Omkara puzzle here, prize there

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By AMIT ROY in Marrakech
  • Published 5.12.06
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Marrakech, Dec. 5: Vishal Bharadwaj, whose Omkara baffled Moroccan audiences last night when it was screened "out of competition" at the 6th Marrakech Film Festival, was buoyed today by the news that he has been named best director at the Cairo Film Festival where his Bollywood adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello was included "in competition".

The Telegraph was present in the packed 1,500-seat main theatre in the Palais des Congress in Marrakech when Omkara was screened. At the end, only a handful of people clapped for a few seconds before the applause died away and the audience filed out silently.

Although this was just one reaction, a young security guard who watched the film told The Telegraph, "I didn't understand the movie. Anyway, I didn't like the lead actor - I prefer Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan."

Perhaps Omkara is an acquired taste, especially for Moroccan audiences who are genuinely passionate about Bollywood cinema but probably still prefer traditional fare.

In London, too, Indian audiences in the Gujarati parts of London have left the cinema after watching Omkara not entirely sure what they felt. But Londoners who are "educated" about Indian cinema believe that the director has done something different and praiseworthy, though they also add that his Maqbool, an adaptation of Macbeth, is a better film.

How to get Indian films into competition at prestigious festivals is something that the industry in India has not quite figured out - or even whether it matters that most movies do not make the cut.

It was a considered decision of those who select films for entry to the Marrakech Film Festival not to show Omkara in competition but include it for official screening out of competition - as happened with Devdas at Cannes in 2002.

Perhaps the audience in Marrakech last night would have felt more sympathetically disposed towards Ajay Devgan, Omkara's lead actor, and his actress wife, Kajol, had they turned up for the elaborate "homage" that had been organised to honour them, Bollywood cinema, and, indirectly, India.

Although Bharadwaj as well as Omkara's scriptwriter, Robin Bhatt, and producer, Kumar Mangat, all critical to the artistic success of the film, came to Marrakech and took a bow on stage, for the audience this was just not the same.

For some reason, Kajol appears to have quite a following among young Moroccan women, some of whom made the effort to turn up at the Omkara screening last night elegantly dressed in saris. Others sang Hindi songs or spoke remarkably good Hindi learnt from Bollywood movies.

The Telegraph was constantly accosted by young women, one of whom asked: "Don't you think I look like Kajol?" She went away happy after being assured she looked a lot prettier.

It fell to the lone Indian member of the Marrakech jury, the Paris-based Pan Nalin, who has won fame and fortune after directing Samsara, to introduce the Omkara team on the large stage in the absence of Mr and Mrs Devgan.

A message from Ajay Devgan expressing regret at his and Kajol's absence was read out but no reason was given.

Devgan sent his thanks for "the honour you have bestowed on us. We regret not being able to be present tonight. Please accept my apologies. We hope to see you soon".

In a private aside, Nalin told The Telegraph that he had been quizzed by all and sundry about when the Devgans would arrive in Marrakech. "I was even asked this at a party by the Prince (Moulay Rachid, brother of King Mohammed VI) who said the royal family had sent a personal invitation."

The problem is that the homage to Ajay Devgan and Kajol had been heavily promoted all over Marrakech in posters and official literature. In some ways, the tribute to the golden couple of Bollywood was the highlight of the festival for many Moroccans.

It seems that Bollywood stars are getting a reputation for not turning up at festival functions after agreeing to do so.

"This is not the first time," commented Nalin. "It happened at the Singapore Festival as well. At the last moment, some stars cancelled and they (the authorities) had big billboards that you see, when you enter Singapore on the main highway, for the Indian stars that 'we are welcoming you'. And they never showed up."

The authorities were kind enough to fix it for a 14-year-old disabled girl, Iman Jenbari - she had come with her proud parents and put on glittering clothes - to present a bouquet to the visitors from India. The snatches of Hindi songs she sang would not have disgraced a talented teenager from India.