With sing-song tales of million-dollar budgets, Bollywood movie moguls are sizing up the Kingdom
Bollywood – in all its melodramatic musical glory – is officially coming to Cambodia, cementing the centuries-old special relationship between the Khmer empire and the world’s largest democracy.
It’s a relationship that has withstood the test of considerable time: almost 1,000 years ago, during the early 12th century, Khmer King Suryavarman II set about building his state temple and capital city at Angkor Wat. The sprawling complex, today Cambodia’s main lure for tourists, was based on early south Indian Hindu architecture and designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology.
Angkor Wat was dedicated to four- armed ‘supreme god’ Lord Vishnu until the late 13th century, when Cambodia adopted Theravada Buddhism and the temple became the focus of Buddhist worship.
But India’s genetic imprint on the country has lingered – much of it a product of the Hindu rituals, idolatry and mythology that swept Southeast Asia from the fourth century AD.
It was precisely this imprint that prompted Indian investment gurus at S. Ram and M. Ram Resources to open their first office in Phnom Penh on February 1. Siren Media, the firm’s motion picture production division, has already started work on what will be Cambodia’s first ever Bollywood release. “We are going to make the first Bollywood film set in Cambodia this year,” said Siren’s Renuka Pullat. “The team is very excited about filming in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the local countryside with its breathtaking landscapes and unrivalled temples, history and spirituality.”
Masterminding the public face of the project is royal rebel HRH Princess Soma Norodom, who enjoyed a high-profile media career in the US, where she was raised, before returning to Cambodia in 2010 to care for her dying father. “The big boss at S. Ram and M. Ram Resources is a real history buff,” she said. “The firm saw the serenity and the beauty of the temples here and want to do a story about how Cambodia’s history is combined with Indian culture. The links between the two go way back.”
They remain cordial to this day. Following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, India opened its first embassy here at a time when much of the rest of the world still shunned Cambodia. It supplied military and non-military personnel during the Untac elections, and was one of the first to support local de-mining efforts. Between 1996 and 1993, India committed to helping restore the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat at a cost of $4 million. The first hint of any rivalry came earlier this month when India announced plans to build a replica of the famous temple at a 40-acre site on the banks of the Ganga (the replica will be slightly taller than the original).
Size comparisons aside, the new film – intended to be the first of nine – is expected to boast all the trimmings traditionally associated with Hollywood’s Hindi-language rival. About 1,000 films are produced every year by Bollywood – double that of its US equivalent. These Indian formula flicks are famed for their extravagant song-and-dance numbers, but at between $1 and $4 million each cost a fraction of their North American counterparts (in Hollywood, $20 million is considered low-budget). Asked how much Siren is spending on the first film, the title of which is still under wraps, Soma said: “Just say it’s a lot. I really can’t tell you, but it’s the budget of a Hollywood-Bollywood movie. Think Slumdog Millionaire and Bend it Like Beckham.”
Details of the plot are similarly guarded, but Soma confirmed it centres on two families caught up in an international crisis. “There are a lot of characters in the film. I can’t give you too many details right now, but the script is already done. It’s a drama about two families and is set in the 1970s, during the Khmer Rouge regime. It follows an Indian family stranded in Cambodia, and the Khmer family that tries to help them escape.”
Casting, due to begin in May or June with American Idol-style auditions across the country (filming is scheduled to begin in July and expected to take three months), is open to anyone. “We might have a short- age of resources here at the moment, but you can see that all the performing arts schools are just starting to come up – the arts are really coming alive here,” Soma said. “Some Bollywood actors will be brought over, and we already have one Khmer performer in mind, but everybody is encouraged to try out and audition.”
The only requirements for aspiring screen stars are the ability to speak English and survive the casting call. It’s with that in mind that this year’s Film Camp – an inter- national event for amateur film makers and students due to be held on the sixth floor of Canadia Tower on Monivong Boulevard on March 24 – will feature a workshop, hosted by Soma, on how to prepare for the audition process (her own role in the second film has already been secured).
Whether or not it proves a box office hit (Bollywood movies are high-risk ventures: between 80 and 90% of films made in India are a financial bust), this will be the first full-length feature of its kind filmed on Cambodian soil. It’s unlikely to be the last: one of the musical sequences in 2011 Bollywood film Mr Duplicate was shot in front of Angkor Wat, and training in Bollywood dance techniques is already on offer in Takeo province courtesy of Australian arts initiative Mayibuye.
The investors hope that theirs, like Angkor, will be a lasting legacy. “Cambodia’s pristine environment is a big draw and we hope our film will focus attention on the beauty of Cambodia and open up new markets, but also alert people to the dangers of over-development,” said S. Ram and M. Ram Resources Managing Director Sailesh Hiranandani. “We hope this beauty and serenity can be preserved in the long- run.”
WHO: Aspiring actors and actresses
WHERE: Canadia Tower
WHEN: March 24
WHY: Bollywood’s coming to Cambodia
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