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Eight diverse cinematographic traditions meet at Goa for SAFF

[Photo, venue of the SAFF at Goa, housed in an old colonial palatial mansion. Photo FN]

Eight diverse countries, very differing historical and political traditions, unmatched cinematographic backgrounds, and over 45 films. Mixed together, the result is a South Asian Film Festival, the latest version of which is underway in Goa.

This four-day festival, which ends on Monday, is seeing films from eight South Asian Countries -- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka -- on the screens.

Five categories of films are being shown: classic films, short films, documentary films, mainstream films and new films.

For a region which has been at the flash-point of some bitter rivalries and even nuclear misunderstandings, the screenings remind viewers of the needs for "dissolving boundaries" and "promoting peace and harmony" -- the goals of this endeavour in sharing cross-border culture.

Likewise, in a region where ignorance about neighbours is rife, it's surprising to see how much misunderstanding exists about each other. Journalists covering the festival have also found it tough to sometimes locate online or background early information about films being screened, specially from smaller countries.

[Reflecting the diversity of South Asia. Right, different lands, different cultures. Photo FN]

What is interesting is also the diverse film backgrounds of participating nations.

Regional and global cinema giant India -- certainly so in terms of size -- claims to be home to the largest film industry in the world. Its official claim is for having produced over a thousand films each year, viewed in over 13,000 halls.

"Every three months, an audience as large as India's entire population visits these halls. Indian films are popular in various parts of the world, especially in countries with significant Indian communities," says a backgrounder to the event.

Cinema was introduced to India in July 1896 (rpt 1896), and a documentary of a wrestling match in Hanging Gardens, Bombay, was made in 1897. Apart from its Hindi films, India makes films in 30 of its largest languages.

It also has regional film industries in Bengali (Bangla), Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil (Kollywood), Telugu (Tollywood), apart from art cinema.

In contrast, neighbouring Afghanistan has faced a slowed cinema growth due to political changes there after an early 20th century start.

When the extremist Taliban took power in 1996 in Kabul, cinemas were attacked and many films burnt. "Since 2000, the cinema of Afghanistan has slowly started to emerge from a long period of silence," says an introduction to that country's film industry.

On a positive note, Afghanistan's cinema is seen to be entering a new phase in 2001, and its films have been attracting international critics.

Bangladesh's Dhaka-based film industry, sometimes called Dollywood, has an early history, like India's, beginning in 1896 in Calcutta. Hiralal Sen, whose native home was in Manikganj some 80 kms from Dhaka, is an early film-maker in this part of undivided India.

Earlier, most production was in Calcutta, but the Nawab family of Dhaka produced 'Sukumari' (1928-29) and 'The Last Kiss' (1931).

During the late 1960s, Bangladesh produced between 20 to 35 films each year. This grew after independence, and in the 1990s, over 90 films were released in a year.

Tiny Bhutan's experiments with films began in just around 1989. 'Gasa Lamai Singye' was the first film made in the Dzongkha language. The film industry is still in its industry, though some films have earned good reviews.

The 1997 film 'Jig Drel', made with songs and music likes the ones of Bollywood, is seen to have transformed the movie scenario in Bhutan. Phorpa ('The Cup', 1999), the true story of a young Buddhist monk's obsession with watching World Cup soccer on TV, also made a splash in Hollywood, and picked up awards in Pusan, Munich and Toronto film festivals.

Likewise, Maldives and its scenic beauty has attracted many film-makers to shoot there. But drawing audiences in a populous subcontinent for its tiny sub-culture is no cake-walk for this tiny island nation of barely one-third of a million.

Nepal doesn't have a long film history, but films with their Bollywood-style songs and narrative have their own place in the Himalayan country's cultural heritage. Its first film goes back to 1951 -- D B Pariyar's 'Satya Harishchandra', in Nepali, produced in nearby Calcutta.

Pakistan's cinema, called Lollywood after its Lahore connections, ranks among the top film-producing nations in the world, mostly in Urdu. In 1947, Pakistan established three film production centres -- in Lahore, Karachi and Dacca. Dacca went to Bangladesh and Karachi collapsed.

Pakistan's film industry has produced greats like the 'melody queen' Noor Jehan, who has recorded at least 3000 songs, on a conservative estimate. Actor Sultan Rahi has a phenomenal 670 films to his credit, including key roles in 525 films. Screen-writer Nasir Adib has scripted over 400 films in three decades.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka, which first saw a film in 1901 being screened in Ceylon for the then British governor, saw its first Sinhala film 'Rajakeeya Wickremaya' (Royal Adventure) screened in 1925.

"In recent years, feature films have begun tackling courageous subjects including family relationships, abortion and the years of conflict between the military and the Tamil Tiger rebels. Many films are also based on Sinhalese literature," says a backgrounder to the film industry there. (Indo-Asian News Service)

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NORONHA Frederick

Frederick Noronha is a festival reporter with and
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