NEW DELHI — Christaayan, a new Indian-language film on the life of Jesus, is being hailed by secular media outlets as "Jesus Christ, Indian Superstar."
The English-language daily newspaper DNA (Daily News Analysis), based in Mumbai, wrote glowingly about the six-hour "Bollywood" film, produced and directed by Divine Word Missionary Father George Kannanayil, and compared it to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Hindi-language media outlets also have praised the film, set in an Indian milieu. The dialogue is in Hindi, with English subtitles. Fewer than 25% of the 17 million Catholics in India speak Hindi, which is the dominant tongue in northern and central India.
"There have been releases of the film in 10 places in India and more pending. We have also gotten invites for three international film fests," Father Kannanayil told the Register April 28.
While 15,000 DVDs of the film have sold out, the priest said that a reprint of the DVD is on order.
Christaayan was released prior to Christmas 2012 in Madhya Pradesh, where Father Kannanayil is based.
"This [movie] is a great initiative to present Christ to the masses in the Indian context," said Bishop Chacko Thottumarickal of Indore, who oversaw the release of the movie.
In fact, its entire crew — including more than 200 actors (80% of them non-Christians) — were present at the release.
"It has been widely appreciated," the bishop added. Bishop Thottumarickal is chairman of the Office of Social Communications of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.
Bishop Thottumarickal said that a Hindu teacher, after watching the movie, commented to him, "It should have been made 50 years ago." The Hindu teacher told the bishop that much of the misconceptions and prejudice against the Christian faith in central India and other areas would not have arisen at all if such a venture had been made earlier.
Father Kannanayil also explained his logic in portraying Jesus and other characters in traditional Indian costumes: "Jesus, the living and loving God, is one among us, so we need to present him as one among us and not as an alien or foreigner."
"The visual representation of the Divine should be adapted to the community and culture to make the experience real," he added. While Jesus and his disciples wear dhoti and paijama (traditional men’s attire) in the film, the Virgin Mary and other female characters wear the sari (traditional dress of Indian women).
Father Kannanayil said that he watched Franco Zeffirelli’s epic miniseries Jesus of Nazareth "more than 150 times" while working on the concept and the script for seven years.
However, unlike Zeffirelli, he had to work on a shoestring budget, putting together a team of 200 amateur actors and taking them to locales in 11 states during the two years of extended filming.
The role of Jesus is played by Ankit Sharma, a Hindu communications student whom Father Kannanayil spotted at a Church college in Indore.
There were times, he admitted, when the Christaayan team even went without food and slept in remote jungles. "But nobody complained. It was great teamwork."
"Rude, arrogant and hot-tempered" is how budding actor Ankit Sharma was known among the theatrical set in Bollywood. "But I am a changed man," said Sharma in a recent phone interview.
"I am a cool and calm gentleman now. My parents and friends are surprised by the change in me after I was involved in this movie," he said.
Sharma was spotted by the producer-director-priest when he was taking exams for electronic-media students at Electronic Media Research Centre (run by the local Church) in early 2009.
"After the exam, Father asked me whether I was interested in acting and invited me to visit his office," recalled Sharma, 26. "After several meetings, I decided to take up the role of Jesus offered to me."
"Though my parents did not object, some of my friends, especially those active in politics (as advocates of Hindu nationalism) questioned the propriety of a Hindu playing the role of Jesus. But I went ahead," said Sharma, who has completed a diploma course in acting from the National Film Institute in Pune.
Sharma said he read the script several times and studied Jesus of Nazareth and The Passion of the Christ to do justice to the dream role assigned to him.
"The character of Jesus has changed me in many ways," Sharma said. "My attitude to life itself has changed. I want to do acts of charity and promote compassion."
The actor is planning to move to Bollywood (India’s film industry, based in Bombay) for a career in acting, infused by the success of Christaayan.
Though Sharma had initially asked for a high acting fee, he gave up his demand after his two-year association with the Christaayan crew. And many of the professional actors and editors waived high-salary demands and worked the project for reduced wages.
Now, Father Kannanayil said negotiations are under way to make Christaayan a TV serial.
Anto Akkara writes from