Diaspora on the silver screen
A festival of Asian filmmakers held in San Francisco showcased issues relevant to the diasporic audience. SARMISHTA RAMESH reviews the fare.
ONCE a year, the spotlight falls on a little group of creative artists who carve a niche for themselves in the global market as Independent Asian filmmakers. Working on low budgets, they create movies that project their creativity. But, in many cases, these films rarely make it to a mass audience. And it is here that the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) makes a difference. For 21 years, the SFIAAFF has been a platform for budding filmmakers to showcase their work. This year's festival from March 6-16 showcased 133 films from 15 countries. But the focus was on movies from the Indian Diaspora including Indian films by filmmakers from India, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. The festival kicked off with British Indian Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha's "Bend it Like Beckham". A heart-warming tale of an eighteen-year-old girl caught in crossfire of strict conservative family values, the movie is about Jess alias "Jasminder" Bhamra's passion for soccer.The movie is hilarious, at times poignant and definitely classy while dealing with issues of race relations, gender roles and the Asian diasporic experience. The movie was co-written by Chadha and her husband Paul Mayeda Berges and features veteran Bollywood star Anupam Kher and Parminder K. Nagra.
"Mutiny" ... expressing a generation's anger through music
Another diasporic film that received a tremendous positive response was New York filmmaker Vivek Renjen Bald's look at the British Asian music scene, "Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music". The festival screening was the world premiere of "Mutiny". In fact the movie was so popular with the San Francisco audience that the festival was forced to have a second screening. The film documents the birth of the South Asian music movement in Britain, interviewing performers and DJs who were influenced by punk and hip hop as much as they were by Punjabi Bhangra and Bollywood soundtracks.
The movie opens in the late 1950s when England saw a huge growth in its immigrant population from places like Punjab, Bangladesh and Pakistan. "Mutiny" captures the brutal reality of violence against the Asian Community when Southhall went up in flames. The one thing that provided sanity to a whole generation growing up in the backdrop of racial tension was music. Punk, hip-hop, rap and reggae embraced Asian traditional music.
And this mix became the voice of rebellion of a young generation's anger, resentment and frustration. Vivek Bald, who spent almost seven years making the film, tracks the personal history of these musicians who have evolved from angry young people to recognised artists in the mainstream British music scene
Trading a new path with "Mango Souffle"
On the slate for world premiere was a hilarious comedy from young filmmaker Benny Mathews. "Where's the Party Yaar?" looks at the immigrant experience of a desi student, from the rural heart of India. The movie pokes fun at every sacred cow it can find and is a must see movie for every Indian student who aspires to come to the United States. The movie is to be released in India sometime in August. From Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja comes a delightful documentary, "Bollywood Bound" that tracks the lives of four glamour-struck second-generation Indo-Canadian actors trying to break into Bollywood. Growing up on a staple diet of Hindi movies, Bollywood represents "Indian culture" to many second-generation Indian kids. And added to that is the beckoning glamour, luxurious lifestyle and money that comes with the territory. While three Canadian actors try to break into the Hindi film industry, Pahuja also documents the rise of Canadian-Indian star Ruby Bhatia, who's made it big in Indian television. But for all four it's a struggle to mesh their aspirations and dreams with the actual lifestyle in India. Bhatia strikes at the heart of the issue of finding one's roots, when she comments that growing up in a Punjabi household in Canada, she was expected to be a typical Indian girl. But when she moved to India, people in the industry see her as a Canadian girl. This is perhaps the most uncomfortable paradox that many immigrant children live with today.
As part of the festival, Indian playwright Mahesh Dattani presented his daring "Mango Soufflé". Adapted from his play, "Mango Soufflé" takes on the reality of being gay in modern India and features the first all-male kiss in Indian feature film history. The story line is about a gay fashion designer inviting his friends over for lunch to confide a secret. But when his sister suddenly shows up with her fiancé, the carefully concocted soufflé of sex, lies and an incriminating photograph starts collapsing. The storyline is extremely interesting and groundbreaking for the Indian movie audience. But in terms of direction and style, there are just two words: soap opera. Another important feature of the festival was the panel discussion "Bollywood and America New Directions, New Markets" that discussed an emerging trend in the Indian film making experience. The hippest trend in Bollywood now, is to make the all-important crossover and reach out to the American and global audience. But what is emerging now is a new platform that is neither Hollywood nor Bollywood. It is a platform for independent English films with an Indian or an Indian-Diasporic text. Filmmakers like Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair have been doing it for several years.
But it seems to have taken a new life in recent years with Nagesh Kukunoor's "Hyderabad Blues" being a trendsetter. After the unexpected success of "Hyderabad Blues", more such films began to trickle in. Mira Nair's "Monsoon Wedding" and Shekar Kapur's "The Guru" are huge box office hits in the U.S.. Gurinder Chadha's "Bend it like Beckham" is most likely to repeat this success story.
Gurinder Chadha, the "Bend it Like Beckham" girl
The "inde" platform is vibrant and has the potential to reach out to far more people that it has become the hottest bandwagon for Bollywood directors and actors. Big stars are busy signing up with the NRI filmmakers.
Nagesh Kukunoor will have the Big B, Amitabh Bachchan himself, starring in his next movie "Tandoor". Aishwarya Rai has signed up with Gurinder Chadha for her upcoming Hollywood film called "Bride and Prejudice", that will be an adaptation of the Jane Austen classic. Salman Khan will soon be seen in the Hollywood movie "Marigold"
Immigrant experience in "Where's The Party, Yaar?"
As the panel pointed out, from the business perspective of the movie maker, it makes more sense to make a movie for the global Indian audience, as producers can make at least eight dollars a ticket while the returns are pathetically low in India.
As far as the content goes, many "Inde" films still grapple with the issue of "roots" and "identity crisis", as was seen in "American Desi" and "Mitr". But soon this line might not sell. Benny Mathews' next film will again be a comedy, called "Malayale Nurses". But the film, set in 1974, details the arrival of young Mallu women on the eternal search for better lives. It deals with two young girlfriends and their experiences as recent recruits. As Mathews puts it, "lots of great 1970's memorabilia, music, and great mini-skirt uniforms".
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