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Indian Film Festival LA 2018

The festival is widely recognized as the premiere showcase of groundbreaking Indian cinema globally. IFFLA will take place April 11-15, 2018 at Regal L.A. LIVE: A Barco Innovation Center in Los Angeles. This is IFFLA’s second year in this state-of-the-art, world-class cinema in the heart of Los Angeles’ vibrant and developing downtown district. Zee Cinema is returning for a fourth year as presenting sponsor.

“This year’s lineup is a testament to the rich variety of genre, style and skill that exists within the Indian filmmaking community. We’re enormously proud to present this collection of exciting, inspiring, and challenging stories that are sure to make for a thrilling festival experience,” said Mike Dougherty, IFFLA’s Director of Programming.

The festival will open with IN THE SHADOWS, starring Manoj Bajpayee in a tour de force performance as a reclusive shopkeeper who vows to rescue his young neighbor from abuse at the hands of his father. The film premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival and features an impressive Bollywood cast that also includes Ranvir Shorey, Neeraj Kabi, Shahana Goswami and introduces Om Singh as the young boy. The film’s award-winning Los Angeles-based director Dipesh Jain – making his feature debut – will be in attendance along with star Manoj Bajpayee.

Festival will close with the Los Angeles premiere of VILLAGE ROCKSTARS, one of the most lauded Indian films on the festival circuit in the past year. The film premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and is directed by emerging Indian filmmaker Rima Das. The film, written, shot, edited and directed by Das, is a touching coming of age story of a ten-year-old girl in a remote Assamese village who dreams of buying a guitar and starting her own rock band.

This year the festival will feature four world premieres, three North American premieres, two U.S. premieres, and 14 Los Angeles premieres. The lineup represents an impressive 12 languages and a strong list of first and second time filmmakers, including 11 female filmmakers.

The festival will also hold a memorial tribute to the late, beloved Bollywood actress Sridevi. IFFLA will screen a 2K print of Sridevi’s 1989 hit CHANDNI, courtesy of Yash Raj Films.

Highlights from the lineup include the U.S. Premiere of IFFLA alum Hansal Mehta’s 2017 Toronto Film Festival selection OMERTA, featuring rising Indian star Rajkummar Rao as notorious real-life terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh as well as THE ASHRAM, directed by Ben Rekhi and starring Sam Keeley, Melissa Leo, and Kal Penn. Rekhi brings together this star-studded cast for a story of mystical intrigue in the Himalayas. The film’s screening will be preceded by the world premiere of short film FIFTEEN YEARS LATER, directed by and starring Manish Dayal (THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY, VICEROY’S HOUSE, TV’s The Resident), and co-starring recent Golden Globe winner Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Matt McGorry (How to Get Away with Murder, Orange is the New Black), and Tracy Mulholland (CRAZY STUPID LOVE).

Other films in the lineup include the 2017 Toronto Film Festival selection THE HUNGRY, starring Bollywood royalty Naseeruddin Shah and Tisca Chopra in a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus”; Devashish Makhija’s festival favorite AJJI, a revenge story centered on a woman seeking justice for her 10-year-old granddaughter after a brutal assault; Nila Madhab Panda’s eco-thriller DARK WIND; and a pair of Malayalam language features: Bash Mohammed’s delightful fish-out-of-water comedy PRAKASAN and TAKE OFF, featuring South Indian superstar Parvathy in the true story of courageous Indian nurses who travel to Iraq for work and find themselves thrust into a hostage negotiation with ISIS. Parvathy has received multiple accolades for the role, including Best Female Actor at the International Film Festival of India, the first time an Indian actor has been given this honor.

On the non-fiction side, Vaishali Sinha’s ASK THE SEXPERT, about 93-year-old sex advice columnist Dr. Mahinder Watsa, headlines a progressive group of documentaries that also includes Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai’s LOVESICK, about Dr. Suniti Solomon’s matchmaking service for her HIV-positive patients, and UP DOWN AND SIDEWAYS, a stunning ethnographic portrait of an indigenous community and their remarkable musical traditions.

Several of the lineup’s talented filmmakers and actors will attend the festival, including Hansal Mehta (OMERTA), Bornila Chatterjee (THE HUNGRY), Vaishali Sinha (ASK THE SEXPERT), Nila Madhab Panda (DARK WIND), AJJI lead actress Sushama Deshpande, and many more.

Competing in the shorts program are 13 films including Sundance highlight COUNTERFEIT KUNKOO, directed by Reema Sengupta, the first Indian short to be featured in Park City in 15 years, and the world premiere of AN ESSAY OF THE RAIN, directed by IFFLA Grand Jury Prize winner Nagraj Manjule (FANDRY).

OPENING NIGHT GALA:  IN THE SHADOWS (Gali Guliyaan)
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Dipesh Jain

Logline: A reclusive shopkeeper vows to rescue his young neighbor from abuse – even if he must use his illegal network of surveillance cameras hidden around Old Delhi to do so.

Dipesh Jain’s impressive feature debut centers on Khuddoos (Manoj Bajpayee), a shopkeeper living in self-imposed isolation within the walled city of Old Delhi. In lieu of human interaction, Khuddoos monitors the people in his neighborhood via a series of hidden cameras he’s placed throughout the streets and alleys. Whether he fancies himself an amateur police officer or is a Peeping Tom is open to interpretation, but when Khuddoos hears the sounds of a young boy suffering abuse at the hands of his father – somewhere outside the view of Khuddoos’ cameras – he is spurred to take action.

Star Manoj Bajpayee delivers a tour de force, effortlessly relaying the deep wells of trauma that motivate Khuddoos’ sympathy for the unknown boy. Equally praiseworthy is 14-year-old first-time actor Om Singh as Idris, the subject of Khuddoos’ search. This young man possesses the gravitas of an actor with decades of experience, able to communicate his life’s history with one wounded look. Jain creates an intense, enthralling mystery around the shared pain of these two indelible characters, and in the process announces himself as a fiercely talented storyteller.

CLOSING NIGHT GALA: VILLAGE ROCKSTARS
India/2017/87mins/DCP/Assamese
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Rima Das

Logline: A ten-year-old girl in a remote Assamese village dreams of buying a guitar and starting her own rock band.

Dhunu, a free-spirited tomboy, lives with her widowed mother and older brother as they struggle to get by in their small village in Assam. One day, after seeing a band at a local event playing with Styrofoam “guitars”, she dreams of owning a real one of her own and becoming a rockstar. She saves money and forms a supporting band with the local boys, but her rockstar hopes seem impossible without magical thinking. After an epic rainfall destroys the local crops, Dhunu is caught between the fantasy life of youth and the harsh reality of adulthood. Having shot the film in her own home village of Chhaygaon, filmmaker Rima Das, who is the film’s director, writer, editor, director of photography, production designer, costume designer and casting director, shows the beauty of the landscape and people without hiding from the culture of conformity that threatens young girls. Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, VILLAGE ROCKSTARS has a soul and vision rare in Indian cinema today and marks Das as a major emerging filmmaker.

TRIBUTE PRESENTATION: CHANDNI
India/1989/187mins/DCP/Hindi
Director: Yash Chopra

IFFLA is honored to present this special memorial tribute to the late Sridevi, courtesy of Yash Raj Films. CHANDNI is a glorious ode to one of the finest actors of her generation at the peak of her career, beloved for her prolific work in Hindi as well as South Indian cinema. Fans of the late Vinod Khanna will also relish his performance in this film with evergreen songs, unexpected pathos and unabashed melodrama. Nearly 30 years later, the film remains one of Yash Chopra’s finest, and enshrines Sridevi with a character that arguably most closely matches her vulnerable and graceful real life persona.

Logline: After her fiancé is paralyzed in an accident, Chandni relocates to Mumbai and falls for a charming widower. When the two men become friends, Chandni must decide whom she truly loves.

When gregarious Rohit (Rishi Kapoor) meets the soft-spoken Chandni (Sridevi) at a wedding, it is love at first sight. After some dashing song-and-dance wooing in the Swiss mountains, Chandni agrees to his proposal. Tragically, Rohit is partly paralyzed in an accident and pushes her away. Chandni relocates to Mumbai where she falls for Lalit, a charming widower (Vinod Khanna). On a business trip, Lalit meets Rohit and they become fast friends; he invites Rohit to meet his fiancée. Chandni is overjoyed to see her ex rehabilitated, but is also placed on the horns of a romantic dilemma.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURES

ASK THE SEXPERT
USA/India/2017/83mins/DCP/English, Hindi
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Vaishali Sinha

Logline: Meet Mumbai’s most popular, and controversial, newspaper columnist: 93-year-old sex expert Dr. Mahinder Watsa.

The most popular column in a daily newspaper in Mumbai is one people are hesitant to admit they read. With many states banning sex education in schools and a general taboo around any kind of public talk about sex, 93-year-old Dr. Mahinder Watsa’s column is a lifeline to millions. With humor and kindness, he addresses topics like masturbation, premature ejaculation, gender equality, and sexual pleasure in non-moralistic terms. In addition to the column, the need amongst the people for honest and factual discussion about sex leads him to answer hundreds of emails and even counsel couples and strangers who arrive at his home unannounced.

Dr. Watsa’s kindness and lifelong commitment to sex education and health has made him a willing combatant against the more conservative elements of Indian society that see his life’s work as immoral. With charm and joy, ASK THE SEXPERT shows the power of knowledge over ignorance.

LOVESICK
USA/2017/74mins/DCP/English, Tamil, Hindi
Los Angeles Premiere
Directors: Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai

Logline: Realizing how damaging the fear of never being able to marry was for her HIV-positive Indian patients, one doctor sets up a matchmaking service to help them find love.

After discovering the first cases of HIV in India in 1986, Dr. Suniti Solomon left a prestigious academic job to build her own clinic focusing on treating HIV/AIDS patients. Several decades and breakthroughs in treatment later, her clinic is one of the highest regarded in the country and her patients are living longer lives. While surviving, some of her patients are not thriving. Being Indian, they feel immense societal and personal pressure to marry, but simultaneously face a stigma of being HIV-positive. Now in the twilight of her impressive career, Dr. Solomon takes the next step in her treatment by creating a matchmaking service for those seeking marriage. Through the service we meet Manu and Karthik, two of her patients who want to share their lives with someone but are fearful they never will. Shot over eight years and told with compassion and care, filmmakers Ann S. Kim and Priya Giri Desai give us a surprising and hopeful story about the universal healing ability of companionship and love.

UP DOWN AND SIDEWAYS
India/2017/83mins/DCP/Chokri
Los Angeles Premiere
Directors: Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar

Logline: In a remote part of India, a co-operative of field workers has held off capitalism and Western pop culture by singing dazzling, polyharmonic folk songs, performed only when harvesting each other’s rice.

Directors Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar took their camera to the farthest northeast corner of India to capture this ethnographic portrait of an indigenous community and their remarkable musical traditions. Villagers of Phet in the Nagaland region rely on rice cultivation as their primary means of subsistence. Together they form small teams called mülé, to work each other’s paddies year-round. As both men and women labor they sing lis, folk songs formally similar to the “call and response” style of African-American work music, but polyphonically more complex. The lyrics of love, friendship, strength and fatigue feel strikingly timeless and universal.

Lying on the border of Myanmar, the state of Nagaland has been fighting to preserve its cultural identity from Baptist missionaries as well as Indian government troops, permanently stationed there since a 1951 referendum on regional independence precipitated a federal crackdown. Despite the church’s efforts to divert singing to purely ecclesiastical purposes, the terraced hills around Phet are alive with the sound of mülés. This documentary should not be missed by music-loving IFFLA audiences.

NARRATIVE FEATURES

AJJI
India/2017/104mins/DCP/Hindi
North American Premiere
Director: Devashish Makhija

Logline: When a high-ranking politician’s son assaults her 10-year-old granddaughter and the police refuse to help, Ajji methodically devises a plan for revenge.

When 10-year-old Manda is brutally assaulted by Dhavle, a local politician’s violent and uncontrollable son, her family sees little hope for justice. Her parents – scraping by on meager earnings from technically illegal work – are scared into silence by a police force unwilling to hold the powerful accountable. Only Ajji, Manda’s aging grandmother, sees a path to vengeance. While Dhavle parades around town fearless of any reprisal, Ajji stealthily moves through dark alleys and butcher shops, methodically devising her plan for revenge.

Devashish Makhija’s engaging thriller casts a harsh eye on institutional corruption, inequality and above all, violence against women. In the title role, Sushma Deshpande brilliantly captures Ajji’s use of her status as an overlooked, underestimated woman to her advantage. Expected in her elder years to be docile, helpless and obedient, Ajji’s transformation into a determined avenging angel is riveting to watch, and her brutal revenge combined with Makhija’s sharp social commentary cuts deep.

THE ASHRAM
India/USA/2017/90mins/DCP/English
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Ben Rekhi

Logline: Jamie travels to the Himalayas, armed with nothing but a guilty conscience, to infiltrate a mysterious monastery that may be behind the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend.

Ben Rekhi brings together a star-studded cast for a story of mystical intrigue in the Himalayas with a twisty plot and startling climax that is sure to provoke discussion.

Following the trail of his missing ex-girlfriend, Jamie (Sam Keeley) discovers a remote monastery in the mountains founded by a guru with allegedly miraculous powers. As Jamie tries to pry secrets from the guru’s devoted acolytes (played by Kal Penn, Radhika Apte, and Oscar-winner Melissa Leo) he becomes more convinced that they know more about his lover’s disappearance than they’re telling him.

While employing the conventions of the religious cult thriller, Rekhi raises philosophical and metaphysical questions about the inherent corruption of those who seek power, even to do good, and the miracles of mindfulness.

DARK WIND (Kadvi Hawa)
India/2017/99mins/DCP/Hindi
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Nila Madhab Panda

Logline: The father of a struggling farmer clashes with his son’s vicious debt collector in this incisive portrait of climate change’s effects across India.

IFFLA regulars Sanjay Mishra (MASAAN, ANKHON DEKHI) and Ranvir Shorey (A DEATH IN THE GUNJ, TITLI) bring to life this sensitive yet pointed dramatization of climate change’s effects on a diverse cross-section of Indian society. In the Mahua region of Rajasthan, once known for flourishing farmlands, the ever-decreasing rainfall has left farmers without a crop to sell, and therefore with no money to repay their hefty bank loans. Hedu, the father of one such farmer, fears his son’s misfortune will lead him to drastic action. He pays a visit to a notorious debt collection officer, known as the “god of death” for his vicious tactics, looking to strike a bargain. But the agreement they reach might offer solutions for some, and total ruin for others.

Director Nila Madhab Panda masterfully constructs a thrilling story that – while it seeks to educate – plays more like great drama than as a didactic lecture. Through the engaging performances of his skilled cast, he makes tangible the desperation caused by an ever more unpredictable environment, and pays close attention to the deception and betrayal some must resort to in order to survive in such a harsh climate.

THE HUNGRY
UK, India/2017/100mins/DCP/Hindi
U.S. Theatrical Premiere
Director: Bornila Chatterjee

Logline: A wedding celebration between two powerful families erupts into deceit, revenge and murder in this update of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

In this all-star adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the bard’s notoriously bloody tale of deceit and revenge is cleverly modernized by director Bornila Chatterjee and relocated to a sumptuous wedding celebration in Delhi. The approaching nuptials are meant to solidify a powerful union between the families of two business magnates – Tathagat (Naseeruddin Shah), the wealthy head of a corporate empire, will marry off his son to Tulsi (Tisca Chopra), the widow of his former partner. However, the sins of the father’s past have driven Tulsi to concoct a devious scheme for revenge, which threatens to set both families on an irreversible path to destruction.

Those familiar with Shakespeare’s play know that chaos is on the menu, and witnessing Chatterjee’s intricately designed re-telling unfold is a wicked delight. Though the film looks with both contempt and sympathy on its sprawling cast of characters, this is ultimately a biting, withering critique of a ruling class that’s long since abandoned any notions of selflessness or the greater good.

OMERTA
India/2017/96mins/DCP/Hindi, English, Urdu
U.S. Premiere
Director: Hansal Mehta

Logline: IFFLA alum Hansal Mehta directs rising star Rajkummar Rao in an examination of the life and crimes of notorious terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.

Hansal Mehta returns to IFFLA with perhaps his most ambitious feature to date. Partnering once again with his muse, actor Rajkummar Rao, the two artists probe the life of British-born terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a man believed to have, among other despicable acts, funded the events of 9/11. In order to sketch a portrait of Saeed, Mehta and Rao bring us uncomfortably close to the man, combining known biographical elements of Saeed’s life with reenactments of crimes Saeed has confessed to, or is generally believed to have committed – most notoriously, the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.

While Mehta doesn’t purport to understand, much less explain, Saeed’s motivations – nor does he pretend his actions are anything other than vile – his skillfully mounted film provides a document of a terrorist who, undoubtedly, has had a massive influence on world events in the last twenty years.

PRAKASAN
India/2017/84mins/DCP/Malayalam
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Bash Mohammed

Logline: Against the advice of friends and family, naïve Prakasan eagerly accepts a new job offer in the big city, but when he finds out that his duties consist of educating sassy sex-workers he realizes he’s the one who has a lot to learn.

In this witty and sweet fish-out-of-water comedy, director Bash Mohammed illustrates the virtues of cinematic simplicity in a classic story told with empathy and skill.

The outrageously endearing Dinesh Prabhakar plays the titular Prakasan, a young man lucky enough to be born into a paradisiacal forest brimming with fresh fruit where he can make love to his girlfriend in luminous natural pools. Yet Prakasan is dying to see the big city, so when he receives a job offer from a World Bank program, he happily leaves his idyllic home behind.

But his arrival in town is a shocking awakening. Nobody speaks his language, and even in their native tongue people don’t mean what they say. Most importantly, he discovers his new job is to educate sex-workers about public health, leading to comic misunderstandings but also to profound lessons. The result is an uplifting, clever story that is sure to delight IFFLA audiences.

TAKE OFF
India/2017/132mins/DCP/Malayalam
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Mahesh Narayanan

Logline: Inspired by actual events, a team of Indian nurses in Iraq finds themselves trapped behind enemy lines in the war against ISIS.

Sameera (Parvathy), a nurse in Kerala, is determined to move to Iraq in order to make more money and pay off her suffocating student loans. Her husband and his family disapprove, leading to a divorce and his taking custody of their young son. Still unwavering in her decision, she agrees to a marriage with her work colleague Shaheed (Boban) and the two move to Tikrit, Iraq in 2014. Despite assurances from Indian and Iraqi officials that things are normal, the two are quickly involved in the daily violence from ISIS forces. Soon the city falls and Sameera is trapped, forcing her and Indian diplomats into a complex negotiation for the lives of herself, the other nurses and her husband. Parvathy gives a mesmerizing and layered performance of Sameera, an independent, fierce, yet vulnerable woman, that has won her many accolades including the Best Female Actor Award at the International Film Festival of India, the first ever for an Indian actor. First-time director’s Mahesh Narayanan’s TAKE OFF is both a compelling thriller and an exciting example of contemporary Malayalam cinema.

SHORTS

ABSENT
USA/India/2017/16mins/DCP/English
Director: Sudarshan Suresh

Logline: When Zola runs into an old fling, she sees a fleeting chance to escape her mundane life of caring for her invalid mother.

Zola can barely keep her head above water between the demands of a stressful job and the heavy burden of taking care of her invalid elderly mother. When she runs into an old fling, she sees a fleeting chance to escape the mundane treadmill of her life, and just for one night indulge in some romance.

Award-winning IFFLA alum Sudarshan Suresh (“Khargosh/The Rabbit”) examines with honesty and impeccable precision complex emotions oscillating between resentment and deep affection, in this beautiful character study about the chains that bind us to those we love.

THE CAREGIVER
Israel/2018/12mins/DCP/Hebrew, English, Gujarati
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Ruthy Pribar

Logline: Following a short trip to visit his family back in India, Raj returns to his job in Israel as caregiver to an elderly man, only to discover that a Filipino woman has taken his place.

Following a short trip to visit his family back in India, Raj returns to Israel and his work as caregiver to an elderly man, only to be greeted by a Filipino woman who seems to have taken over his job. When it becomes clear that the old man prefers a female presence around the house, Raj must find a way to reclaim what he feels is rightfully his.

With a humanistic lens that equally honors the complex realities of all three characters, this perceptive and sharply directed film sheds light onto the harsh realities of immigrant workers struggling to survive in an increasingly ruthless world.

COUNTERFEIT KUNKOO
India/2017/15mins/DCP/Hindi, Marathi
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Reema Sengupta

Logline: Having escaped an abusive marriage, Smita is looking to rent an apartment in Mumbai, and she would be the perfect candidate if not for her one glaring flaw: she is a single woman without a husband to vouch for her.

Having escaped an abusive marriage, Smita is looking to rent an apartment in Mumbai. She is hardworking, financially independent and reliable, and would make the perfect tenant, if not for a single, unpardonable flaw—she is a single woman with no husband to vouch for her.

Boldly punctuated by an unsettling visual design, this nuanced and haunting portrait of an uncompromising woman determined to claim her rightful space, rises into a powerful outcry against a patriarchal society’s deep-rooted system of discrimination and misogyny. The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

AN ESSAY OF THE RAIN
India/2017/26mins/DCP/Marathi
World Premiere
Director: Nagraj Manjule

Logline: A ten-year-old boy leading a harsh daily existence in a Maharashtra village blessed and cursed by merciless downpours, is given the homework assignment to write an essay in praise of rain.

Ten-year-old Raja leads a harsh daily existence in a Maharashtra village blessed and cursed by merciless downpours. Drenched and drained after an arduous day helping his drunken father and his mother with strenuous household chores, he must tend to his homework assignment and write an essay about the poetry and beauty of rain. But lush green mountains, flowing rivers, and magical rainbows are not what comes to mind for young Raja. His is another kind of essay on the rain.

Evocative cinematography and an unnerving soundscape make the pounding rain an unforgettable character in this film–omnipresent and unconquerable. Mixing raw realism with a dash of poetry and a gentle touch of humor, masterful storyteller Nagraj Manjule (FANDRY) delicately crafts a visceral and deeply moving tale about the disparities and ironies of life, and nature’s daunting reign.

FIFTEEN YEARS LATER
USA/2017/18mins/DCP/English
World Premiere
Director: Manish Dayal

Logline: Two young men independently deteriorate psychologically in post-9/11 America. Their lives come face to face fifteen years later.

Sam and Jason, two young men who have absorbed the psychological effects of post-9/11 America in ways they may not fully understand, find their buried issues and resentments bubbling to the surface when their lives intersect during a police traffic stop. Starring Manish Dayal (THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY, VICEROY’S HOUSE), Matt McGorry (TV’s How To Get Away With Murder, Orange Is The New Black), Rachel Brosnahan (TV’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, House Of Cards), and Tracy Mulholland (CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, GRACE NOTE). Music from the Swet Shop Boys.

THE FISH CURRY (Maacher Jhol)
India/2017/12mins/DCP/Hindi
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Abhishek Verma

Logline: A reticent young man takes the leap to come out to his father over a lavish fish curry meal that he has lovingly prepared for him.

Lalit, a reserved young man, has decided to take the leap and come out to his family. He gets a haircut and invites his father over for dinner, having painstakingly prepared his favorite Bengali fish curry dish. As Lalit braces for the momentous occasion, his dad arrives armed with photos of eligible future wives.

A touching animated tale that examines delicate emotions with sensitivity and a fine eye for detail.

FISHERWOMAN AND TUK TUK
India/2015/15mins/DCP/N/A
North American Premiere
Director: Suresh Eriyat

Logline: When she discovers a pearl in the belly of a fish, a Konkani fisherwoman abandons her trade and indulges in her wildest fantasies.

When she discovers a pearl in the belly of a fish, a Konkani fisherwoman resigned to a mundane life of daily struggle, abandons her trade and indulges in her wildest fantasy. She buys herself a brightly colored rickshaw (“tuk tuk”) and starts to cruise at lightning speed through the winding roads of her coastal village, with her cats in tow. Finally released from her daily drudgery, ecstatic at her newly found sense of power and freedom, she is the talk of the town and her own greatest hero, when, suddenly, an accident threatens to thwart her indomitable spirit.

An exuberant, wild and joyous tale about a woman’s awakening of dormant desires, that celebrates the thrill of adventure and the triumph of dreaming big and pursuing even our most wacky, psychedelic fantasies against all odds. Soulfully told in loud color and trippy animation, the film has won India’s National Award for Animation.

KHOL (Open)
USA/2018/12mins/DCP/English
Director: Faroukh Virani

Logline: When his father passes away, a gay Gujarati American man must return to his small hometown to confront his estranged family.

When his father passes away, Vijay, a gay Gujarati American man must return to his small hometown to confront his estranged family. Tightly holding onto his armor of detachment, after years of alienation and bitter feelings of hurt and disappointment, Vijay sees any connection with his mother as utterly impossible. However, it may just be that the death of the patriarch may finally allow the seeds of acceptance to take root.

A poignant tale about the destructive force of parental rejection and the unexpected paths to forgiveness that may reveal themselves if we stay open to the possibility.

LAKSH
UK/India/2017/25mins/DCP/Hindi, Rajasthani dialect, Italian
World Premiere
Director: Jennifer Rosen

Logline: Sameer returns home to Delhi to visit his young son and confront the life he left behind since forging a new path in Italy.

Married, with a son and a decent job in Italy, Sameer has come to Delhi to spend time with his other wife from an arranged marriage, a Rajasthani woman, and their young son, Laksh. On the eve of his departure from India, much is discussed and even more is left unfinished. Under the questioning gaze of his beloved son who faces an uncertain future in a disintegrating slum, Sameer struggles to come to terms with the consequences of his decisions that leave him painfully torn between two distant but profoundly beloved homes.

Delicate emotions resonate with formidable power in this intimate portrait of a family profoundly disrupted by a man’s hope to liberate himself from the chains of poverty, a noble aim that harbors some unanticipated and harrowing consequences.

PASHI
India/2017/30mins/Blu-ray/Pahari, Hindi
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Siddharth Chauhan

Logline: In a remote Himachali village, a teenage boy experiences a sexual awakening when a handsome visitor passes through the area.

When his mom’s handsome friend unexpectedly shows up in the village, a teenage boy living in a remote area of Himachal Pradesh, is swept in a whirlwind of desire and vivid fantasy. As he struggles to rein in his strong impulses, he learns about “pashi”, an ancient technique of trapping birds, and begins to practice it.

Immersing us into a startling world of raw emotion and fierce imagination, this gripping exploration of young lust and its precarious impulses reveals a bold and razor sharp emerging storyteller.

TARA VERSUS
India/2017/21mins/DCP/English
World Premiere
Director: Ayesha Anna Ninan

Logline: When her best friend lands a high profile talent-booking job, Tara, an ambitious young comedian, loses all sense of humor.

Tara, an ambitious but struggling young comedian, loses all sense of humor when she finds out that her best friend has landed a high-profile talent booking job in Delhi. Unable to cope with intense feelings of jealousy and low self-esteem, she jeopardizes the friendship.

Framed by an enchanting performance by Aditi Vasudev (“Devi”), this heartfelt and spirited tale sheds light onto Mumbai’s urban youth and its competitive stand-up scene, where burgeoning ambition, a wavering sense of identity and heightened emotions are no funny matter.

TV IN THE FISH TAIL
USA/2017/13mins/DCP/Hindi
Director: Iesh Thapar

Logline: As electricity and the miracle of television first arrive in a remote Himalayan village, the friendship of two teenage boys is put to the test.

In an isolated Himalayan village, two teenage boys, Tinley and Kobai, witness the arrival of the first TV sets. The hydro power plant that has recently been installed in the area is seen by the local community with a mixture of marvel and apprehension, and equally divides the two best friends. Tinley’s wealthier family has already bought a TV set and is eagerly awaiting electricity to kick in, whereas Kobai is skeptical about how these monumental intrusions will affect the order of the universe.

A brooding sense of dread lurks underneath the peaceful scenery of this isolated world in this atmospheric tale where the supernatural and the real soon start to merge.

WHAT IS YOUR BROWN NUMBER?
India/2016/5mins/Blu-ray/English
North American Premiere
Director: Vinnie Ann Bose

Logline: An animated satirical look at India’s obsession with fair skin.

Outside a hospital delivery room, a large family eagerly awaits the arrival of a newborn baby. News of a healthy baby boy soon arrives, but joy turns to horror when they baby’s skin tone is announced: Brown Number 80 on the fairness scale.

An irreverent animated look at India’s obsession with fair skin, that is at once humorous and chilling.

YAMAN
India/2017/24mins/DCP/Hindi
Los Angeles Premiere
Director: Raghuvir Joshi

Logline: Delicate threads of a tender but impossible relationship unravel, as a young couple waits in court for their divorce to be finalized.

We meet Vishal and Nitya in a courtroom, waiting to tend to their divorce. As we cut back and forth between cold court proceedings and snippets of their tender partnership in life and in art, an intimate portrait emerges of a complex relationship between two soulmates who although keenly attuned to each other, cannot give each other the kind of love they need.

Formidably performed by Sayani Gupta (MARGARITA WITH A STRAW) and Priyanshu Painyuli (ONCE AGAIN) and laced with evocative classical Indian musical interludes, this sensitive directorial debut paints a visceral picture of the wondrous beauty of human connection and the fathomless pain of unrequited love.

Guyana

“Born in the land of the mighty Roraima/ Land of great rivers and far stretching sea … ” are words sung in drunken glee by relatives of my parents’ generation. The song tells of the land of my birth, Guyana, a place called “back home” by my elders, but which to me had always been merely a source of relatives’ funny accents and the occasional bawdy provincial story; a place lost entirely in the immaturity of infantile memory, and remade incompletely through the borrowed memories of others.But all that changed as I return to Guyana, unexpectedly and unprepared, 31 years after leaving as a baby. “Born in the land where men sought El Dorado/ Land of the diamond and bright shining gold,” the song goes, boasting of the land’s natural wealth, and hinting at the plight of those who had sought it. I return as a recipient of one of Guyana’s national arts awards, undeserving because I am heretofore unable to find a connection to the ancestral land, which now honors me. That would change as the assault of sights and scents, and the camaraderie of locals, conspire to force my acknowledging of that buried organic thread of belonging.

Despite the song’s promises, I see no gold or diamonds, nor do I find the time to explore the great rivers or far stretching sea. But I do taste the sweetness of Guyana’s fruit, remark on the comeliness of her women, the brightness of her tropical sun and the seeming timelessness of her stitch within the fabric of colonial history. This is a place beaten by its history, existing at the rare conflux of a dozen trading nations, yet striving valiantly to pull itself from the status of Third World indigent to modern Caribbean power broker.

Guyana is a frequently misplaced and mispronounced nation in the Canadian travel vocabulary. Formerly called British Guiana, it is nestled longitudinally between Brazil and the Caribbean ocean, and horizontally between Venezuela and Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana). A democracy, she remains the only officially English-speaking country in South America, and one of Canada’s most effusive sources of Caribbean emigration.

Map of Guyana and where it lies in South America
Map of Guyana and where it lies in South America

At the time of Columbus, the region was inhabited by the Arawak and Carib aboriginal tribes whose legacy is the word guiana. It means “land of waters,” testament to the region’s multitude of waterways streaming to and from the Amazon basin. The three Guyanas of history, Dutch, French and British, were a trading and farming delta operated by European powers for the past two centuries. The land was valuable for its rugged frontier against the rich South American jungle, its navigable river system, its potential for a plantation-style economy, and its position on the shore of the lucrative Caribbean shipping lanes.

When the aboriginal tribes were pushed back into the rainforest, African slaves were brought in to work the sugar plantations. With the transition to British rule in 1786, the labor structure, punctuated by violent slave revolt decades earlier, fell under the auspices of British imperial law. Hence, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire 21 years later led to a critical need for cheap plantation labor. That labor was found via the indentured servitude system wherein subjects of the empire, mostly East Indian and some Chinese, were shipped in to work on a supposedly contractual basis. The colorful songs do not tell of this history. That task is left to the pockets of angry subversive writers scattered throughout the diaspora.

Indentured Servants
Indentured Servants

Most historians agree that the British violated the service contracts and refused the indentured laborers their promised passage home. The result was generations of large numbers of people, mostly Indians, stranded in a country to which they never truly intended to emigrate. In the twentieth century, with the dissolution of British rule in favor of a fractious parliamentary system, Guyana remains a nation of essentially two races: African and Indian. This racial duality is a persistent social and political theme, occasionally sinking to riotous violence, and sometimes rising to philosophical elegance, as in the establishment of the multi-racial socialist government of the late President Cheddi Jagan, Guyana’s most beloved fallen hero.

Jagan is often called the father of the modern Guyanese nation. His 80-year old widow Janet, also a former President, remains an honored national figure who hearkens to a bygone era of Gandhi/Mandela styled social protest and political sacrifice. Even their 1943 interracial marriage (he was Indian, she a Jew from Illinois) was a daring feat, a template for a coming age.

Despite the Jagans’ heroism, Guyana’s story in the twentieth century is one of corruption and lost opportunity. As the song describes so proudly, it is a nation rich in mineral and biological wealth, devoid of the population pressures of other developing nations (there are fewer than a million permanent residents). Its rugged beauty inspired the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle who fashioned his 1912 novel “The Lost World” after Guyana’s unspoiled jungle primacy, specifically the misty Mount Roraima upon whose paleolithic peak Conan Doyle envisioned Victorian dinosaur hunters and lost prehistoric tribes.

Guyana’s enviable position as an English-speaking literate nation whose expatriate vim offers access to the resources of the West should have propelled Guyana into the role of Southern leader. Yet the nation has languished economically by virtue of recent dictatorial corruption and mismanagement. High inflation, elevated rates of maternal and child morbidity, increased street crime and official corruption, and residents poor access to infrastructure—the textbook signatures of Third World status—have been typical of Guyana up to and including the 1980s.

This was the ominous data I weighed while considering whether to undertake the visit to the land of my birth. I was taken from Guyana at the age of 2, and returned once more for a summer visit 20 years ago. I had joined the great soup of immigrants in Toronto, multicolored, multicultured, and undeniably Canadian. Despite the thickening density of Guyanese expatriates filling the Toronto-New York corridor, I had no conscious desire to return to my motherland.

However, my book of short stories titled “Sweet Like Saltwater” ostensibly about the Indo-Caribbean diaspora, surprisingly won the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Book. Just like that, I was on my way back to this lonely tropical waystation.

The existence of the Guyana Prize is itself a window into the psyche of a nation making great strides to re-position itself as a trade-and tourism-worthy modern democracy. It is one of the English-speaking world’s most prestigious literary awards, and the only national book award offered by a Caribbean country other than Cuba.

Though the official literacy rate hovers about 98%, the country only produces a handful of books each year. But in many Southern societies, the written word retains both power and prestige, regardless of the official rate of book production and consumption. The literary legacy left to Guyana from its most culturally influential ancestral places—India, West Africa and England—is one that seemingly demands the recognition of communicative excellence, evident in the oratorical skills of local leaders and in the impressive feats of poetic recitation required from schoolchildren. Given the poor rate of domestic book production, due in part to a hobbled publishing industry, it is not surprising that the nation glories in the artistic achievements of its expatriate children. London’s Pauline Melville and Fred D ‘Aguiar of Florida are but two such non-resident writers oft honored in Guyana.

Arriving in the capital city, Georgetown, I am filled with trepidation. One guidebook describes the place as “the second most violent capital city in South America, after Bogota.” It further warns: “under no circumstances go out at night, and avoid doing so in the daytime, too.” Wariness of violent street crime was the mantra preached to me by friends and relatives, none of whom had been to Georgetown in many years.

Downtown Georgetown, Guyana
Downtown Georgetown, Guyana

But the city is surprisingly pleasant. Nestled against the Atlantic shore, it nonetheless considers itself a Caribbean metropolis, yet its official population of 200,000 would make it merely a large town by North American standards. It was once a colonial gem, still proudly bearing its traditional moniker of “the garden city”, though decades of infrastructure neglect have tarnished its floral vigor. Whitewashed wooden buildings with thatched multicolored roofs still provide a fair amount of charm and elegance, and rebuilt roads encourage the recent inundation of American sports cars and utility vehicles. All about, the signs of an economic renaissance abound.

One is struck by a distinct odor that, to me at least, is ubiquitous across all tropical domains: the scent of damp fabrics, unseen fungal growths and hot, wet sea air. Not necessarily unpleasant, it is womb-like in its familiarity. Eager surveillance from the window of a cramped Guyana Airways plane revealed dazzling green arteries of water that pulse with life, giving truth to the aboriginal name for the place. The odor and the greenery seem complementary, and one is made less aware of the urban concrete, and more sensitive to the nearby ocean and strategically planted foliage.

The streets and highways are cluttered with autos, muscular and loud. The car is a symbol of machismo here, and owners have taken to emblazoning their vehicles with personalized names. My driver has named his for the Backstreet Boys, and gestures to the photo of the cover girl on his dashboard: “That’s the backstreet girl,” he jokes.

Minibuses plow by. Lynn Mangru, a local sitcom actress and my guide for the morning, tells me that the buses are privately owned with fares set by the government. “People choose which bus to ride by the music the driver is playing,” she says. I decide that my favorite bus is one named “Sweetness” driven by a sloppy, big-bellied, very un-sweet man. On the bus’s back, the driver has written the explanation: “Your sweetness is my weakness.”

Crowds of people gather in every public locale in Georgetown. The roars of rancorous Creole, English-based and similar to Jamaican patwa but spiced with elements of French, Dutch, Senegalese, Hindi, Spanish and Portuguese, assault the ear in torrents of musical speech, sometimes joyous and sometimes angry 97the sounds of street commerce common around the world. The Creole of Guyana is a trademark of the place. It was the language of my youth, usually summoned from my subconscious only with the aid of alcohol or family prodding, embarrassing for its foreignness and inapplicability to Canadian life. Here it is refreshingly familiar, heard at last as a living language for an entire people, and not, as the locals would describe it, as simply “poor English.”

Teenage boys, both brown and black, strut along the roadways with New York ghetto attitude. Basketball shoes, fake jewelry and hip-hop mannerisms are common. Judging from fashion choices and the plethora of cheap low-quality consumer products, this could be any American inner city—except that, alongside these thrusts into the banal continuum of the world economy, there are unmistakable nods to both tropical wherewithal and a recent colonial legacy.

Indeed, while modern autos screech through crowded roads, many side streets are the exclusive domain of horses and horse-drawn vehicles. The preferred mode of transport of many goods, particularly construction materials, appears to be via animal sweat. Time does not allow me a foray into the rural countryside to visit the rice-farming village of my infancy, or to the rugged interior; it would have been interesting to see whether supreme reliance is still made upon beasts of burden for all physical tasks too challenging for mere human muscle. It is quixotically ironic, this superposition of agrarian methods against an urban backdrop of somewhat modern buildings, Western outlook and new American automobiles.

More irony befalls me as I check into the Hotel Tower, supposedly one of Georgetown’s top hotels. Half a century ago, my father worked here as a waiter and had alerted the industry minister to the hotel’s unfair treatment of workers; the pro-labor socialist sentiment runs strong in Guyanese of his generation, those touched by the crusades of Cheddi and Janet Jagan. Today, after decades of decline, the Hotel Tower has remade itself into a gateway for adventure tourism, offering “romantic” rainforest tours to mostly foreign couples. Indeed, eco-tourism is the buzzword across the nation. Industrial forces are arrayed to parcel off Guyana’s pristine jungle ecology in the name of debt reduction, and ventures within the city are positioning themselves to provide the necessary support for such activities.

The city’s center is dominated by the clock tower-crowned Stabroek market, a grand old Dutch structure whose contents today can be compared to rural flea markets in Canada. It is probably the oldest building in the country, and an enduring democratic structure in which everyone, rich or poor, shops. Some say it was intended as a railway station for another colony, but ended up in Guyana by accident. Pierre Trudeau once called it a “bizarre bazaar.” Whatever the colorful anecdote, the market is a beloved sprawl of simple commercial reciprocity where anything that can be carried by hand is sold.

Stabroek Market in Georgetown, Guyana
Stabroek Market in Georgetown, Guyana

In addition to the basic supplies and knick-knacks sold here are the fresh produce brought in from farmers outside the city. The fruits are glorious in their ripeness, and I gladly indulge in a wide array of tropical nectars. Tourists are ill-advised to wander about the market unescorted, so I was pleased to find manning some of the vending stalls relatives whom I had never before met in person: an aunt, a great uncle and several cousins.

The place had evolved since my family’s exodus I was informed. No longer the refuge of impoverished rural agrarians desperate to hawk their undervalued goods, it is now a locus for lucrative high commerce. A vegetable stall like that owned by my aunt would be sold for the equivalent of tens of thousands of American dollars.

That night is the televised ceremony for conferring the Guyana Prizes for Literature; my reason for being in the country. Professor David Dabydeen of England takes top honors for his novel “A Harlot’s Progress”—the trend of rewarding expatriates continues. Harvard student and proud Guyanese native, Paloma Mohamed receives the award for best drama; her rousing patriotic speech would bring the crowd to its feet. While I nervously wait to make my acceptance speech for my Best First Book prize, an elderly woman strikes up a conversation with me about her grandchildren in Canada. It takes a few minutes for me to recognize Janet Jagan, former President and figure of lore. It is surreal to be making disposable small talk with a woman whose name is spoken with quiet reverence in most Guyanese households, my parents’ included. I decide that this is indicative of the informality of the place, where grand historical figures are simply citizens on about their business.

It is therefore not surprising that the sitting President of the country, Bharrat Jagdeo, proves eminently approachable. His mind is understandably elsewhere as a national election looms close. But his popularity almost assures a victory for his People’s Progressive Party, the political party founded by the Jagans. Government stability is an encouraging sign for sustained development and wealth production.

“My job is to pull government into the background and let creative people run with their innovations,” he says, sounding vaguely Ontarian in his politics. He further laments the limited experiences of many visitors to Guyana, wishing more would choose to step beyond Georgetown to see the beauty of the unspoiled interior. “Just a few hours travel and you can meet AmerIndian children who must take canoes to get to school.” Again, there is that ubiquitous dichotomy of the modern alongside the pastoral and ancient. His words remind me that despite Guyana’s bold forays into aggressive world commerce and the increasing affluence of many of Georgetown’s more visible citizens, this is still a country struggling to find its role in the globalized Caribbean milieu.

I recall the growing links between Guyana and Canada: the 1997 flirtation of Saskatechewan’s SaskPower with acquiring the Guyanese electrical infrastructure; the public health program offered by the medical school of Kingston’s Queen’s University to allow their graduates exposure to the truly impoverished in Guyana’s interior; and recent rumblings about debt forgiveness and other sorts of aid. Yet, despite its rural poverty and tiny population, this is a nation with, astonishingly, 23 television stations.

“Anyone can put up a TV transmitter from their front porch,” says John Mair, a BBC producer who moonlights in Guyana as an election consultant for Mr. Jagdeo, and who also writes a popular political satire column for a national newspaper under the pen name of Bill Cotton. The television medium tends to be so unregulated and unprofessional, Mair says, that “if you watch the Berbice news, you can hear the dogs barking on the broadcaster’s front lawn!”

Guyana is a nation much like other Southern countries in this new age, traveling simultaneous paths of spiraling rural poverty and rapid modernization. The vivacity and robustness of Georgetown is promising, though, as is the seeming genuineness of the current government. But one young entrepreneur, the owner of a rice mill, is keeping his enterprise off-line until after the coming election. When asked what difference it makes which party wins, he answers, “I need to know whether they prefer their bribe as a percentage or as a lump sum.”

The chorus of that inescapable Guyanese song seems particularly poignant to me then, testament to a people’s penchant for adaptation and renewal: “Onward, upward, may we ever go/ Day by day in strength and beauty grow/ Till at length we each of us may show/ What Guyana’s sons and daughters can be.”

Raywat Deonandan is the author of “Sweet Like Saltwater” (TSAR Books, 1999), winner of the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Book. Visit him online at www.deonandan.com.