Mumbai Film Festival: Jia Zhangke Talks New Project, Indian-Chinese Co-Productions

Jia Zhangke

He plans to produce history-centric 'Journey to the West,' but tells a master class that future collaborations between the Asian giants should focus on modern-day stories.

Chinese director Jia Zhangke on Friday shared his views on what kind of stories Indian-Chinese co-productions should focus on given the two Asian giants are beginning to work together on projects following the signing of a co-production treaty in 2014.

Speaking during a master class on the first day of the Mumbai Film Festival, Jia said that the initial collaborations have “mostly focused on the ancient links between India and China." Case in point: the first co-production between the two countries, Xuanzang. Directed by Huo Jianqi and produced by Wong Kar Wai, the film depicts the epic 7th century journey of Buddhist monk Xuanzang from China to India. Xuanzang also is this year's official Chinese entry in the foreign-language Oscar category.

“I would really be interested to see more stories about India and China set in modern times,” said Jia in the session moderated by Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane, who directed Court, India's foreign-language Oscar entry last year.

Adding that he would be “excited to explore this kind of an opportunity [where the setting is more contemporary],” Jia said he would look forward to directing such a project.

However, for now, Jia is dipping into the past for his just-announced co-production Journey to the West, based on the classic 16th century Chinese novel of the same name by Wu Cheng’en, which offers another take on the journey of Xuanzang to India.

Xuanzang's overland journey to India was originally chronicled in the classic Chinese text Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (geographically implying Central Asia and India). That in turn inspired the novel Journey to the West, around nine centuries after Xuanzang's death.

Clarifying to The Hollywood Reporter that he only intended to produce the film and not direct it, Jia said further details about the project would be revealed “by the end of the year.” He also said that “the film will include cast and crew from both countries.”

Jia will produce it via his Fabula Entertainment banner along with Shanghai Film Corporation. When asked if the project could involve potential Indian co-financing, Jia said that that the option “will be explored by Shanghai Film Corporation.”

Expanding further on his connections with India, Jia in his master class recalled how he was inspired by the classic 1951 Hindi film Awaara (Vagabond), starring legendary actor Raj Kapoor, which was the first Indian film to get a theatrical release in China when it opened there in the 1970s. “The film's famous title song became very popular in China,” the 46-year-old director said in commenting on a screened clip of him singing the opening bars in the 2014 documentary Jia Zhangke, A Guy From Fenyang by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles.

Jia also mentioned the Awaara link in his acceptance speech Thursday night during the festival's opening ceremony, where he was honored with an excellence in cinema award presented to him by Bollywood star Aamir Khan. “I have always been an 'awaara'  in the film industry,” the filmmaker said in his closing remarks, much to the applause of the audience, which included some major Bollywood heavy-hitters.

Widely regarded as one of the leaders of the "Sixth Generation" movement of Chinese cinema, Jia started out making his early films outside of China's state-run film bureaucracy until his 2004 breakthrough The World, which was made with state approval. His various honors include the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion for 2006's Still Life.

The Mumbai festival similarly honored veteran Indian filmmaker Sai Paranjype with an excellence in cinema award, which was presented to her by actress Jaya Bachchan, the wife of Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan.

The opening ceremony took place in the newly restored historical Royal Opera House, attended by the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra, actresses Jacqueline Fernandez (who hosted the ceremony), Shabana Azmi and Huma Qureshi, along with actors Abhay Deol and Rahul Bose, among others. The century-old venue was in a neglected state for decades until its recent restoration by the Gondal family, its longtime owners.

Just like last year, the opening-night party was an exclusive affair hosted by India's richest tycoon, Mukesh Ambani, and his wife Nita at their palatial residence, Antilla. Rumored to have cost about $1 billion, the 27-story building was completed in 2010, becoming a major landmark in Mumbai. Ambani's Reliance Industries' telecom giant Reliance Jio is the festival's principal sponsor, along with 21st Century Fox's Star India network.

The Mumbai Film Festival runs through Oct. 27.