The 13th edition of the New York Indian Film Festival was a fitting ode to Indian cinema’s centenary year.
Centuries ago, there was the tradition of the kathakar, the travelling storyteller. Indian cinema, now in its 100th year, is but a continuation of this tradition, which took wonderful shape at the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF). Not unlike a big fat Indian wedding, there were several colourful events leading up to NYIFF. The kick-off was a special screening of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, brought to screen by Deepa Mehta. This was followed by a screening of Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Organised by the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC), the 13th edition of NYIFF dished out a veritable feast for film lovers — features, documentaries and short films celebrating a range of genres, from art house to Diaspora.
Tellingly, the opening, closing and centrepiece films dealt with social and political issues using humour, satire and drama. In the first, Dekh Tamasha Dekh, Feroz Abbas Khan takes on religion, corruption, caste politics and the violence that permeate everyday life. The centrepiece, Shahid by Hansal Mehta, tells the story of slain human rights activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi, through some strong performances from Raj Kumar Yadav, Tigmanshu Dhulia and K.K. Menon. Filmistaan, on the final day, tackled the prickly issue of Indo-Pak relations with humour and empathy. The film had just won the National Film Award in India — and may indeed be a guide book for cross-border understanding.
This year there was a special nod to 100 years of Indian Cinema with The Human Factor, a documentary about little-known musicians who contributed much to the music of the Hindi film industry. Other tributes to Indian cinema included Baavra Mann, a documentary on filmmaker Sudhir Mishra, and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro — a 1983 cult classic. Also on screen were two rare gems — Uday Shankar’s Kalpana and M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. Several films in Indian regional languages — including Pune 52, Dhag and Anumati in Marathi, Oonga in Hindi and Oriya, and Akashathinte Niram in Malayalam — were showcased. A highlight was Goutam Ghose’s Bengali film Shunyo Awnko starring Priyanshu Chatterjee, Konkona Sen Sharma, Priyanka Bose and Soumitra Chatterjee.
One notable aspect is the encouraging number of young, first-time filmmakers braving the odds without big budgets or studios behind them, and taking on tough issues without box-office formulas in mind. Listen Amaya, a contemporary tale with the pairing of Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval, was created by Avinash Kumar Singh and his wife as a self-produced and self-released venture.
Some films explicitly invoked the Indo-U.S. connection. B.A Pass, in which a college boy and an older woman get embroiled in a relationship, is actually based on New York-based Monika Sikka’s short story ‘The Railway Aunty’ from the Delhi Noir anthology. Fireflies, an atmospheric film about relationships, starred Monica Dogra who has her roots in the U.S.
The Diaspora was ably showcased in short films, churned out by a new breed of young filmmakers just-emerged from film schools. Notable among the off-beat films at NYIFF were Please Don’t Beat Me Sir directed by Shashwati Talukdar, Chara and The Only Real Game, directed by Mirra Bank.
Dosa Hunt by Amrit Singh explored identity and culture by following seven NYC musicians — all brown — on a multicultural pursuit of the most authentic dosa in New York City. Alexandra Eaton’s Bombay Movie was the result of an impulsive move. The Bard University student hopped on a plane to Bombay after reading Suketu Mehta’s Bombay: Maximum City. There, she followed independent filmmaker Raja Menon as he made Bara Anna and shot her documentary in the process. She finished the film just four days before the festival. How did she survive financially? She says, “It was difficult but it’s always worth it if you're doing something you love.”
Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s When Hari Got Married is the tale of a taxi driver embarking on an arranged marriage yet connecting with his bride-to-be on a mobile phone. Daadi is a short film by David Andrew Stoler about Laj Bedi, 88. She once acted in Hindi and Punjabi films in India and now lives in a seniors’ home in Harlem. Now she sometimes sits and watches her old films starring Dara Singh. She acts in Daadi with her own grand-daughter, Purva, an actress in New York.
On the final day, the award winners were announced at Skirball Performing Arts Center. The bevy of presenters included diplomats Dnyaneshwar Mulay and Manjeev Puri, actors Farooque Sheikh, Padma Lakshmi, Sarita Chowdhury, Aasif Mandvi, Monica Dogre and Sakina Jaffrey.
Anumati bagged best film, and best actor for Vikram Gokhle. Hansal Mehta scooped up the best director prize for Shahid and Deepti Naval was declared best actor, female, for her role in Listen Amaya. Mirra Bank’s The Only Real Game was chosen best documentary.
There was a striking, nostalgic cameo at the festival — a painting, much like a yesteryear Bollywood movie hoarding. Mehvash Husain of Speaking Tree pictures, who produced Oonga, is the grand-daughter of MF Husain. Her father, Mumtaz Husain had brought a huge replica of the artwork Husain had been working on for the Indian film industry’s 100th year, at the time of his death. The painting had pride of place at the crowded Tribeca Cinema.
With this, it all comes full circle. Once a struggling billboard painter who painted Bollywood stars to make a living, Husain went on to become the poster boy of Indian painting.
And after all these years, he was once again painting hoardings of cinema superstars. Struggling young actors, new filmmakers, and hordes of cinema-mad fans gazed at it. As Nitin Kakkar of Filmistaan told me, “That is where the magic happens.”