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Hay Festival looks to India

Noted artists will discuss the country's growing influence around the globe.

The Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. Stephen Lock / The National.
The Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. Stephen Lock / The National.

Rolling Welsh hills bathed in dappled spring sunshine may not be the most obvious place to screen an Indian film based on the religious violence which famously blighted Gujarat a decade ago. But this is the Hay Festival, where literature and ideas coalesce into 10 days of debates and conversations, talks and events.

Such juxtapositions aren't just around every corner of this beautiful part of the Brecon Beacons National Park, they're positively encouraged. Last year, The National reported on the incredible interest in an event starring Arabic authors. Twelve months on, the opening weekend turns its gaze to India, and more specifically Indian filmmaking.

"I'm really looking forward to it," says the Bollywood star Anupam Kher. "One of my films [Khosla Ka Ghosla] is being screened, too. I might try to catch it."

The screening of Indian films is just a small part of a programme that also includes the celebrated singer Vidya Shah performing accompaniments to excerpts from William Dalrymple's book The Last Mughal, and appearances from authors including Nikita Lalwani, Salman Rushdie and Arundhathi Subramaniam. Kher, who British audiences may recognise from Bend it Like Beckham, appears at the centrepiece event: together with the Bollywood stars Soha Ali Khan (Rang De Basanti), Nandita Das (Firaaq) and the Indian historian Dalrymple, they will discuss the global perception of Indian culture in the 21st century. Or, more accurately, the commercial and cultural juggernaut that is Bollywood.

"I'm completely ready for people to say Bollywood is simply about the dancing and the songs," says Kher. "It's more than that, of course - it represents a way of life, and is an integral part of Indian dreams, aspirations, even fashions. Bollywood films might seem over the top to western eyes, but this is how we are as people."

Dalrymple also finds Bollywood fascinating, but for different reasons. Although films such as Ra.One generated impressive box office returns and column inches in the West, Dalrymple feels they're often pitched directly at the Indian diaspora.

"I would argue that no Indian film has had the kind of cross-cultural international success that, say, a Chinese film such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon enjoyed. That shouldn't be the case. The Indian English novel is a world-class form of literature when one considers the work of Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh or Salman Rushdie. So it seems odd that there isn't a whole host of Indian directors or film studios adapting all these books."

Dalrymple has a point. While Rushdie's Midnight's Children is in the works (and in fact stars Kher), director Deepa Mehta is based in Canada and the film has been funded by 20th Century Fox. Still, Crouching Tiger also had significant funding from four different countries. And Dalrymple admits that art house filmmaking is essentially an irrelevance to the Indian film industry.

"Bollywood makes so much money with its own formula that there's no commercial imperative for Indian filmmakers to make something with that sensibility. It hasn't had to mould itself to external influences."

As for Kher, he's happy to have a foot in both camps. His current project is an adaptation of Matthew Quick's comedy The Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O Russell and starring Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.

"It's important that people see that a Bollywood actor is comfortable working with people like that," he argues.

And though he might have one eye on Hollywood, the audience at Hay is likely to hear that his heart remains firmly in India.

"Indian cinema is basically a celebration of life. Of course, people love films in Europe and the US. But I wonder whether the form in those places has such a deep emotional attachment with its people as Indian cinema does."


Anupam Kher, William Dalrymple, Soha Ali Khan and Nandita Das are at the Hay Festival today. Visit www.hayfestival.com