An eclectic mix of people gathered outside the Castro theatre on a blustery, rainy day in San Francisco, to catch movies screened at the Eighth Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF).  A strategically-placed snack stall served hot samosas and chai to the populace that flocked to the Festival, literally lending a South Asian flavor.

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Hosted by 3rd i, which provides a platform for independent directors in not only the South Asian countries, but also its diaspora, the Festival spanned five days between the 3rd and 7th of November, 2010, attracting a diverse crowd, from software engineers, accountants, and court clerks, to aestheticians and writers. Their reasons for being there were also diverse. To some it was “connecting with South Asia.”  Others were huge “India buffs” who liked the exotic and a taste of faraway lands. Some disliked Hollywood movies, others Bollywood movies, but they all sought movies with a different perspective.

Films festivals are a magnet for savvy movie-goers with a taste for something esoteric. They know to expect the unexpected. Hackneyed formulae that work for Bollywood movies take a backseat. Fresh voices speak, resulting in movies that are unconventional, experimental, arty, and thought-provoking.

The venue was just as attractive as the Festival itself. The Castro Theatre, built in 1922 and designed by Timothy Pflueger, has been recognized as San Francisco’s 100th historical landmark and justly so. Its façade resembles a Mexican cathedral; on the inside, several influences are apparent, with the most predominant one being Italian, with murals resembling tapestries on either side of the 1400-seat auditorium.  Unlike modern-day multiplexes, which dish out films like fast food, the Castro is a single-screen movie palace, with an elegance reminiscent of yesteryear.

Movies, shorts, and documentaries from India, Tibet, the United States, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, and Pakistan were showcased. Here is a glimpse of a few of the featured films:

In camera chronicles the twenty-five-year journey of the director, Ranjan Palit, as a documentary cameraman. Palit, who stumbled onto his career by default, sets a tone that is questioning, contemplative and sometimes philosophical.  After a quarter of a century of looking at life from behind the lens, what has he, as a cameraman, done for filming?  What has it done for him?  Does he feel de-sensitized after more than a score years of looking at life in all its rawness? Did he miss out on living his own life while capturing that of others?  Presented as an anthology, Palit looks at events, both personal and political, and re-visits subjects from the past, in this personal reflection of his career. At the outset, he seeks a validation of his career and his years of chronicling the lives of strangers; in the end, he is convinced that it is better to be behind the lens, where it is in his power to make a difference and effect change, using his camera as a spotlight, than turn away.

The Blue Tower by Smita Bhide is a riveting movie about a young man’s life in Southhall, London.  Life could not have dealt Mohan (Abhin Galeya) a worse hand—an indifferent marriage, callous in-laws, a cantankerous, old, bedridden aunt (Indira Joshi) whom he must humor, and joblessness to boot.

Emasculated by his dependence on his wife, he grabs the opportunity to work for a friend, who proves unreliable. The staleness of his life turns to stench when he resorts to desperate measures prompted by desperate situations, and he finally embraces the blue tower, which has, to him, become representative of all that is dark and negative. The symbolism in the movie is glaring.  Bhide excels in characterization. The background music by Sandy Nuttgens and Mike Scott deserves a special mention.

The Well (Vihir) is deep. Indian director Umesh Kulkarni examines life, love, death, and human nature in this pithy drama. A village youth, Nachiket finds parochial living too limiting.  His cousin, Samya, who is looking forward to going to the village to attend a wedding, unexpectedly finds himself at a funeral, as well. The tragedy is baffling at first. Upon further thought, it seems studied and rehearsed. The director deftly leads the viewer to re-examine the words and actions of the dear-departed and draw new conclusions. This provocative look at a young man’s encounter with death, explores the strength of human relationships and the power of the mind to re-create and conjure, in order to maintain a sense of normalcy and peace. The movie is beautifully shot, with outstanding art direction.

Slackistan is a wry look at three idlers in Islamabad, Pakistan who, having no incentive to find jobs, while their time away hanging out with friends in cafes, day-dreaming, and partying. The story follows Hasan (Shahbaz Shigri), an aspiring film-maker, as he tries to find himself while battling periods of hopelessness brought on by the lack of inspiration and opportunities in his country. Director Hammad Khan is convincing in his portrayal of the lives of privileged youth in present-day Pakistan, who are influenced greatly by the West—America, in particular. This absorbing movie is also notable for the captivating soundtrack, featuring a rap-song on religion with sharp lyrics, and some catchy rock.

Riz Merchant writes from the Bay Area.

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