“When I was a kid, I had a box with a hole in which I put pictures. I would bring the kids to watch it, then make them pay. I would earn one penny per view. That gave me this dream which I still have in my heart, that one day I will direct a movie,” says Nejmeddine Lakhal, the affable Ambassador of Tunisia to India. The diplomat was at the 49th International Film Festival of India to promote his beautiful country – which stretches from the Meditteranean Sea to the Sahara desert – as an ideal location for Indian film-makers. He told The Peacock, “If I had to shoot a film, it would be in my hometown Kelibia, or my father’s town Touza.

Tunisia has already served as the backdrop to movies like Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)and Roman Polanski’s Pirates (1986). Lakhal recommends Indian directors to work with some of his own country’s best, like Nouri Bouzid, Dora Bouchoucha, and Moufida Tlatli, saying “since October we have waived the requirement for a visa for Indians. We love Indian movies and want more Indians to come to our country. So please come!”

Like so many other residents of the countries of the Mahgreb, Lakhal has always loved Indian cinema. He says his favourite is Mother India (1957), and readily belts out the classic, “Jaane to jaanena” from Aa Gale Lag Jaa (1973), saying, “Even if we don’t understand the language, these movies are very easy to follow. Within five minutes you know what the story is about. We have about 10 film festivals in Tunisia now, and for years have wanted Indian participation in them. We finally got India as the country in focus for the Carthage International Film Festival in November this year; and in the upcoming festival at Tozeur, we will be screening two Indian movies.”

Lakhal believes Indian music’s greatness lies in the fact that it is shaped by the blend of cultures and civilisations, saying, “It is the same for Tunisia too. The Tunisian population is a blend of Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Ottoman and European peoples. When your nation has such great civilizations, the music produced is always rich and diverse.”The Ambassador believes Tunisia is similar to India in terms of its cultural diversity, but he connects to Goa best of all, “Goa looks like my home town, a small Roman city, called Kelibia. It is also on the coast and has archeological and historical importance. This time I came for the festival, but next time I am going to come here on a personal visit to discover Goa.”

Lakhal was the only one amongst seven siblings who was drawn to cinema, and he’s still firmly hooked. From the sandy beaches of Kelibia to his air-conditioned office at Delhi, where he believes “even 48 hours is not enough’, the Tunisian has come a long way. But there are still cinema dreams on the far horizon. “After I retire, I will direct a movie” he says.

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