A Raj Kapoor bouquet for Florence's Indian film fest

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Florence, June 3 (IANS) A retrospective of actor-filmmaker Raj Kapoor will be the highlight of this year's River To River, the film festival that has been fuelling the love of Indian cinema in Italy.

Selvaggia Velo, the 35-year-old founder director of River To River, said "Awara", "Shri 420" and "Bobby" will be screened here to honour one of Indian cinema's greatest independent film personalities.

"India and Italy have so much in common. Both societies have large families and people are equally emotive yet Indian cinema, not even Bollywood, is as popular here as it is in France and in Germany," Selvaggia told IANS.

The festival held annually in December in Florence will reveal more about the films and the list of special guests later this season. River To River has been screening only Indian films since 2001.

Cinematic contacts between India and Italy date back to 1952 when the first International Film Festival of Bombay screened Italian films. Between 1957 and 1961 Robert Rossellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini visited India and the former returned home with much more than his impression of the country. Sonali Dasgupta, an aspiring Bengali actress, accompanied Rosellini back to Rome where they married and had a daughter.

The first River To River was mostly attended by a group of rich old ladies who were familiar with India through tourism. The audience was mesmerised to see an India that was unknown to them in films like Biju Vishwanath's "Deja Vu", Mira Nair's "The Laughing Club of India" and Dev Benegal's "Split Wide Open".

This affluent but influential first audience helped to quickly spread the word and the following year critics came too to rave about films by young, contemporary Indians like Manish Jha. Apart from introducing Rahul Bose and Anand Patwardhan to audiences here, the second festival played host to the only Italian stop for the Travelling Film South Asia tour of 17 documentary films from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The fourth festival celebrated the return of "Sandokan", the Italian television serial starring Kabir Bedi, with two screenings daily over five days.

Students from different parts of Italy heard about River To River and poured in to make successive festivals a success. The authorities woke up too and the Italian Ministry of Culture joined hands with the Tuscany Film Commission and the Municipality of Florence to facilitate the festival of Indian films while the Indian embassy in Rome played patron.

Selvaggia does watch masala mainstream movies made in Mumbai but her favourites remain lesser known works of terribly talented filmmakers scattered all over the Indian subcontinent.

A favourite is "Dharm", the debut film about love, religion and communal disharmony where directors like Bhavna Talwar provide interesting insight into an India that is unique in comparison to the surreal splendour of commercial cinema a la Bollywood.

Besides, Bollywood already has a huge audience and market. What River To River does is to provide an opportunity to independent and off-Bollywood Indian directors to debut and to meet their audience of tomorrow. Last year Chitra Palekar's "Mati May" won the River To River DigiChannel Audience award for best feature film while Kartik Singh's "Saving Mum and Dad" won the best in the short film category. Francesca Lignola and Stefano Rebechi's delightful documentary on Ahmedabad's colourful kite festival received the best documentary award.

River To River was born at the turn of the century in the midst of the international film festival of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI). Here Salvaggia met Uma da Cunha, famous casting director and editor of Film India Worldwide who introduced her to everyone who matters in Mumbai and helped to define the core concept of River To River which is to reflect to Italian audiences the cultural and social diversity of India.

The festival teams up with DigiChannel, founded by fellow Florentinian Federico Panero. The 39-year-old Panero describes DigiChannel as an alternative but sophisticated on demand video network and magazine that connects audiences with the work of independent artistes online.

Selvaggia wants Italians to realise that Bollywood is not all that there is to Indian cinema and Hindi is not the only language spoken in the country.