Legendary “Sandokan” star of this year’s Prague Bollywood Festival

Kabir Bedi, photo: Štěpánka Budková

All this week Prague has been playing host to the sixth annual Bollywood festival of Indian film. The festival has grown from an informal gathering of film students into a major cultural event, echoing the transition of Bollywood itself into a mainstream art form with mass appeal across the globe. And, as Rob Cameron reports, the special guest at this year’s festival is a cult figure for a generation of Czechs.

For most Czechs over the age of 30, this music conjures up images of swashbuckling pirates battling tigers and colonial injustice in the jungles of South East Asia. It’s the theme tune to Sandokan, the legendary six-part mini-series based on the fictional story of the so-called Tiger of Mompracem.

Kabir Bedi,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
The series, a French-German-Italian co-production, was hugely popular throughout Europe, and especially in communist Czechoslovakia. Sandokan was immortalised by the Indian actor Kabir Bedi, who saw the role catapult him from Bollywood to Europe to Hollywood – he later played the villain in the Bond film Octopussy. Kabir Bedi is in Prague to attend several showings of Sandokan at the Prague Bollywood festival. Radio Prague asked him whether he was surprised to hear such a thing existed:

Kabir Bedi,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“No I wasn’t surprised, because I’ve seen the growth and spread of “brand Bollywood” globally, especially over the last ten years. Everybody, from hairdressers in Rome to taxi drivers in New York, want to talk to me about Bollywood, even if they haven’t seen Bollywood films. And what we are seeing, globally, is a growing audience of people that are non-traditional Bollywood audiences moving towards seeing Bollywood films, and accepting the conventions of Bollywood, songs and all, as a cinema form in its own right. In the same way people accept opera or kabuki theatre or whatever the conventions of those things are. Bollywood is being accepted for what it is, and I’m delighted to see that.”

For the past few years the festival has been trying to move away from the song-and-dance spectaculars that most people associate with Bollywood, and examine the more serious films that mirror the harsh realities of contemporary Indian life. Sangita Shrestová is one of the festival’s founders:

Kabir Bedi and Sangita Shrestová,  photo: Štěpánka Budková
“I think that the question of “Indian Realities?”, which is our theme this year, really goes to the cusp question, that actually we are really trying to transition into a space where we think about – what are Bollywood films? what is India? What are the different faces of India? And what is the festival trying to represent? So in a way we’re actually transitioning out of the “fun” section that we were in maybe two years ago. So we’ve transitioned out of that, now we’re saying - it’s serious cinema, it’s fun and it’s famous and it’s global.”

Which doesn’t mean to say that this year’s festival has dispensed with the colourful Bollywood spectaculars – it has not. They remain a huge draw for the Czech public, and, of course, that chance to come face to face with the man who most Czechs still think of as Sandokan.