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Florence Indian Film fest focuses on Ray and Aparna sen

by ALEX DELEON
for www.filmfestivals.com

Director/actress Aparna Sen, is the special guest at Florence

The River to River (Arno to Ganges) festival of Indian films in Florence, Italy, is all set to fly from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10.
This will be the tenth installment of this unique European showcase of Indian cinema, founded and fostered by Selvaggia Velo, herself a native of the Tuscan urb famous for its long art and architectural traditions, from Michelangelo to the fabulous cathedral known as the "Duomo" -- one of the world's most recognizable landmarks in one of Eurpope's most beautiful cities.

Under Selvaggia's astute and enthusiastic tutelage River-to-River has developed from humble beginnings in 2001 into the most prestigious event of its kind in the world outside of India itself. The stated purpose of this festival is to introduce new Indian films of all kinds -- features, documentaries and shorts, in other words, everything else outside of mainstream Bollywood. There is usually an emphasis on the works of younger filmmakers and rising tides, but this does not mean that the classics --or exceptional Bollywood films, are ignored. There is always a mini-retro of a famous director, living or posthumous, and this year that aspect of the festival is devoted to a selection of The Best of the late great Bengali director, Satyajit Ray, who passed away in 1992.

Often compared to the likes of Bergman and Bresson, the name "Ray" is so firmly associated with Indian cinema that the tricky first name, Satyajit, hardly needs to be invoked when discussing his work. Ray, and Indian cinema in general, first came to the attention of the western world with the overseas release of an extremely low budget film with unknown actors entitled "Pather Panjali" in 1955. A slow moving study in black and white of daily life in a poor Indian village, this picture somehow struck an international chord, and was then followed up by two sequels which tracked the coming of age and maturity of the young boy, "Apu", featured in the first film. With the "Apu Trilogy" behind him Ray went on to a remarkable career during which he was constantly ranked among the world's top screen directors, although his films were always "art house" fare for niche intellectual audiences --even in India itself!

Four Ray landmarks from various points in his career are scheduled:
1. The Music Room, (Jahalsigar) 1958, (2) Charulata (The lonely wife), 1964, (3) Days and Nights in the Forest (Aranyer din ratri), (4) The Chess Players, 1977. "Days and Nights in the Forest" starred Bengali (and later, Bollywood) superstar Sharmila Tagore and Aparna Sen, when she was a leading actress, but not yet a director. Aparna Sen will hold a Q & A after this screening and all other films with which she is associated.
The Chess Players, rarely seen, was Ray's most expensive production, and dealt with a dramatic chess game held in Lucknow, while outside the Sepoy rebellion of 1857 against British rule is going on. The film featured British actor Richard Attenborough who, a few years later, would go on to make the international blockbuster, "Ghandi" starring Ben Kingsley as the Mahatma.

Both the opening and closing films this year are directed by special festival guest Aparna Sen, acclaimed as both a major actress and director of the Indian cinema, "parallel" as well as mainstream, and the winner of numerous awards at international festivals such as Locarno and Karlovy Vary. The full participation of such a prominent Indian film personality as Aparna Sen is a kind of ultimate seal of approval from the Subcontinent itself recognizing Florence as the preeminent offshore representative of Indian film in the western world. The festival opener is Aparna's latest,"The Unfinished Letter", (Iti Mrinalini), and is the story of a once famous Bengali actress talking about her past life and loves. Aparna directs herself as the actress in old age, and her real life daughter, Konkona Sen Sharma, as the younger version of the same character. Interesting, as Aparna once was (and still is!) a top Bengali actress herself, and has much to look back on in this respect. She also directed daughter Konkona, as a schizophrenic, in the mystical "15 Park Place", 2005. Since then Konkona Sen has become a sought after actress, not only in Calcutta but for Bombay/Bollywood films as well, after the surprising box office success last year of "Wake Up Sid' (2009) opposite rapidly rising Hindi heart-throb Ranbir Kapoor.

The closing film will be Aparna's next to newest, "The Japanese Wife", 2010. The story revolves around a young village school teacher (Rahul Bose) who marries his Japanese pen pal sweetheart via the international postal service and remains loyal to her throughout his life, while actually never meeting her until death does them part! Actor Bose, an Aparna regular in recent films, will accompany her to the festival. Also on tap are two recent Bollywood hits, "Rajneeti" -- a top-grossing multi-starring political thriller based loosely on the Mahabharata, and "Love Aaj Kal", a light masala romance starring Saif Ali Khan -- son of erstwhile Bengali beauty and superstar Sharmila Tagore -- and stunningly sultry new face from the South, Deepika Padukone, whose native langauge is not Hindi, but Konkani! -- (no relation to Konkana ...)

"India By Song" is a 64 minute documentary tracing Indian history since Freedom and Partition in 1947, via the songs and images of Indian films since then, which really sounds interesting, and director Vijay Singh will be there in person to discuss his work. Finally, in addition to a full slate of other shorts and student films, there will be a showing of the perennially fresh and lyrical Franco-Indian threnody, "The River", made by classic French director Jean Renoir on the banks of the Ganges, in 1951, in the then newly independent India. Quite a lineup --wish I could be there!

Alex in Hollywood, Dec, 3, 2010

Recently married Actress Konkana Sen Sharma will celebrate her 31st
birthday coincident with the opening of River-to-River on December 3rd

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