Ever since Slumdog Millionaire stole thousands of hearts and eight Oscars this past year, the interest in Indian cinema has been rekindled in the West, with mainstream media sitting up and taking notice. Aroon Shivdasani, founding member and executive director of the Indo-American Arts Council, has been laboring towards that goal for a long time. She and festival director L. Somi Roy will be hosting the 9th Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival from November 11th to the 15th, welcoming some of the Asian subcontinent and diaspora's most revered actors and filmmakers to New York City.
Shivdasani, a compact, energetic and silver-haired woman, started the Indo-American Arts Council twelve years ago, to help Indian performers in their quest to find larger stages and more critical and financial support. The film festival came about three short years later, when "we realized that to actually give someone a platform and make people sit up and pay attention you have to club things together in a festival. It garners a little more interest, and people come together to discuss things," said Shivdasani. For the first five years, the focus was primarily on Indian diaspora films, featuring filmmakers such as Merchant Ivory, Gurinder Chadha and Mira Nair. L. Somi Roy, the festival director, explained the evolution, saying, "[MIAAC] started with an independent Asian American filmmaker focus, but now has broadened to the Indian film industry as well as artists from the wider Indian diaspora. It's a constantly evolving process of building your identity."
The opening night feature film was "Today's Special," a movie based on a screenplay co-written by Aasif Mandvi, of The Daily Show fame, and his writing partner Jonathan Bines. Mandvi wanted to clarify that the movie was not the same as a play he wrote and acted in a few years ago called Sakina's Restaurant. "The story is only loosely inspired by the characters in Sakina's Restaurant," said Mandvi. "What we wanted to do when we started this, Jonathan Bines and I, was to create a romantic, feel-good film about Indian food." Mandvi acted in the movie as well, accompanied by Indian independent cinema stalwarts, Naseeruddin Shah and Madhur Jaffrey.
In the evolution of Indian cinema, Mandvi has especially found work done by the diaspora interesting, dismissing most Bollywood films as the "popcorn of the Indian masses." He observed, "The diaspora has the potential to tell really interesting stories because of the East-West confluence that exists within the diaspora experience. That is a very unique position to be in, and presents very unique stories about living on that fence between cultures, what Tony Kushner calls the Greco-Bactrian confusion." He also emphasized the importance of bridging cultures and financially backing Indian artists. "I think there's a cultural imperative for people from within our culture to help artists, filmmakers, playwrights, painters, gallery owners from within the diaspora."
Samrat Chakrabarti, a young New-York based actor, is representative of the new generation of diaspora artists telling their own stories. He acts in Bombay Summer, a film by Joseph Matthew-Varghese, which illustrates the ways in which people of different classes in modern India connect and disconnect. For burgeoning actors like Chakrabarti, platforms like MIAAC are extremely important, because they increase the visibility of "independent films that are not told by either Bollywood or Hollywood." Another of the films Chakrabarti acted in will be shown at MIAAC, a commercially backed film called "New York". Chakrabarti said, of being an Indian American actor, "I've played everything from medical assistants to terrorists to make a living, and sometimes medical terrorists. I'm a professional so you do what you have to do, but sometimes you're wallpaper in the back, an ounce of brown. My goal is to show the other shades of brown, the humanity, the universality."
The film festival this year includes a wide range of multi-lingual independent Indian cinema, diaspora films, students' thesis films, some commercial fare, and also documentaries.
Nandini Sikand, a New York-based filmmaker, went to Kolkata, India, to make the documentary film Soma Girls about the lives of girls whose mothers work in the sex trade. One of the issues that she personally struggled with was the sense of intruding on her subjects' lives. "We go in and make films about slum children, and there are ethical issues with that, with 'Slumdog,' my film and say 'Salaam Bombay,' for example. And that in itself is something to be aware of. At the end of the day, we're not there. We make the film and then we leave. There's a lot of responsibility and awareness that comes with that."
Another documentary to be showcased at MIAAC is Counterbalance, a film that follows two groups of waste-pickers in two different Delhi municipalities. WITNESS, a human rights and advocacy group, partnered with a Delhi environmental NGO called Chintan to produce the film. Benaifer Bhadha, a representative of WITNESS, explained that her group sends people to train non-profits around the world to make their own social advocacy films. "It's a collaboration, but they're the ones holding the cameras all of the time," she said. The documentary follows the lives of waste-pickers who recycle waste products and are effected by the decision of one municipality to privatize waste collection.
MIAAC's driving force, Shivdasani, said, "Somebody has to give emerging artists their first shot, and we love giving people their first shot."
One of the filmmakers getting his first shot at exposure will be Vikas Bandhu, whose short film "Free Parking" will be screened before one of the other feature films. The film tells the tale of a man's search to find the perfect parking spot, and was inspired by a mysterious red car in Bandhu's neighborhood which never moved. Bandhu's interest in films was probably passed on from his acting father who played the role of a maharishi in Annie Hall. Bandhu said about Indians portrayed in mainstream American media, "The Simpsons at least took the time to learn something about Indian culture and when Apu speaks he's actually speaking in real Hindi. And there's Raj in The Big Bang Theory. He actually reminds me of my cousin." Many other aspiring actors and filmmakers like Bandhu will be getting their first shots at the festival.
For those familiar with Indian independent cinema, the festival guest list includes acting greats such as Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Aparna Sen and Madhur Jaffrey, as well as independent film mainstays like Rahul Bose and Deepti Naval, among many others. Some of the renowned directors in attendance include Mira Nair, Shyam Benegal, Anurag Kashyap and Rituparno Ghosh. The festival will also look back at some older films like "Zanjeer" and Nair's "Salaam Bombay" while also holding discussion panels to explore the evolving art, culture and industry of Indian cinema.
The organizers of the festival strongly emphasized that this is an American film festival, meant for Western audiences. Shivdasani said, "When I started this, I didn't only want to speak to the converted. The only reason we started this was to make America sit up and listen. 'Hey, our Indian artists are wonderful, pay attention to them!'" Roy spoke of their increased efforts to contextualize the films and broaden the festival's appeal. Since he has worked on film festivals from Hong Kong to Vietnam to Iran, Roy was brought in to attract the art house audience, the people that he says would "have a subscription to The New Yorker or a membership at the MOMA." Part of that effort to contextualize resulted in the collaboration between MIAAC and New York University, which took the form of discussion panels at Tisch. Roy observed, "There's no such thing as 'Indian cinema' because it's a huge conglomeration of Indian cinemas, Bengali cinema, Tamil cinema or Hindi cinema or what some people call Bollywood, and it hasn't really needed the approval or sanction or admiration of the West. It's admired from Marrakesh to Indonesia. But it's a whole new world now because of globalization and two economies coming together, two countries coming together."