A scene from Aamir Bashir's AUTUMN playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 - May 5, 2011.

The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, held each spring for 15 days, is an extraordinary showcase of cinematic discovery and innovation in the country’s most beautiful city, featuring 15 juried awards, 200 films and live events with upwards of 100 participating filmmakers and diverse audiences of over 75,000 people. Below are some of the South Asian-themed films that will be showing at the festival.


A scene from Aamir Bashir's AUTUMN playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 - May 5, 2011.

A scene from Aamir Bashir’s AUTUMN playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 – May 5, 2011.

After an unsuccessful attempt to cross into Pakistan to fight as a militant, young Rafiq returns home to a desolate existence with his parents. The family is mourning the loss of Rafiq’s older brother, Tauqir, one of the tens of thousands of young men who have disappeared since the insurgency in Kashmir began in 1989. His mother remains vaguely delusional about the chances of Tauqir’s eventual return as she attends rallies by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons; his father, a traffic cop, meanwhile begins to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder from the years of violence he has witnessed. Rafiq spends much of his time sleeping or staring blankly, all emotion evacuated from his eyes. When Rafiq discovers Tauqir’s old camera with a roll of undeveloped film inside it, he is briefly emboldened by this tangible connection to his brother and the possibilities it might hold for his own future. Filmed on location in the Kashmir valley with either nonprofessional or first-time Kashmiri actors, Autumn is a powerful depiction of the loss and decay caused by 20 years of violent conflict. At the same time, it stands as a moving tribute to those who have struggled throughout to maintain their dignity and humanity. Directed by Aamir Bashir. Urdu (English subtitles).

Nainsukh (circa 1710-78) came from a family of painters that settled in Guler in the northern hills of India. Growing up in an atmosphere of bold experimentation, Nainsukh enthusiastically took to the fluent naturalism of Mughal painting, notably setting his own artwork apart from the idealized approach to portraiture adopted by other Indian miniature artists of his time. Around 1740, he entered the service of Raja Balwant Dev Singh of Jasrota and was given rare entree into the quotidian activities of the prince’s life, which included horse riding in the countryside, enjoying performances by court musicians, smoking hookah, hunting, and carnal pleasures of female beauty. During this period, through the coming together of a sophisticated patron and a greatly gifted painter, emerged a compelling body of work, rendered in a very individual, delicate way and imbued with heart-warming humanity. The film painstakingly recreates Nainsukh’s brilliant miniatures though the sumptuous compositions set in the midst of the ruins of the Jasrota palace as well as against the background of the splendid hilly scenery. By harmoniously juxtaposing the gorgeous visuals with the outstanding sound design, the filmmaker produces a unique work of art, a living painting itself, which stands on its own. The film breathes new life into the old creations by accentuating their timelessness and revives the intimacy of the grand worlds of the past through the time-defying medium of cinema. Directed by Amit Dutta. Hindi, Punjabi (English subtitles).

Marathon Boy

A scene from Gemma Atwal's MARATHON BOY playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 - May 5, 2011.

A scene from Gemma Atwal’s MARATHON BOY playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 – May 5, 2011.

A national hero, Budhia Singh made headlines by running more miles before the age of 6 than most people run in a lifetime. But what motivates this young boy? Is it safe for a 5-year-old to run multiple marathons? The filmmaker focuses on these questions and many more in this spellbinding and often unsettling documentary. Budhia is a scrappy slum kid from the eastern Indian state of Orissa, where he and his mother search for their next meal. Biranchi Das is a charismatic judo instructor who runs an orphanage and becomes Budhia’s mentor. Together, this dynamic duo captivates a country. As the determined boy runs and runs, coach Das sets his sights on Olympic gold. When India’s government hurls accusations of child endangerment, the story takes a sharp and sudden turn. Using footage gathered over several years, beginning with Budhia at 3 and ending when he’s 8, the film crafts a tale with twists and turns. Its vérité style gives an immediate sense of access to the people and places of the story while refraining from easy judgments. Combining intense scenes of contemporary Indian life with shots of the country, the film is full of contradictions and complexities that resonates well past the last frame. Directed by Gemma Atwal. Oriyan, English (English subtitles).

Pink Saris
Pink Saris, an unflinching portrait of gutsy everyday heroines, begins with a line from Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore: “When old words die out on the tongue, new memories break forth from the heart.” For 20 years now, Sampat Pal Devi has been battling the insults, violence, discrimination, and sexual abuse routinely visited on married and single women of the “Untouchable” caste. This intimate portrait, shot by the filmmaker herself with unblinking compassion, captures the founder of the Gulabi (or “Pink”) Gang tirelessly challenging husbands, fathers-in-law and policemen in her home state of Uttar Pradesh. In one illuminating case, Devi intercedes on behalf of a pregnant young woman whose fiancé was pressured by his father to abandon her. Devi confronts the older man—who’s clearly not used to having his decisions and authority questioned by a woman, let alone in front of a crowd and a camera—and refuses to leave until she gets her way. Devi incorporates lodging, counseling and inspiration as part of her mission, and the filmmaker does not shy from showing the financial and personal strain of a 24/7 calling. To the contrary, the most searing scene in the film is arguably a nasty argument between Devi and her husband, who claims fame and notoriety have gone to her head. Knocked off her pedestal, Devi is touchingly vulnerable and acutely real. The film has enormous admiration for its subjects, but little interest in glorifying them. It is a recogniton that all social progress is the work of ordinary human beings, flaws and all. Directed Kim Longinotto. Hindi (English subtitles).

April 21-May 5. Showing at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas (San Francisco), the Castro Theatre (San Francisco), New People (San Francisco), and SFMOMA (San Francisco),and the Pacific Film Archive Theater (Berkeley). For complete schedule and times, go tohttp://sffs.org.

Vandana Kumar is a publishing executive with a 35-year track record in the industry. She leads the India Currents Foundation as President and CEO. As a new immigrant, she co-founded India Currents magazine...