Buddha film: Dreams of Nirvana?

by Saibal Chatterjee, The Hindustan Times, November 23, 2004

New Delhi, India -- Industrialist Bhupendra Kumar Modi's ambitious plan to mount a big budget film on the life of Gautam Buddha under the aegis of MCorp Global isn't really a new enterprise. It represents the revival of a project that has been hanging fire for well over a decade.

Now the president of the Mahabodhi Society of India, the Delhi-based business tycoon had, in the early 1990s, announced his intention of producing a film on the Buddha to be directed by Mira Nair. Nair was already a force to reckon with in the global arena, having won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for her debut feature, Salaam Bombay (1988), and she had participated alongside Modi in a well-publicised launch event in New Delhi. 

<< Bollywod actress Aishwarya Rai to be casted as Siddharta's wife

The plan however fizzled had out in a haze of controversy as some Buddhist religious leaders in Bodhgaya protested vehemently against what they perceived as an attempt by the majority community to appropriate Gautam Buddha as an avatar of the Hindu pantheon. The project was quietly put on the backburner.

For his new shot at a Buddha film, Modi has roped in Shekhar Kapur, who already has a clutch of films in the pipeline, including a Nelson Mandela biopic that has been in development for over five years. Motivational guru Deepak Chopra, who has floated a film production company in partnership with Kapur, is already reportedly working on the script.

Hollywood star, Richard Gere, a staunch Buddhist, is likely to part finance the upcoming Rs 50-crore venture, while unconfirmed media reports suggest that megastar Brad Pitt and Aishwarya Rai might play key roles in the film. The film, if it indeed sees the light of day, will be aimed at an international audience and will, therefore, use English as its principal language. Not a bad idea given the fact that there are unlikely to be too many takers in the domestic market for a film on the life of the Buddha.     

Modi's new plans have already raked up a bit of controversy. According to Bollywood insiders, the scripting of the film was originally entrusted to Chandraprakash Dwivedi, the maker of television's Chanakya and director of Pinjar. Although he was personally keen to be in the director's saddle, he was given to understand that a big-time Hollywood director would drive the production. So Dwivedi relented.

But when Dwivedi reached Dharamshala earlier this year to seek the Dalai Lama's blessings for the endeavour, he discovered that it was Shekhar Kapur who would direct the film. Dwivedi chose to withdraw from the project. Currently working on the script of a film on the life of Emperor Ashoka's son, Kunal, Dwivedi is himself keen to direct a film on the Buddha one day.

Modi's persistence is rather intriguing considering the obvious lack of interest in the subject among contemporary mainstream Mumbai filmmakers. The life of Buddha was of course a favourite theme among Indian filmmakers of the silent era. But in more recent times, for all the drama and narrative force inherent in the saga, Prince Siddharth's attainment of Enlightenment has never been recorded for the big screen.

The primary reason for that is probably the upper caste Hindu domination of the mainstream movie-making machine in Mumbai. The story of the Buddha militates against the very notions of romantic love and familial devotion on which much of popular Hindi cinema rests. Prince Siddharth chose to abandon his wife and venture forth into the realms of the unknown in search of truth. That was in his lifetime. In recent Indian history, Gautam Buddha, thanks to BR Ambedkar and his followers, came to be closely identified with the Dalit movement, and his saga was as a result pushed out of the Hindi movie universe.       

In the mid 1920s, the Munich-born Franz Osten directed Light of Asia (Indian title: Prem Sanyas), a co-production involving Himanshu Rai's Great Eastern Films and the Munich-based Emelka Films. This religious epic had several versions and was released on both sides of the Atlantic. The success of the film did not, however, inspire other Indian production houses to fund films on the life of the Buddha.

The only other major film made in Mumbai since Light of Asia was a documentary Gautama the Buddha (1967), a film started by Bimal Roy and completed by Rajbans Khanna. In the late 1970s, Conrad Rooks filmed German writer Hermann Hesse's celebrated 1922 novel set during the Buddha's lifetime. Siddhartha  the film starred Shashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal and earned much notoriety for a bold scene or two.

A couple of years before Osten's Buddha epic was released the world over, Dadasaheb Phalke had made a film titled Buddhadev, but it did not achieve the sort of success and popularity that some of the other films crafted by the Indian cinema pioneer did.     

The spirit of Buddhism has drawn a couple of major international filmmakers to the subject in more recent years, but India has never been a gainer. Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci had intended to set Little Buddha, starring Keanu Reeves, in India, but bureaucratic red tape compelled him to relocate the production in Nepal.

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, too, wanted India to be his location, but he was driven much further away. His Seven Years in Tibet, featuring Brad Pitt in the role of an Austrian explorer whose encounter with the Dalai Lama changes his life for good, had Argentina passing of as Tibet.

At his recent press conference in Gaya, BK Modi spoke of the need for India to assume its 'ordained' role of a global spiritual leader. But as long as filmmakers, Indian or otherwise, continue to be thwarted by the very authorities that are charged with facilitating matters that distant dream is bound to remain just that.