While international faces in Hindi films are now commonplace, it's the recent rush of Polish talent, especially across acting and cinematography, that industry observers say points to an interesting connect.
During World War II, about 1,000 orphaned children from war-torn Poland travelled to India seeking refuge. When their ship docked at Rozi Port in Jamnagar, Maharaja Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja of Nawanagar, a princely state in the Kathiawar Peninsula off Gujarat, made arrangements to build a camp for them. Later in 1943, the only permanent and the largest Polish settlement, was built in Valivade, next to Kolhapur, for 5,000 refugees. This gesture resulted in the heart-warming documentary, A Little Poland in India, made in 2013. The 52-minute film is the first to be co-produced by the Indian and Polish governments.
While this story celebrates compassion, and a cultural and historical connect between India and Poland, there is another one unfolding in Bollywood.
Growing up in Poznan, western Poland, Matylda Bajer's love for Hindi cinema grew early with the Shah Rukh Khan-Mahima Chaudhary-starrer Pardes (1997). Then a teenager, Bajer, now 28, watched the film on her television. "Then there was the Punjabi MC-Mundian tu bachke song which was played on loop in Poland's clubs. Bollywood was not known to everyone there. These were the only two links we had to the Indian entertainment industry," she says when we meet her at her Malad home.
Matylda Bajer, who hails from Pozna in west Poland, is now a resident of Malad. She says her biggest roles yet have been as Sunny Leone's friend in the 2018 web series Karenjit Kaur, and in the Malayalam film Lucifer (2019). Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
When she turned 18, Bajer moved to Ireland. While still pursuing business studies and working as an assistant in an accounts office, she was approached by a photographer. "I was shy and hated being clicked. But he convinced me and said he would keep the photographs only as souvenir. When I saw my pictures, I was stunned." It set the ball rolling for a new life. Bajer enrolled for a theatre workshop in Dublin and worked with independent filmmakers on small roles till she turned 20.
In 2012, on a backpacking trip to Hong Kong "to experience Asian culture" she was introduced to India. "People spoke of the challenges of living here, how culturally diverse it is and how it could change your life." From June 2013, Bajer explored India for the next five months. "It was tough, I stayed at the most basic accommodations and ate street food. But my stay made me realise how madly I had fallen in love with the country. I packed my bags and left for Europe, with a dream of returning and pursuing a career here."
Marcin ÅÂaskawiec, DOP for Tiger Zinda Hai, for which he won Best Cinematography at the 2018 IIFA awards
After saving up by modelling in Ireland, Bajer arrived in Mumbai in 2015. She lived at a Colaba guest house and frequented tourist spots in South Bombay, drawing the attention of film agents and coordinators. "I did a random reality show. I had to begin somewhere. And then, started giving auditions in Aram Nagar. Soon, I started shooting for TVCs. My first big ad was for Incredible India." Bajer played the role of a news reader in the Neil Nitin Mukesh-starrer Firrkie (2018), an air hostess in SRK's Fan (2016) as well as bagged a part in a series on Bindaas called Life Lafde Aur Bandiyan. Her biggest break was as Sunny Leone's friend in the 2018 web series Karenjit Kaur, and the Malayalam film Lucifer (2019).
Bajer says her tribe is growing in Bollywood.
Born in Wodzislaw Slaski, Claudia Ciesla, 32, has in the last 13 years appeared as a contestant on Bigg Boss and starred in the hit song Balma from Khiladi 786 (2012). A well known face on the European modelling circuit, she came to India in 2006 to shoot with an international crew for Karma. "I had to be in Mumbai to promote the film, and that is how I got noticed by the paparazzi. When I went back to Germany, I was offered an entry into Bigg Boss season 3, to be hosted by Amitabh Bachchan." Initially, she turned down the offer. "I didn't even know what a reality show was. But the organisers convinced my manager that this would be a good platform, so I gave in."
Ciesla survived in the house for 10 weeks. "When I got out, people wanted selfies with me. I had become popular in just two months, I couldn't believe it. This is when I realised I could try for bigger projects in Bollywood. If things didn't work out, I had a successful career waiting for me back home." So, the 32-year-old actor stayed and hit gold. She signed another reality show, Zor Ka Jhatka with SRK, and shot the project in Argentina. Next came Comedy Circus, and then the sizzling item number, Balma. It's been 13 years, but Ciesla like Bajer has no plans of heading back.
While speaking English isn't common in the country, all the interviewees we spoke to were fluent in the language. And so, the real obstacles in a smooth work-life in India are the weather and hair colour. "Initially, they [production houses] would want me to colour my hair brown so I could look more Indian. But I am an outsider and will never look local, no matter what contact lenses I wear. One day I put my foot down and decided I'd accept only those roles that allowed me to play a foreign character," says Bajer.
Claudia Ciesla started her career with Bigg Boss season 3 hosted by Amitabh Bachchan, and since then has acted in reality shows and films
A March 2019 report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry titled, A Billion Screens of Opportunity, stated that in 2018, the country's media and entertainment industry enjoyed a stellar run. "With the film segment expanding by 12.2 per cent to reach an annual revenue of INR 174.5 billion. Of this amount, the domestic film revenues crossed INR 100 billion with Net Box Office Collections for Hindi films at INR 32.5 billion —the highest ever," it said.
With massive budgets and a growing worldwide audience, it's not surprising that Bollywood and Indian television attracts talent from across the world. What's surprising however, is the concentration of Polish talent. Joanna Robaczewska has anchored Comedy Circus and was a part of Karenjit Kaur season 2. Erika Kaar played a pivotal role with Ajay Devgn in Shivaay. Bielsko-Biala-born Natalia Janoszek, too, was seen in lead roles in Dreamz: The Movie (2013), and Flame: An Untold Love Story (2014). Well-known Polish actors Cezary Pazura and Tomasz Karolak bagged roles in Bangistan (2015).
Julia PiekieÅÂko represents Film Poland Productions and the Talent Agency Choice Talents and helps talent from her home country find work in Bollywood. Pic/Michal Massa Masior
Julia Piekielko, a Polish national, set up a talent agency in Mumbai five years ago, to increase collaboration between Bollywood and international talent, especially her home country. In the last five years, she says, she has placed eight directors of photography (DOP) in various productions across India. "It isn't necessary that they [production houses] ask for a DOP of a certain nationality; it's truly their choice in the end," she says. Representing the production company Film Poland Productions and the Talent Agency Choice Talents, she placed DOP Michal Luka for Ittefaq (2017); animator Adam Wyrwas in Tokri (2017), and Marcin Laskawiec and Karol Stadnik—both DOPs—on the production of Tiger Zinda Hai (2017). The projects helped their careers in India take off.
Until recently, Artur Å»urawski was the only Polish DOP—Pradeep Sarkar's Mardaani (2014) and Yash Raj Films' Sultan (2016)—in Bollywood. But, as Laskawiec's and Stadnik's career graphs show, Bollywood's interest in Poland is not limited to acting.
Karol Stadnik. Pic/Nishad Alam
Born in the small central Polish city of Slupca, Stadnik is currently on an assignment in Delhi. Speaking to us over the phone, he says, "As a kid I was a major movie buff. I grew up making amateur movies and VFX. During the five-year-long cinematography course at the Polish National Film School, I had already started making short films. After graduating in 2011, I did multiple commercials and feature films in Germany and Estonia."
Moving from Poland—which has its own flourishing and acclaimed film industry—was an easy choice for Stadnik, who says the competition was tough back home. "I have not yet worked on a big budget film in Poland. The competition among DOPs there is quite intense. But Indian films have given me the opportunity to work as the main DOP."
Director Ali Abbas Zafar has hired Polish DOPs for his big ticket films like Bharat (2019), Tiger Zinda Hai and Sultan. "Ali Abbas specifically demands that his films have Polish DOPs. I think after Zurawski did a great job in Sultan, the director has a fascination for Polish camera operators," says Laskawiec, who studied philosophy and literature for two years each, before enrolling in the Krzysztof Kieslowski Film School in Katowice to learn cinematography.
Piekielko agrees. "My job is to bring in talent most suited for a film. While I deal with cinematographers from across the globe, there are some Indian directors who prefer Polish DOPs. It's their choice. My job is to then guide them through the work visa procedure so the production carries on smoothly. I coordinate on the project from the beginning to completion, to ensure that both the director and the DOP are happy and all goes according to the production plan."
Interestingly, Film Poland Productions, for whom Piekielko works, offers another service back home—their exotic locations where Indian movies can be filmed. Marta Bejma, head of production, tells us, "We believe that Poland is one of the most attractive and competitive places in Europe for filming movies. We have historical cities, castles, fairytale palaces, mountains, the seaside, and also modern city life. We can add a European feel to any film at a much lower budget than other countries."
And there have already been takers.
Salman Khan's Kick (2014) was shot in Warsaw. The Alia Bhatt and Shahid Kapoor-starrer Shaandaar (2015) was shot at the Zamoyski Palace in the Lublin region and Ksiaz Castle in Lower Silesia. Then came Fitoor (2016) and Super 30 (2019). And now, Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Chehra is set to be shot in the region. Film Poland Productions wants to make Poland the new Switzerland for Bollywood films.
Number of DOPs Julia Piekielko has found placement for in Bollywood in four years
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