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It was when a packet of DVDs arrived in the mail that I learned of Cinequest, a filmmakers’ collective, which was hosting a festival from February 23, 2010 to March 7, 2010 in the South Bay.

The Cinequest Film Festival is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The festival celebrates under the theme “Mavericks.” More than 80,000 film artists and film lovers are expected to attend the various events and screenings.

This year the festival honors new age guru and new media personality Deepak Chopra who will be receiving the Life of a Maverick Award during the festival on March 2 at the California Theatre at 7 p.m. He will participate in a conversation that will explore the potentialities of art to transform and to connect, followed by the presentation of his award.

The attraction of this film festival is perhaps its amateur quality. Directors and scriptwriters who have not yet broken into the mainstream will be eagerly showing their works here, hoping to get the attention of the broader film industry, even perhaps Hollywood. This year, three movies feature themes of interest to Indian Americans—Road to Sangam, Raspberry Magic andSemshook.

Road to Sangam: The film starts in the vein of traditional Bollywood fare, with the usual comic interludes, but soon deviates from formula, venturing into topical themes of Islamic terrorism and Hindu-Muslim tensions.

Directed by Amit Rai and starring Paresh Rawal, the story involves a Muslim community in northeastern India which is protesting its persecution in the wake of terrorist strikes. Shot entirely on location in India, the film quickly turns preachy, delivering lectures about Pakistani leader Jinnah’s manipulation of Muslim fears, which allegedly led to the division of the homeland. The movie’s message is valid enough, but as the classic dictum goes, the director needed to show it, not tell it. I could not also help wondering if most Indian Muslims would agree with many of the movie’s statements and premises. If the objective is to educate the population, this film might not be the way to achieve it, since, although well-intentioned, the film plays to Hindus’ preconceived prejudices, while ignoring the Muslim viewpoint. The other major flaw in the film is its perhaps inadvertent portrayal of Muslim culture as less than enlightened in its treatment of women. The only female character wearing a white sari with the end pulled over her head, appears just for a few seconds, making us wonder (a) if she is the mother of the man rather than the wife and, more importantly (b) when Indian cinema will get rid of the “white pallu over the head” stereotype of Indian womanhood?

Disheartened, I began to worry about the amount of hours I would have to spend watching these works of novice filmmakers.

Semshook: The next film, Semshook, turned out to be much more engaging, even catching the attention of my 20-year-old son. The obvious attraction for him was its beautiful mountainous scenery and director Siddharth Anand Kumar’s quirky, non-linear narrative. Set in Dharamshala, India, Semshook is a classic “road” picture, about a Tibetan young man’s search for identity and homeland. Born of refugee parents, the man has never known his native land, yet he finds himself an outsider in the country of his domicile. So he sets off on his motorcycle, leaving a girlfriend and a pet fish behind. Tenzin Younden’s acting is flawless and his encounters with bullies and opportunists pluck at our heartstrings. The only flaw this film buff could find was the movie’s predictable, stereotypical ending. The breathtaking beauty of the Himalayas made me long for that magical Shangri-la which perhaps no longer exists, thanks to its brutal occupation by the Chinese.

Raspberry Magic: Leena Pendharkar’sRaspberry Magic is a classic coming-of-age story, set in the Pacific Northwest but shot in Oakland, California. An Indian-American middle-schooler endeavors to win a science competition against the backdrop of her parents’ marital difficulties, caused largely due to the current economic crisis. The film delineates her parents’ struggles with their careers, and the racial and ethnic tensions lurking in the girl’s confrontations with her main competitor, a white boy, and manages to hold the audience’s attention. The script and the director have potential, as is evidenced by its catchy, contemporary dialogue and an esthetic sensibility. Lily Javaherpour, the young star of the film, gives a fine performance, as does her on-screen sister, Keya Shah, at times outshining the more experienced cast members, Mira Simhan and Ravi Kapur, who play their parents. Only occasionally does the inexperience of the young Javaherpour take the attention away from the plot. Leena Pendharkar lapses at times into stereotypes in portraying Indian-Americans and delivers certain implausible situations, but I detect in her work a genuine desire to explore the conflicts and tensions that often underlie the surface of the model minority Indian community. I predict for her a promising career in filmmaking.

When I had finished viewing the three films, my perspective on Cinequest had undergone a transformation. In these amateur movies I saw an opportunity to view a filmmaker’s work through its raw components, and to envision places for improvements. With the film industry so dominated by Hollywood and its mega- moguls, it is important to have a venue for new outsiders to experiment and showcase their works. Cinequest gives them that opportunity. And for that I am grateful.

Sarita Sarvate

Sarita Sarvate has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune and many national publications. Check