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River to River in full gear in Florence

The ninth edition of the "RIVER TO RIVER" Florence Indian Film Festival opened in this elegant north Italian city on December 4 at its new location, the landmark ODEON cinema, just around the corner from the world famous Uffizi Art Galleries. The spotlight this year is on the recently "rediscovered" genius of Indian film, Guru Dutt, with three of his key features being screened and a documentary on his life and career entitled "In Search of Guru Dutt". The festival kicked off in style with a performance of the Apsara Indian Dance Group from Rome and the screening of a new film on the life of the artist Raja Ravi Varma, "Rang Rasiya" (Colours of Passion), with director Ketan Mehta and his lead actress Nandana Sen in attendance. Mr. Mehta (born 1952) also directed the epic "The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey" concerning the failed Sepoy Rebellion against British rule in 1857, which featured Bollywood superstar Amir Khan and opened the Locarno Film Festival of 2005. His current film is a fictionalized biopic on the life of the Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma (Died1906) whose lithographies and erotic aesthetics have influenced all of XXth century graphic arts in India including those connected with film. Though Varma's art was often devotional in nature his depiction of cerain Indian dieties in the buff aroused a vicious backlash among fundamentalist Hindus and made him into a highly controversial figure. In the film Nandana Sen plays the unclothed muse for some of the artist's best known work.

During the week a total of 36 titles will be screened including six new feature films (one a full length animation), the three Dutt classics from the fifties, six documentaries, six fiction shorts and a slate of student films from three Indian film schools.
Although in general, as festival director Selvaggia Velo puts it, "We don't do Bollywood" (Mainstream mass audience films), this year's feature lineup includes an offbeat Bollywood action film entitled "Kaminey" with leading Bollywood pinups stars, muscular young Shahid Kapoor and gorgeous ex-miss world Priyanka Chopra -- here in a very deglamourized role. In the film Shahid plays the double characters of identical twins separated at birth in the Mumbai slums, but rejoined later through circumstances. The kicker in the film is that one brother is a stutterer and the other has a speech defect which makes him mispronounce key words. The pic which revolves around dope deals in the Mumbai underworld, looks like an Indian version of a Hong Kong actioner with echoes of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs". It didn't do well this year at the box-office in Bombay in spite of its star power, because it sort of broke with the established mold of Bollywood entertainment, having no mass dance numbers or romantic songs -- nothing but hard-boiled action and serious plot twists. It did however extend the envelope for dishy Priyanka who is now established as a pillar of Bollywood leading ladies, and also put another Kapoor on the mainstream map. (Seems like half the actors in India are either Khans or Kapoors in an essentially family-run industry).

Another one to watch for is the latest offering from Canadian-based Indian director Deepa Mehta, "A Heaven on Earth" featuring another top Bollywod star, Preity Zinta. Although Ms.Mehta is considered to be a decidedly "off Bollywood" director (i.e., a "serious filmmaker" not shooting for box-office gold), she has been known to employ established Bollywood stars such as John Abraham in "Water", the third of her famous Fire-Earth-Water" trilogy.
The Guru Dutt films are: "Aar Paar" (This or That) a somewhat noirish gangster flick from 1954, "Mr. and Mrs. 55", a social comedy with an anti-message from the year 1955, and his undisputed final masterpiece, "Kagaaz Ke Phool" (Paper Flowers"), 1959, which is kind of a cross between "Citizen Kane" and Fellini's "Otto e Mezzo" (8 and 1/2).
All this takes place at the ODEON in Piazza Strozzi, the dead center of town, a classic of theatrical architecture from the twenties, sweeping balconies and all in a remarkable state of preservation.

Alex Deleon, Florence, italy

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