Relations between India and Italy might have been tense recently with the shooting dead last month of two fishermen off India’s Kerala coast, allegedly by two Italian marines. However, a movie I saw recently is a reminder of how political differences in the aftermath of such a tragedy shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow what is a potentially very fruitful relationship.
Bollywood cinema has gradually been spreading its tentacles around the world, but it has generally been those of South Asian descent that have been the main promoters and consumers of this industry. And, despite its growing popularity in many countries, European nations including Italy have remained stubbornly resistant to its reach.
In an effort to remedy this, the two countries signed an audio-visual agreement of co-production and co-distribution in an effort to broaden what’s available to Italy-based audiences. And, although on the surface little of substance has been achieved towards achieving this goal, some small hidden treasures are gradually being produced.
One of these is Barah Aana, directed by Raja Menon and produced with Italian producer Giulia Achilli. The film, produced in 2009, is an exceptional creative partnership, which sees a mixed cast and crew from India and Italy. Based on an original script, the story is set in contemporary Mumbai and follows an uncomplicated narrative revolving around three friends living in a poor area of the city.
A security guard (played by Vijay Raaz), a chauffeur (Naseeruddin Shah) and a waiter (Arjun Mathur) slip into the local crime scene after they stumble upon a crime that seems to suggest a quick and apparently easy way of making money. However, events soon spiral out of their control, and we watch as waiter Aman is caught up in a bittersweet love story involving the beautiful Rani (Tannishta Chatterjee) and Kate (Violante Placido), who represents the unobtainable West.
Barah Aana’s exquisite Indo-Italian binomial is more than just a beautiful montage of cosmopolitan and infinitely changing Mumbai. It’s also a celebration of the language of comedy in the fleeting events that make up real life. These comedic insights are intertwined with the dramatic language of Yadav’s sorrow and frustration. This universal blend of dramatic and comedic language, of laughter and surprise, has helped give the film a resonance with viewers worldwide grappling with issues like the effects of globalization, poverty and also optimism.
“They can’t spare 500 Rupees for me? It’s a loan that I would repay. I’ve seen them spending 2,000 rupees on a meal…but when I want something…they think I want the money for booze,” laments Yadav. The eloquent silence of Naseeruddin Shah’s character, meanwhile, superbly highlights the hopelessness many till feel in the world’s largest democracy.
The events within the film – the friendships, the crimes and the imagined love stories – are all tied together by the disorder of the emotional and irrational relationships of characters faced with the inequity of society, and their small (but some might argue justified) crimes are presented in a classically farcical way, with plays on traditional plot devices like mistaken identity.
The backdrop to these turbulent and troubled lives is a city that’s brought beautifully to life by the film’s makers, a place where you can almost smell the cappuccinos and espressos blending with the aroma of Chai tea. Mumbai is presented as both cosmopolitan yet disorderly, and the complex, sometimes erratic journeys of the characters as they search for their own truth is a joy to watch.
The fictional lawyer Sebastian Stark once said: “Truth is relative, pick one that works.” It could also apply to the Kerala row as much as it could to the protagonists of this movie.
Monia Acciari teaches film and television at Swansea University, where she specializes in popular Hindi cinema and world cinema.