Cecil B DeMille has been there before, of course. As have Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roberto Rossellini, Mel Gibson, Franco Zeffirelli and Martin Scorsese. So maybe it was only a matter of time before Bollywood not only succumbed to the temptation but went one better by making its version in the subject's native land. Yesterday, India's Aditya Productions unveiled plans for a $30m (£19.5m), two-hour-15-min biopic which will be shot in the Holy Land and which it said would be "the first ever – in 79 years – Bollywoodian film on the life of Jesus Christ".
Although the picture will – unusually – mainly feature child actors, it will have an as yet unspecified role for the Bollywood megastar Pawan Kalyan – introduced to reporters at Jerusalem's King David Hotel yesterday as the "darling of millions".
Summing up the appeal of the story, which will be "a very faithful representation of the life of Jesus" from "birth to his crucifixion" with particular emphasis on his youth, the producer, Konda Krishnam Raju, said: "It is remarkable that this man who started his mission from a small village became within a short span of three years a force that influenced mankind for over 2,000 years and is worshiped by millions of people."
Stressing that the film – which will be made in English, Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam, will start shooting here in October and should be ready by late 2011 – was high budget, Krishnam Raju said simply: "It is going to be a huge one."
To judge by the almost reverential tone of Indian entertainment journalists being beamed into the press conference by video link from seven cities in the subcontinent, he is right. Although fewer than 3 per cent of Indians are Christians, Kalyan, who declined to say what part he would be playing, explained: "There are millions of people in India who follow Christianity. It is a great faith, a great religion. There is a great tolerance for other religions; there is a great audience for such a film in India."
The actor underlined his delight at being involved in the project by describing how, six months before he was approached for a part in it, his five-year-old son hurt his knee in a fall. "The first thing that came into my mind was mother Mary and what she must have been through seeing her son [on the cross]." As a result, he explained, when the producers contacted him about the film, "I felt a kind of connectivity with it." Kalyan said there would be music but not "song and dance like in other Bollywood films".
As part of the team touring potential locations, Kalyan said: "Israel has always been known to us as a conflict area but, after being here, we realise that it is like any other country and there is a lot to learn from here. In India we have great respect for Israeli technology and many other things."
Having been given the go-ahead to film in Israel by the authorities – who Kirshnam Raju said had been "very nice" – they are also making applications, already warmly received, to the Palestinian Authority to film in Bethlehem and Jericho. On the decision to use children between 10 and 14 as the main actors, the director, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao – one of Bollywood's top film-makers – spoke of the "innocence and sanctity" of children and predicted: "As with an animation film, after a few minutes you will forget they are children. We want to make it a classic."
Rao added, "The authenticity we want to create is the very land in which [Jesus] lived. We came to see the places of Jerusalem. We are excited, enthralled and thrilled, and we are getting the necessary inspiration."Reuse content