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Bachchan fever at Indian fest in Florence

by Alex Deleon  for<>

Amitabh Bachchan accepting the key to the city of Florence as Selvaggia Velo looks on. PHOTO: BY FRANCESCA MANOLINO 

The appearance of 70 year old Indian Megastar Amitabh Bachchan at the River to River Festival of Indian Film in Florence gave rise to a feverish outpouring of adulation from local Indians while serving as an unoffical certification for this festival as the foremost showcase of Indian film in the West. In India where Bachchan is known as 'The Big B' to fans and media, as the hero of over a hundred films in four decades (and still going strong), he is more a national institution than a mere film star. In the West, undoubtedly because Bollywood films are not taken seriously outside of overseas Indian NRI communities, this amazing actor and iconic representative of Indian culture is all but unknown, yet his appearance here was like the visitation of a living God with Indian fans and families from as far away as Milano turning out just to get a closeup glimpse of the Gran Divo and snap pictures to prove they had seen him. The Odeon does not sport a red carpet but the arrival of Mr. Bachchan entering the theater from the rear flanked by festival director Selvaggia Velo and the vice mayor of Florence sent an electric current throughout the hall.  Bachchan's towering form topped off by his trademark heap of bushy brown hair was clad in a black tuxedo with embedded sparklers emitting flashes of light as he strode down the aisle like a celestial body arriving from outer space. Talk about mind-blowing entrances --this was it!


Up on stage long-winded speeches were made as the mayor presented Amitjee with the keys to the city and the actor responded with a graceful acceptance speech apologizing for the absence of his wife, the famous actress Jaya Bhaduri-Bachchan who was to accompany him but had to cancel at the last minute due to an unexpected private issue. Mr. Bachchan spoke in his usual impeccably polished English and all speeches had to be translated at length into Italian or English depending on the speaker, which took up quite a bit of time, but this was no problem for the Indians in the audience as it gave them that much more time to bask in the beatific presence of a living divinity.  At the conclusion of the key ceremony on stage Mr. B descended the podium and was mobbed by Indians trying to touch him or grab an iPhone snapshot as he made his way toward a seat in the middle of the auditorium from which to watch the opening night film, the much heralded "Gangs of Wasseypur".


Once Big B was settled in his seat the next event was a brief address by "Gangs" director Anurag Kashyap who said it was a great honor to be standing on a stage just vacated by a living legend of the Indian cinema. His film. "The Gangs of Wasseypur", is a five hour long saga of two provincial mafia type families locked in deadly combat over three generations. Kashyap said that he was amazed at the positive reception this film was met with at Cannes in May where it was shown straight through, although it was released in India as two separate films, Part I and Part II of a continuing story. Kashyap used mainly little known or completely new actors in the major roles some of whom have now become bankable stars because of the suprising success of this independent offbeat Bollywood production. Here in Florence Part I opened the festival and Part II was the closing film at the end of the week. While there is little room for humor in this starkly violent tale of muliple murders and relentless revenge, a slightly humorous moment occurred when in the middle of Part I the children of one of the dons who are Bollywood fans, are watching a film on TV starring none other than Amitabh Bachchan in a film now considered as one of his classics. The elder actor was heard to chuckle along with the audience at this amusing confluence of character and reality.


Until now the "River To River" Festival (so named for the Arno River in Florence and the Ganges in India) established in 2001 by Florentine Indian culture enthusiast Selvaggia Velo, has been primarily a showcase for the more arty and intellectual films from or about India -- in other words, everything but mainstream Bollywood. However, as Bollywood has gradually started moving in new directions away from that steady diet of lavish simple minded Masala spectaculars Selvaggia has started tentatively dipping into the Bombay kitty. A few years ago when I suggested some Bollywood titles she told me categorically, "We don't do Bollywood". But that was then and this is now. Bagging Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood's most iconic figure ever, as the special guest of the fest was a coup in itself, and backing this up with the two most hotly discussed Hindi films of the year, Wasseypur Gangs and "Chittagong" is definitely a new direction for the Florence festival while still retaining its basic 'arts and essai' flavor. In addition, three Bachchan films selected by the actor himself to represent the body of his work, are straight classic Bollywood. "Deewar", the 1975 film which established Bachchan's Angry Young Man image, "Sholay", the so-called 'Curry Western', also 1975, which is easily the all-time perennial Bollywood favorite, and "Black" (Curry Helen Keller), 2005, a Bollywood multi-prize winner in which Bachchan, as the eccentric elderly teacher of a triply stricken blind deaf and mute child, was declared best actor of the year.


2012 being the centennial anniversary of Indian film Selvaggia has also programmed the earliest Indian silent film "Harischandra", while her customary eclectic brew of provincial language features (Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi)documentaries and shorts, fill out a well rounded program that makes this the most fully packed River to River to date. Notes on individual films will follow.



Dharmendra and Bachchan 

Easy riders in SHOLAY


Alex Deleon  in Firenze, Dec. 16, 2012


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