What Brings a Group of Bollywood Filmmakers to Israel?

After a successful Indian version of a popular local series, Israel is keen to collaborate with Bollywood. Could the world’s most prolific film industry be on its way to the Holy Land?

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A screenshot from 'P.O.W. - Bandi Yuddh Ke,' an Indian version of the Israeli series 'Hatufim' (Prisoners of War).
A screenshot from 'P.O.W. - Bandi Yuddh Ke,' an Indian version of the Israeli series 'Hatufim' (Prisoners of War).Credit: Anurag Sinha/YouTube
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

A delegation from Bollywood, the Indian film industry, arrived in Israel last week on a trip organized by the Foreign Ministry and Culture Ministry. The ministries are now working on a co-production agreement between Israel and India, due to be signed in the coming months, which will connect the two countries’ filmmakers and the funds available to them. Israel has previously signed such agreements with several other countries, including France and Germany, but those countries’ film industries pale in comparison to Bollywood, which is one of the biggest in the world.

One Indian-Israeli collaboration that came out last year was “P.O.W.,” the Indian version of the Israeli series “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”). The show, based on the screenplay by Gideon Raff, ran for two seasons. But while the Israeli version had 24 episodes, the Indian one had 110. It won the prize for best direction for a fictional show at the Asian Television Awards a month ago.

Priyanka Mehrotra, a producer of the Indian series, was part of the Bollywood delegation. Asked why the Indian version of the show was spread out over so many episodes, she said, “Indian television is all about emotion. Our viewers welcome it. What would be one scene for you can be a whole episode for us. Our viewers are more patient than Western viewers. With movies, it’s different. They are often a lot quicker. But on television, a single wedding can stretch over three months.” Mehrotra says the series was such a big commercial and critical success that Star Plus, the network it aired on, ordered two more shows in the same style that will be broadcast in 2018.

In the Promised Land

Another member of the delegation was Imtiaz Ali, an acclaimed Muslim Indian director whose films are blockbusters in his country. Most of his films are about love, and he is also credited with updating the classic Bollywood melodrama to attract younger audiences. His 2011 film “Rockstar,” filmed in Verona (which has since become a popular tourist destination for Indians), has become a cult hit with young Indians. The music for the film was written by A. R. Rahman, who won an Oscar for the score to “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Ali says his trip to Israel is a dream come true. “I’ve always wanted to come to Israel. That’s the main reason I came. Jerusalem has always been at the top of the list of places I want to visit. Growing up, I sat and read in the Bible about all the great prophets who lived here. I’m Muslim but I’m not religious. You know how it is with religions – everyone believes in the same truth and the same story until you reach a point where they split. It’s true there is a conflict between Muslims and Jews, but to me this is still the Promised Land.”

The Tourism and Foreign ministries, which worked with the Israel Film and Television Producers Association to bring the delegation to Israel, want to give tax breaks to Indian filmmakers who shoot their movies here. They also hope to attract many Indian tourists to Israel.

Ali says making Bollywood films in Israel is a definite possibility, and he isn’t bothered by the security issue that keeps a lot of filmmakers away. “All the places we visited, like Lake Kinneret and the Dead Sea, could look amazing on film,” he says with a smile. “As we toured around the north and south, I felt that it was just as I imagined the biblical landscapes. The landscapes here are very dramatic and full of different textures. I also liked the multiculturalism I’ve seen here. I didn’t expect that and it’s great for movies. You can walk down the street and each one looks different. This kind of variety creates a wonderful dynamic for filming and it’s also very good story material.”

Another advantage for him is the Israeli character. “People in Israel have a cooperative approach,” he says. “I’ve filmed in lots of different places abroad where the attitude was much different. Business connections here also become somewhat personal and then each side tries a little harder. I really loved Israelis’ informality.”

Vishesh Bhatt, 33, the youngest member of the delegation, gained fame when he wrote the film “Jannat” (“Paradise”) when he was just 22. A romantic crime drama, the film looked at the dark side of cricket. Using a romantic story interspersed with songs (many of which became big hits), Bhatt showed how corruption has infiltrated the sport, which is extremely popular in India. Despite its scandalous subject matter, the movie was roundly acclaimed by Indian film critics and became a box office smash.

There is an alternative

Bhatt, who studied filmmaking at New York University, recently gave a talk to Harvard business students about the global changes affecting Bollywood and the way the industry is breaking its familiar boundaries. Since writing “Jannat,” he has become the owner of an independent film production company that focuses on collaborations in the digital realm. His company was one of the first in India to collaborate with Amazon Prime, which now offers Indian television shows and movies for streaming. “In most of the world, they’re creating content that’s controlled by the Americans or meant for Americans,” he says. “But young people around the world want to have more and more collaboration. I think the industry is going to become much more global.”

Netflix, too, has many shows that are not in English.

“When a non-American show is put on Netflix, it’s still considered a ‘foreign’ show next to all the rest. When you go around Los Angeles, you see that 90 percent of the budgets are directed toward American content and the rest goes to other productions that aren’t in English,” he says.

In terms of potential for creative cooperation between India and Israel, “We are two very promising countries with a very wide young audience,” says Bhatt. “Think about your branding as the high-tech nation. That’s not by chance. It’s very important for Israel and India to actively create some joint projects. There’s tremendous opportunity here, not just economically, but creatively. Nothing else can create this kind of cultural dialogue. We need a kind of creative center that would bring Mumbai and Tel Aviv together.”

“People like Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, are talking about all the changes happening in the world. They feel that politically, it’s becoming more and more polarized, more separatist and nationalist,” he says. Just how valuable would such cooperation be? “A culture that aspires toward something global could bring the desired change. It’s the role of film and journalism today to oppose the rightist separatism that is sprouting everywhere and to show that there is an alternative.”

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