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Non-Bollywood Indian Film, "PRASAD" Preemed at Market in Berlin

by Alex Deleon-Sinha

Although little known ourtside of the Indian Sub-Continent itself there are several so-called "regional" film industries in India 
each of which produces as many or more feature films a year in the regional languages as are produced in the Hindi mainstream
industry of Bombay (Whence the brand name known to the world as "Bolly-wood"). Of course, Bombay has now been officially rechristened Mumbai, but this doesn't change anything cinematically speaking.  Bollywood is still Bollywood and films in the big four southern languages, Tamil, Telugu, Kanarese and Malayalam, each with their own sets of home-grown directors and stars, continue to draw the crowds and pay the bills in their respective regions -- but nowhere else. Quite a few famous Bollywood stars such as Aishwarya Rai and Vidya Balan are actually from the south and got their start in film in regional cinema before making it big in Bombay.  Some very big southern hits are often remade in Hindi versions with Bombay actors and vice-versa. 

 

The film "Prasad" (A gift of the Gods) might be called a gift from Bangalore by philanthropist Manosh Kheny to the world, to make people out there aware of the fact that there is more to Indian film than Bollywood and Satyajit Ray. "Prasad" is a relatively modest but handsomely produced family drama in the Kannarese language starríng extremely popular Kanarese action star Arjun Sarja in a non-characterisitc role, and introducing a captivating new actress, Madhuri Bhattacharya, in her first leading role. The film was presented as  a World Premiere in the EFM (European Film Market) festival sidebar. While in no way comparable to the Bollywood megastar vehicle "DON 2, the King Returns" starring Bollywood's reigning monarch Sharukh Khan, which was shown here at the beginning of the festival with much fanfare and ballyhoo, this southern exposure was in some ways more interesting.First of all, "Don" was released worldwide some months ago and has already made its bundle, so that the Berlin showing was more of a preen than a preem, whereas "Prasad" has not yet been seen anywhere else.  However, my own main interest in attending this relatively unheralded screening was just to get a glimpse of something outside of the usual fare from Bombay and Calcutta normally seen outside of India, and I was not disappointed. 

 

The film is billed as "a heart-rending story featuring a physically challenged child prodigy" (a deaf-mute child from birth) and it delivers the goods in a straightforward honest to goodness manner. Never having seen any of the players or the city of Bangalore in an Indian film before it was all new to me, but I soon suspected that the harrowed, muscular, temperamental father of the handicapped child was probably more at home in action films, and was not suprised to find out later that Arjun Sarja is second in popularity in south Indian action cinema only to living legend Rajnikanth, megastar of the Tamil film industry. This guy definitely has screen charisma. The story of "Prasad" focuses on a childless middle class couple struggling to make ends meet who pray to the elephant God Ganesh to bless them with a child. Their prayers are answered but Sharma, the father, is so grief stricken and humiliated when he finds out that the boy was born deaf and may never learn to speak, that at one point he is on the verge of killing the child. 

 

The young wife intervenes, sends the boy to a special school for deaf children, and herself learns sign language so well that the school hires her on as a teacher.  The boy is a joy to everyone and becomes a swimming star winning a major competition. The once desperate father is now proud of his son and develops a particularly strong father-son bond with the boy. At a fair the kid tips father off to a lottery ticket that will soon change everything. Sharma had earlier sworn off such gambling forever, but this was a naughty little secret between himself and his son.  His fondest dream is realized when he gets a loan enabling him to go into business for himself but then double tragedy strikes.  It turns out that he was the victim of a land scam and will have to give up the business, but the topper is when the son, helping a blind person to cross the street is himself run over fatally as he fails to hear an oncoming car. When all seems lost and Sharma in abject angry depair has rejected all faith in God, the ticket that the child picked out at the fair turns out to be a big winner so that the lowly auto mechanic and his wife will be set for life.  Sharma now has an epiphany and uses a part of his winnings to establish a foundation for the treatment of handicapped children, and it is at the opening ceremony of the foundation that the story is told to the gathered crowd in the flashback that forms the film proper and the tearful closing bookender.  Tear-Jerker material? --well, yes and no, because "Prasad" is more than just a mere message film, for if, in MacLuhanese the medium is indeed the message, then the other message here is that films from Karnatakka are an intriguing alternative to Bollywood, and this is just the top of the iceberg -- so to speak.South Indian fans will probably be curous to see a southern version of Sharukh Khan in a touchingly sensitive role, and I myself am now curious to see Mr. Sarja doing his action thing in other films, as well as seeing more of Ms. Bhattacharya -- who is equally at home in Kanarese, Bengali and Hindi not to mention english --strutting her highly affective stuff in northern mainstream movies which seems to be where she is headedThis small world premiere was attended by quite a turnout of Subcontinent festival movers including Srinivasan Narayan, director of the Mumbai film festiva and Manoj Srivastava, repping the Goa film festival, which has now become the big one in India. Producer Ashok Kheny is an international construction tycoon who has masterminded major engineering projects in cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. 

 

He actually resides in suburban Philadelphia but his heart remains in his native Bangalore where he is now planning the construction of a major film studio complex that will serve as the launching pad for an expanded Kanarese film industry, to compete with bigger Dravidian neighbors in Andhra Pradesh (Telugu films) and Chennai (Tamil films).As for  "Prasad" (A gift of the Gods) he said that this was not intended as a money making project, but more as a niche film which may, in fact, help publicise the real problem of handicapped children in India (10% of all children there) and at the same time make more people aware of the Bangalore based film industry.

The Indian state of Karnakata has a popualtion of 61 million --approximately that of France, so we are not talking here of a tenny-weeny market base. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Ashok Kheny comes up with next.

Alex, Wilmersdorf, Berlin 

Photos below:
1. Actress Madhuri Bhattacharya, Kanarese action star Arjun Sarja, and producer-magnate Ashok Kheny of Bangalore

2. Sikandar Sinha gestures hypnotically during discussion with enchanted actress Madhuri Bhattacharya


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