed by him. Prague must be the only place in the world where Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal gets a full house, merely because of Bedi’s presence in the cast. I learn that the festival organisers conspired with Parveen to whisk Kabir away from Rakesh Roshan’s film set in LA, and bring him to Prague in time for the reception. It’s a good move; he is a wonderful ambassador. I watch him later that night charming the pants off local TV talk show host Jan, sportingly wearing a turban for the delighted live audience and visibly basking in his success.

I try and learn more about the mechanics of an event of this nature. The core organising committee is all Czech. Leader Sangita Shrestova is a half-Czech, half-Nepali, trained Bharatanatyam dancer, choreographer and scholar, who divides her life between Prague and Los Angeles. She tells me that what makes the event happen each year is pure passion. But passion doesn’t pay the bills, and Sangita and her team are astutely riding on the fast-growing business-government nexus that is actively promoting brand India in the Czech Republic. They have roped in sponsors like the Indian embassy, the Czech cultural ministry, large companies like Infosys and Gulf Air with a Europe-wide presence as well as smaller local restaurants, cinemas, advertising agencies and media partners.

The soft power push is perfectly timed. At the festival, I encounter Czech yogis, businessmen who visit India regularly and Indology students, as well as desi entrepreneurs, students and tourists all of who have stumbled upon Prague’s potential. These include folks like Sanjeev, who shifted here from London some years ago and now runs a mini hotel empire and Shanu, a former Channel V writer for Lola Kutty, who came to the Prague Film School for a semester and promptly fell in love with the city. “I don’t want to leave,” she pouts, while dramatically posing for me in front of a tram outside the Svetezor. Like Shanu, Bollywood too is mesmerised by Prague’s beauty, with films like Meenaxi, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Drona having been shot there, and several more on the anvil. Each of these phenomena is feeding off the other.

I spend some time talking to the network of young Czech volunteers that operates the nuts and bolts of the festival machinery. Some, like Honza, are 18-year-old high school students who are volunteering to make some new friends. Others, like Vendula, are part of dance collectives like Garam Masala that train enthusiastic groups of Czech teens to sway gracefully to Mahi Ve. College student Jacob considers himself a global citizen; he has just returned from spending six months working in Oxford, and is volunteering to explore a different culture. The festival line-up is eclectic (documentaries like Paromita Vohra’s Q2P, arthouse flicks like Ammu and Vanaja and multiplex hits like Life in a Metro share space with masala staples like Partner.

Fashion fever
A place like Prague is a fascinating Petri dish to observe what works as Bollywood grows its tentacles overseas. The NRI audience is finite. A majority of Hollywood’s revenues are made overseas, while the reverse is true for Bollywood. If Bollywood is to grow significantly, it will have to increase its overseas numbers by expanding beyond the NRI market. As I witness first hand, the market already exists and informal exhibition and distribution platforms are being built by passionate fans the same way that anime fans in the US created the advance platform for its subsequent commercial success. Meanwhile, Sangita and her team have a dilemma on their hands? Who do they invite to top Kabir Bedi as next year’s chief guest?

I mull over possible names from the front row of the two parallel fashion weeks in Delhi. I’ve flown in directly from Prague, and even though I’m jet-lagged, I’m enjoying the energy of both competing events. However, the constant back and forth between Vasant Kunj and Pragati Maidan is a pain as is the enforced choicemaking that the schedules dictate. Why do I have to choose between a Tarun and a Ritu on day two for example? And on day three, I miss out the standing ovation CellDesign get because I’ve chosen to view Namrata Joshipura’s pop-coloured origami summer coats. C’est la vie.

At the Wills entrance area, I am mesmerised by the installations of uber-haute Prateek Jain and Gautam Seth, who together comprise Klove Studio. Fashion Flows is a tap lamp with light emerging out of blown glass taps and transforming into beautiful garments placed in bowls below. Think out of the Box is a glass and stainless steel chair placed inside a wire mesh cage. The chair has glass marigold flowers enclosed in a glass box within the chair’s seating area. Rosebud has oversized blown glass rosebuds enclosed in a cage that the duo shyly pose for me in. The works are relevant, intelligent and playful. Meanwhile, over at Emporio, Rohit Chawla’s striking nomad photographs capture my attention the moment I walk in.

The combination of fashion, art and design reminds me of the Prague Fashion Week events I whizz through just before boarding my flight to Delhi. The fashion shows there are part of a larger citywide initiative called Designblok and were held at the funky superstudio Dox in the industrial Holesovice district. (Think Lower Parel, but less traffic.) The Czech fashion industry is much smaller than ours and their supermodels like Eva Herzigová have made more of a mark than their designers like Ivana Jedlická or Hana Havelková. Unlike an Emporio, where a Rohit Bal and Dior sit comfortably with each other, Prague’s fashionable Parízská avenue is full of brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Alfred Dunhill, but local designers (numbering about 80) are conspicuous by their absence, preferring instead to operate out of small ateliers or their home studios. They are priced much lower, and their clients are mainly local, or at best from neighbouring Germany. Almost all international fashion and lifestyle magazines have a Czech edition, but there is no strong home-grown industry leader like Verve.

At the Timoure et Group showing that I catch, the atmosphere is chilled-out. Families have brought kids along and new arrivals comfortably sit on the floor around the ramp. It is a joyful mood, almost picnic-like, a lot less serious that the heaviness at many Indian fashion shows. The recent history of the Czech Republic has been eventful – from the collapse of communism in 1989 to the membership of the European Union. I can feel the hope in the air and the energy is infectious.

The adrenalin is what keeps me going despite the jet lag, at Tarun Tahiliani’s post-show house party in Delhi. The table settings are ethereal. Giant metal lotus lamps dot the sprawling lawns and the live music rocks on way into early morning. While going back for yet another galouti kebab installment, I get an SMS *hug* from David and his partner Tomi. Since they were Bollywood buffs, they didn’t crack up when at Prague airport, I bid them adieu by reciting: “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. Never say goodbye. By saying goodbye, you end the hope of meeting once again.” My Mumbai friends would have died laughing and asked me to just shut up.

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