Glitz and glam at Melbourne’s Indian Film Fest

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PREETI JABBAL  hangs out with Bollywood Stars in Melbourne
I could write about my recent visit to celebrate the magic of Indian cinema at Raheen, the Pratt mansion, in two ways. I could play it cool and totally unaffected by the rare opportunity of visiting a multimillion dollar mansion, or I could gush over just about everything from the coordinated wall paint and dustbins in the washroom to the perfectly polished silver. Those who do not wish to read about my not-so-common visit to dine at the historic mansion of one of Australia’s richest tycoons, this is your cue to turn over to the sports page. For all the others, join me as I go over the events of those crazily hectic days at the start of the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne 2013.
The first exciting event was a pre-festival dinner hosted by Richard Pratt and Jeanne Pratt at their Italianate mansion in Kew.  Personal invitations featuring the impressive Raheen were sent to those associated with the Indian Film Festival and Mind Blowing Films. The theme of course was Bollywood glamour and adding to this heady mix was the presence of visiting Bollywood personalities Vidya Balan, Simi Garewal and Pamela Chopra. Right from the beautifully lit grounds to the tastefully opulent interior, Raheen was a befitting place to welcome the influential stars that are currently trailblazing trends in Indian cinema and TV.
As global chairman of Visy, one of the world’s largest paper recycling and packaging companies, Anthony Pratt is on the advisory board of the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne and Visy is its major supporter this year. Clad in a silk kurta pyjama (given to him by festival director Mitu Bhowmick Lange), Anthony Pratt sat with leading Indian actress Vidya Balan on one side and ‘queen of suave’ Simi Garewal on the other. Yash Chopra’s wife Pamela Chopra, Louise Asher (Minister for Innovation, Services and Small Business, Minister for Tourism and Major Events and Minister for Employment and Trade) and Anthony’s mother Jeanne Pratt were among the other guests on that all important table.
The formal sit down dinner that ensued gave the guests an opportunity to admire the décor and paintings adorning the guests’ wing of the heritage-listed property. I sat there along with other media representatives enjoying the fuss from the supremely polite waiting staff and restricting the impulse to get closer to the main guests and whip out my notepad. We were there to ‘socialise’, according to the gentleman on the door who relieved us of our cameras as we walked in. Between the courses (no curries in sight) we heard from attending dignitaries, Minister Louise Asher, a visibly pregnant Mitu Bhowmick Lange and the predictably saree-clad Vidya Balan.
An award was presented posthumously to iconic filmmaker Yash Chopra for his contribution to world cinema. His wife Pamela Chopra accepted the award on his behalf. “The whole world knows my late husband Yashji for his movies but it was his humility not his movies that was his best trait” said Mrs. Chopra as she accepted the award from Minister Asher.
“Every time someone selected him for an award he always turned around and asked me do I really deserve this? He may have been a renowned film-maker but he was always humble about his success” she added.
Vidya Balan in a cream and black polka dotted saree and an eye-catching silver neckpiece thanked the Pratts for their hospitality and continued to profess her love for Melbourne and her desire to call it her second home.
“I am addicted to Melbourne like I am addicted to acting. I wish that I continue to be the brand ambassador for the Indian Film Festival in Melbourne for ever and ever,” she said charming the audience with her mega wattage smile and warmth.
Vidya continued to gush over Melbourne during the press conference held the following morning. Accompanying her at the press conference were dancing sensation turned director Prabhudeva, newcomer Girish Taurani from Tips Industry family, outspoken choreographer and director Farah Khan and the sophisticated yesteryear actress and popular TV host Simi Garewal. Split into two parts the conference began with festival guests and judges of the Western Union Short Film Competition, award-winning director Kabir Khan and critically acclaimed filmmaker Paul Cox. Conspicuous by his absence was the third judge and well-known Australian broadcaster and producer Mick Molloy. Mitu Bhowmick from Mind Blowing Films and Western Union Marketing Manager Monica Khanna were also present. Nilesh Desai from Mumbai who won the Western Union Short Film competition for his confronting film Sati also attended. Predictably most of the questions from the press were directed at Vidya Balan and Kabir Khan who articulated their answers and fielded some inane questions from certain local scribes quite well.
Between urging Melbournians to come and watch the array of fantastic films playing at the Festival and answering questions about her married life, Vidya also dwelt on the changing role of women in Indian cinema today. Simi Garewal who continued to sport her designer sunglasses indoors due to ‘some issue with her eyes’ endorsed Vidya’s observations about Indian women taking centre-stage both in reel and real life today. Simi, who is also on the festival advisory board, said it was time for the Festival to grow upwards.
“Time has come for us to consider giving awards on best film, best actors and director and make this Festival competitive,” she said.
It would have been interesting to hear from Bollywood A-lister Farah Khan as well however she had to leave the conference early due to ill health.
Farah Khan recovered from her illness sufficiently to be able to accompany the festival guests to the gala opening night on Friday 3rd May. Mingling with other festival guests in the lounge prior to the main event, the stars obliged with photographs and autographs. Vidya was resplendent in a stunningly simple maroon saree and her hair swept back in a soft vintage style; Simi was in her favoured white; Farah Khan was understandably in no mood for glamour while Prabudeva, Girish and Kabir Khan sported some spiffy eveningwear. They were unanimously keen to watch the opening night special screening of India’s first feature film, 100-year-old Raja Harishchandra. Prior to the screening the festival conducted a Q-and-A session where the audience could ask any question from the special guests. There was a flurry of entertaining queries however the most amusing one was from a man who wished to know why Raja Harishchandra was a silent movie? Was there something wrong, he asked. The audience who was already having a good time burst into more spontaneous laughter and applause as Farah declared it, tongue-in-cheek, to be the best ‘question of the night’.
The merriment subsided to some extent as the screening began with the confronting yet creative Western Union short film winning entry Sati. According to the message portrayed through this film the practice of Sati (burning of widows/brides) was abolished in India in the year 1829; however, women in India are still not free from evil practices. This thought provoking film was followed by the much-awaited screening of Raja Harishchandra (1913) accompanied by music from a talented local group called Tehai3. The jury is still out on whether the music added or took away from the otherwise silent movie. The rest of the opening night was taken up by the screening of Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory. On the next day the Festival declared the other two winners of the Western Union Short Film competition. Dimi from New Zealand won for the movie Lockie n Love and Sean McCart from Australia for Give Sheep a Chance.
The Festival is in full swing as I write this and Melbournians are waiting for the piece de resistance of the Festival – the arrival of India’s most celebrated film star Amitabh Bachchan. According to festival reports he will be awarded by the Victorian Government the ‘International Screen Icon award’ for his remarkable contribution to Indian cinema and will officially close the festival on 22 May. The La Trobe University in Australia will be naming a scholarship after the actor, calling it the ‘Shri Amitabh Bachchan Scholarship’. He will also receive the ‘Ambassador of Goodwill’ award from the Vice Chancellor of La Trobe University during his stay in Melbourne. Currently there is great anticipation for the closing night event on 22 May where people are expecting to see the star and watch his film Deewaar. The details of his trip to Melbourne are closely guarded and raising the inevitable speculations.
With its exciting line-up of films, prominent guests, special events and interactive master-classes the 2nd International Film Festival has warmed up the Melbourne winter entertainment scene like nothing else. While it may not yet compete with the prestige of lofty festivals like Cannes or have the box office power of festivals like Toronto and Sundance the Indian Film Festival is certainly growing from strength to strength. Will the Victorian Government continue to support the festival beyond its three-year commitment? According to Minister Louise Asher the Victorian Government is committed to supporting this festival and the resultant cultural engagement for three years and any further announcements on whether this will turn into a long- term commitment or not will be made at an ‘appropriate time.’

Preeti Jabbal
Preeti Jabbal
Preeti is the Melbourne Coordinator of Indian Link.

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