Romas go to Bollywood

A film about a Roma family made by Romas results in a touching and intimate tale, but with the Hindi filmi ethos sneaking into its frames

June 04, 2016 04:51 pm | Updated September 16, 2016 10:36 am IST

A poster of Roma film 'And-Ek Ghes'.

A poster of Roma film 'And-Ek Ghes'.

It’s a clear, sunny day and to celebrate their fresh start in Berlin, a large Roma family go to a park with their nearly 15 kids in tow. A flyer says: “There was a call for casting for a Bollywood music video here... Do you know who was on the cover? The girl from Om Shanthi Om .”

The answer comes rather excitedly: “Deepika Padukone!” Though it is too late for them to audition, there is a discussion about which one of them could have been a star, a conversation punctuated with jibes and laughter. “With that hairdo, you can’t be a star,” they tell the eldest daughter. The simple idea of handing over cameras to a family from Romania sets in motion the riveting film, And-Ek Ghes (‘One fine day’ in Romani). It is a visually chaotic but intimate tale, of tumultuous uprooting but strong hope, often contrived and staged, but also one that offers glimpses into private sorrows and joys. The camera traverses Essen, Berlin, Barcelona and Italy as the families split up in their constant search of employment.

In a film about quiet struggle and one with plenty of humour, there is a sense that the Romas are living out a tribute to their genealogical roots. India manages to sneak its way into conversations and frames of the film that culminate in a dream-like song, where Berlin sparkles in the colours of a Bollywood film.

Historically, Romas migrated from present-day Rajasthan and Punjab, around 1,500 years ago. In waves of migrations through centuries, thousands marched through Persia, Turkey and into Eastern and Southern Europe. Consequently, the various versions of Romani language, oral in nature, borrow heavily from Hindi and Prakrit, while many of their customs are close to those followed by Indian communities.

The link is so strong that at the recent International Roma Conference and Cultural Festival 2016, Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, said the community were “children of India” who, even though living in “challenging circumstances”, still maintained an “Indian identity”. While the definition of an Indian identity is debatable, what is certain, however, is their passion for Bollywood.

The protagonist and co-director of And-Ek Ghes, Colorado Velcu, who grew up in Fatsa Luncii colony (a Roma enclave) in the Romanian city of Craiova, says he remembers watching dubbed Bollywood movies from the age of 10. “It is a long-time passion. Maybe, it is something in the genes... Bollywood remains important to the Roma community.” In the movie, these associations become apparent. For instance, driving through the German countryside where canola fields stretch towards the horizon, the family remarks that it is “beautiful... just like an Indian movie.” The conversation proceeds to how they could be Indian — for they look it, remarks one — and spend their days making movies.

Co-director Phillip Scheffner offers a theory: “To some extent, when they see Bollywood movies, they find themselves represented in it.” Scheffner himself has a two-decade-long association with India, and the production company he co-founded, Pong Films, has conceived numerous films about India and Indians in Germany. It was during the filming of the 2012 documentary, Revision Revision (based on the shooting of two Romas on the Germany-Poland border), that Velcu and Scheffner met. When Velcu migrated to Germany, the idea of a quasi-fictionalised documentary was born. Conversing with each other only in broken Spanish, they soon found common ground in their fascination for Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Bollywood. These discussions eventually translated on screen as a song sequence.

“The song became a way of depicting dreams and fantasy, in which things that cannot be done in reality can be fulfilled. It shows a possible future in Berlin, and reclaiming the imagery that you do not connect with the Roma people,” says Scheffner. In the movie, after a hard day’s work as a painter, Velcu finds a piano. Within the initial notes, the audience is transported to the formulaic environs of a Bollywood song.

Velcu wrote the lyrics, drawing from the turmoil of his separation from his incarcerated wife as well as folk songs of his community. A young man falls in love, there is opposition from the girl’s family, obstacles need to be overcome, but hope is offered in the form of a fresh start. His son, Parizan — whose powerful vibrato punctuates the film — recorded a rough track. This was sent to music director Vivek Phillips, who “Indianised” it by adding a sitar and dhole. Authenticity was further ensured using the “rules” framed by Urmi Juvekar, a Mumbai-based scriptwriter: singing and dancing at famous sites, running around gardens, carousal and boat rides, all while exchanging furtive, longing looks.

While many of the instructions were met, dancing between the columns of Berlin’s most famous monument, Brandenburg Gate, is brief and visibly awkward. Velcu laughs: “No dancing. We can’t dance.” With the song set, the poster, naturally, had to reflect the Bollywood-ness of the film, says Scheffner. Through contacts in Mumbai, he tracked down noted film artist Shiekh Rehman. In his Grant Road studio, the colours of Berlin and the characters became noticeably Bollywood-ised: the couple pearly white, the curves of the heroine accentuated. “We were thrilled! This is the Bollywood version of my son and niece,” says Velcu.

To place in context this micro-budget film, which essentially chronicles the travails and routines of an ordinary migrant family, one has to look at the historical discrimination faced by the Roma community. For more than a millennium, they have faced mass deportations and racial hatred that culminated in the killing of more than 1.5 million Romas by the Nazi regime. Even now, through systemic discrimination, the Romas largely remain in ghettos and in relative poverty.

It is these stereotypes that have remained on film and television: they are shown as nomadic thieves, gamblers, fortune-tellers. In And-Ek Ghes , we are instead presented with a contemporary Roma family, with children subsumed by technology and aspirational coolness, laughter at family barbeques, and fascination with museums. “It was very important for us to represent the family correctly. Other films on Romas have foreign directors, but in this, as we had the camera, there was a different approach,” says Velcu. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this February, and Pong Films believes a wider distribution within Germany may be possible soon.

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