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Immigrant voices

Still from 'Seek and Hide'. Photo: Special arrangement

Still from 'Seek and Hide'. Photo: Special arrangement  

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The diaspora has many stories to tell, and Indo-American filmmakers were enthusiastic to share their experiences at the New York Indian Film Festival.

Whether they live in India or the U.S., filmmaking is a passion for many. The New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) has been the go-to event in Manhattan for 15 years and this year too it attracted a sold-out crowd with its diverse mix of over 50 features, documentaries and shorts. The festival, which is organized by the Indo-American Arts Council, had its opening night at the Paris Theater and the closing at New York University’s Skirball Performing Arts Center.

While many celebrities from India including Kalki Koechlin, Vishal Bhardwaj, Hansal Mehta walked the red carpet, there were other filmmakers who had started their careers in the U.S., such as Shonali Bose, Vibha Bakshi, and Samrat Chakrabarti. There was also the noted Marathi actor Mohan Agashe who lives between both worlds.

Some of the buzz events were the opening night film Margarita with a Straw, Aparna Sen’s Saari Raat which was the centerpiece film and Dum Lage Ke Haisha which was the fun closing night film. Vishal Bhardwaj’s acclaimed Shakespearean trilogy was also shown, followed by an insightful dialogue between the director and the Shakespearan scholar, James Shapiro.

The big winner at the festival was Labour of Love which won the best film award, as well as the best director and best screenplay award for Aditya Vikram Sengupta. The best actor awardees were Nawazuddin Siddiqui for Haramkhor and Kalki Koechlin for Margarita with a Straw while the best documentary film award went to Vibha Bakshi for the film Daughters of Mother India.

Besides showing the best of independent cinema from India, some of the films had interesting Indian-American connections. Shonali Bose, the award-winning filmmaker of Margarita with a Straw has an MFA in Directing from the UCLA Film School, and has taught at NYFA, Universal Studios. In her film Margarita with a Straw, New York City is very much a character in the film.

Daughters of Mother India, which won the National Award for Best Film On Social Issues, is directed by Vibha Bakshi who was a former business reporter for CNBC. Vibha has studied Journalism from Boston University and broadcasting from New York University, and her films have aired on HBO and Lifetime TV in the U.S.

Another film which had an intriguing diaspora connection is the remarkable film A Moment of Mishearing directed by Don Boyd and Amit Chaudhuri. It is a rich juxtaposition of music, memoir, cities and literary ideas, of ragas, blues and pop as it explores the world of Amit Chaudhuri, noted novelist, composer and singer.

The diaspora has many tales to tell, and Indian-American filmmakers are anxious to share the stories of their immigrant experience, and two of these premiered at the festival. Miss India America is a feature which marks the film directing and writing debuts of Hollywood actors Ravi Kapoor and Meera Simhan, inspired by a hugely successful one-woman show performed by the latter.

(Still from 'Miss India America'. Photo: Special arrangement)

The other is a feisty documentary Meet the Patels — written and acted, and directed by who else but a gang of Patels! It is directed by siblings Ravi and Geeta Patel, and follows the graph of a single Patel who after breaking up with his American girl friend, decides to go for a semi-arranged marriage with a Patel girl. The film uses animation and humour to get the audience involved, and won both the Best Film and Audience Awards at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival.

Several of the short films at NYIFF were also by Indian-Americans: Yari Road which tells the tale of three struggling actors Samrat Chakrabarti, Gaurav Dwivedi and Jatin Goswami who actually started out working in the same film Bombay Summer. This short film shadowing friendship and rivalry is filmed in the home of the Mumbai actors with improvised dialogue.

Iftar shot by Girimohan Coneti is also a New York effort in which two diverse, random lives intersect on the holy day of Ramadan; Hechki is a short film by Kartik Singh who started making short films in Paris after film studies at Sorbonne. The film stars three New Yorkers — Mahira Kakkar, Roni Mazumdar and Hesh Sarmalkar.

Blue like Me is a documentary by Hal Rifken which profiles Indian-American Jewish artist Siona Benjamin who grew up in the Bene Israel Jewish community in Mumbai. The documentary takes us back to her childhood haunts and her art, capturing this disappearing world.

Seek and Hide, which won the best short film award, is by Manoj Nitharwal who was a practising forensic psychiatrist in London before he trained as a film director at the Film Institute of India.

Also unique to NYIFF were staged readings of scripts in development by Vinny Anand, Uday Jhunjhunwala and Sheetal Shah, as part of the South Asian Film Lab (SAFL) which has a partnership with the Writers Guild of America.

Another staple of the film festival is the Cell Phone Cinema Shorts created by students of New York University, each of them inspired by Bollywood sound tracks. These one-minute films show how Bollywood seeps into the system of filmgoers. Professor Karl Bardosh, whose creation this was, has now introduced cell phone cinema in India too at Film City Noida.

Whether it’s big blockbuster films or microcosm cell phone cinema, these efforts show how technology is burgeoning — and yet how Bollywood maintains its pull and its punch on the hearts of cinemagoers.

Lavina Melwani is a New York based journalist and blogs at Lassi with Lavina - www.lassiwithlavina.com Twitter @lavinamelwani

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 4:03:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/new-york-indian-film-festival-immigrant-voices/article7264482.ece

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