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Far from Bollywood: New York Indian Film Festival spotlights alternative fare
April 29, 2011
Do Dooni Chaar
Opening-night film 'Do Dooni Chaar'
Indian movies—from art-house dramas to all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood musicals—may still be exotic to the average American moviegoer. But they’re inching closer to the mainstream every year; movies like the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and offbeat romantic comedy Marigold, which paired Ali Larter and Salman Khan, played in multiplexes alongside Hollywood action pictures. And the annual New York Indian Film Festival (May 4-8) is thriving.
Born in the shadow of 9/11 and conceived by the Indo-American Arts Council, the festival, now in its 11th year, has grown from a two-day showcase for a handful of features (including the New York premiere of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding) to this year’s five-day feast of 25 feature films (many U.S. or New York premieres) and 22 shorts, including both documentaries and fiction films in Hindi, Bengali, English, Malayalam, Tibetan, Urdu, Marathi and various combinations. The only kind of filmmaking conspicuous by its absence is the Bollywood spectacle.
“These movies are like Broadway or James Bond,” explains Indo-American Arts Council executive director Aroon Shivdasani. “They’re escapist entertainment, and that’s wonderful. But the films we show are like the American indies. They show a different perspective.”
“These are films American audiences would otherwise not get a chance to see,” concurs festival director Aseem Chhabra, a longtime film journalist. “A lot of people in India don’t get to see these films. They’re very good, but not necessarily commercial—documentaries, especially, hardly ever play in Indian theatres. Maybe on TV, where they get a very small audience. It’s a little better for non-musical features, because while not so long ago most Indian cinemas were single-screen, now there are many cinemas with six or seven screens and one might be showing an art-house movie. But you have a lot of candidates for every slot: Festivals create an opportunity for less commercial films to be seen.”
Shivdasani, a founding member of the IAAC, has seen enormous changes in the awareness of Indian art—painting, filmmaking, sculpture, dance—changes that began a decade before the first film festival. “When we started the Arts Council, it was mainly because the majority of New Yorkers hardly knew Indian art existed—maybe they knew Ravi Shankar and Satyajit Ray, but that was it. It’s hard to believe that was only 20 years ago. One thing we started to do was have stand-alone screenings of newer Indian movies. The first audiences were mainly family and friends: Indophiles, South Asians who wanted to maintain a connection to their roots, and younger Indian-Americans dipping their feet in their cultural background.
“We had a germ in our minds that one day we would like to have a film festival, but in those early days we weren’t 100 percent sure it was something we should jump into. Then 9/11 happened and Mayor Giuliani called out to everyone in the city to help revive it. We figured the only thing we could do was through the arts: Bring people together, let them enjoy something, let them find out something about one another. The great thing about New York is the way its many diverse cultures retain separate identities and yet all work together.”
On Nov. 1—less than two months later—IAAC’s first film festival was unveiled; it opened with Shakespeare Wallah (1985) and a post-screening Q&A with producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, screenwriter Madhur Jaffrey, veteran film critic Judith Crist and actor-singer Harry Belafonte. “That first year it was purely a diaspora festival, all features by Indians who lived and worked outside India. We opened with one by the godfather of the diaspora film and closed with Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding.
“When we started, the young diaspora filmmakers were all talking about ABCDs—American Born Confused Desis [people of Indian descent raised outside India]—and those films were rooted in the question, ‘Who are we?’ Now we see young filmmakers who just want to tell a story, irrespective of where they live. Audiences have changed as well: Look at Slumdog Millionaire, or the success of Aasif Mandvi, who writes and acts in theatre and movies and does segments on ‘The Daily Show.’ He was almost an IAAC discovery—way back, one of our volunteers brought me a script and said, ‘Aroon, this is a very talented guy, please read it.’ He was doing a one-man show about an Indian-American family called Sakina’s Restaurant, in which he played all the parts—the mother, the uncle, the young girl, and it was hilarious. He was quite remarkable. Then Ismail put him in The Mystic Masseur and he made the film Today’s Special, which is based on Sakina’s Restaurant and talks about the situation of Indian Americans from a very mature perspective. We opened the festival with it a couple of years ago, and it got a very good audience.”
The festival also gives awards, offers post-screening discussions with filmmakers, and hosts events that range from a glittering opening-night gala and smaller get-togethers that allow fledgling filmmakers to mingle with established writers, directors and producers to the ongoing “Indian Faces” project, a series of black-and-white portraits by Italian photographers Alberto Moretti and Giulia Iacolutti, whose pictures of actors, filmmakers and celebrities combine the spontaneity of candid shots with the formal artistry of carefully lit and composed studio images.
For the first time in its history, the festival is being held in spring rather than winter, which reduced this year’s prep time by two-thirds. “We were going to do a joint presentation with The Film Society of Lincoln Center,” explains Chhabra, “but there were some construction delays [with Lincoln Center’s new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, now slated to open in June] after we had announced the dates.” The festival was moved to a different venue, but the four-person selection committee still had to condense what would normally have been a year-long process of screening, evaluating and booking films into four months.
As a journalist, Chhabra covered the very first New York Indian Film Festival, and over the years has served on both the selection committee and the jury, but this is his first year as festival director. “To me,” he says with an enthusiasm that belies decades of intensive, professional moviegoing, “the most exciting thing is to tell my friends and other people, ‘I saw this amazing film and you must see it.’ I must have seen the Coen Brothers’ first, Blood Simple, five or six times—I had a VHS tape and I kept inviting people to come around to my house and see it. I saw Slumdog Millionaire at Telluride, and when Aroon was going to Toronto, I told her, ‘Look out for it, it’s brilliant.’ She did, and went immediately to Fox Searchlight, which is how the festival was able to do the film’s New York premiere. To have a job where I can do this is incredible!”
Chhabra singles out the festival’s three showcase presentations, Do Dooni Chaar, Iti Mrinalini (“Yours, Mrinalini”) and Nauka Dubi.
Do Dooni Chaar is the opening-night film at the Paris Theatre; the title means “Two times two equals four.” “It’s a small, independent film by a first-time filmmaker—Habib Faisal—that opened last year in India and unfortunately didn’t get much distribution there and never showed up here at all,” Chhabra notes. Produced by Walt Disney—one of two major U.S. companies that have recently ramped up their investment in movies for the Indian market (Sony Pictures Entertainment, which was the sole producer of 2007’s lavish Saawariya, is the other)—Do Dooni Chaar is “a beautifully told story about a lower-middle-class family in Delhi. It’s a charming movie that’s very authentic in terms of the dialogue and the characters, but it also has a touch of Bollywood… It’s definitely the closest thing to a Bollywood movie you can see in the festival.”
Chhabra continues, “The centerpiece film Iti Mrinalini [on May 6 at Tribeca Cinemas, where the majority of screenings will be held] is a Bengali-language drama by Aparna Sen. She comes from a film family [her father is film critic and filmmaker Chidananda Dasgupta], was a movie star herself and then became a leading woman filmmaker.” Sen, who made her acting debut in Satyajit Ray’s 1961 Teen Kanya (“Three Daughters”), also plays Mrinalini, an aging actress coming to terms with her life, career and celebrity, while her daughter, Kenkona Sen Sharma, plays Mrinalini as a younger woman.
The closing feature, Nauka Dubi, a period drama about a law student torn between love and family responsibility, in also in Bengali. “It’s directed by Rituparno Ghosh,” says Chhabra, “who is one of India’s leading master filmmakers—he just keeps winning awards.” Chhabra will moderate post-screening discussions with the directors and cast members of both Do Dooni Chaar and Iti Mrinalini.
Looking forward, Shivdasani wants to continuing expanding the Festival’s reach. “I’d love to have a whole week with many more films and more panels. I’d love to do retrospectives, have sidebars and give awards in more categories. We’ll get there, but it all goes down to money. Money here seems to have dried up and Aseem and I are hoping to get some of the corporations of India to feel a little philanthropic because we’re bringing attention to Indian films in America.
“The good thing is that the audience is there. It’s just a question of education—I belong to a group called the Women’s Forum and a lot of the women there weren’t clued in to Indian films. But now that they’ve seen one or two of the films I’ve presented, they come repeatedly. Change is a slow-moving thing, but it will happen. Not that long ago, you had to go to specialty stores in ethnic neighborhoods for Indian food and spices, and now you can buy them at Gristede’s.”

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