Before the movie was released my friends were curious about the name. But that curiosity is divulged in the opening scene with a street “Kathputli” show or an Indian Punch and Judy performance in the streets of Lucknow. This is a victorious performance by the veteran actor, Amitabh Bachchan, as a 78-year-old Mirza in his ragged teal colored cotton Kurta, a red satchel to carry things to sell, betel stained headcloth, a bent frame, and a limping gait. His myopic eyes bulge from a broken spectacle frame constantly in search of household items to swap for money. He sells all and sundry items from light bulbs, tin cans, furniture to antique chandeliers. His energy is vested in inheriting and selling the historic mansion for money.
Ayushmann Khurrana is believable as Baankey Rastogi who runs a flour mill to sustain his family and pays no rent. His performance is fearless with a lisp and his ease of acting in front of Amitabh Bachchan is nothing minor! It’s sad to see him lose his girlfriend though…
There are wonderful dialogues between Bachchan and Khurrana that become even more comical if you understand a bit of Avadhi”
“Ghar mein nahi dane amma chali bhunane! Ab khao biryani garma garam.”
His response to any monetary transaction is “ Itna hi hai hamre pas…”
When he goes to buy a cheap shroud for his wife’s anticipated death he says. “ Koi sasta walla dikhana, Itne phool kya karne hain ghar thode hi sajana hai…Marne ke bad bhi haveli mein ghuse rahna…”
There are so many characters in the movie: renters, archeologists, paralegals, and builders who are in it for their own share of the proceeds from this dilapidated property! It makes you feel really worried about getting old. Amitabh has played an unforgettable character as Mirza! No one will be able to forget the scene when he sits down on the suitcase full of currency! That scene declares his true love! Money!
But one look at Fatima Begum and her feisty demeanor portrayed effortlessly as in: “Arre bulb na chori hua nigodi jaidad chori ho gai ho…” This is certainly the most memorable performance by Farrukh Jafar who steals the Punch and Judy show without giving any inkling of her plan. I was so impressed by her natural acting in this film, I went back and watched her poignant scene in “Umrao Jaan” with Rekha and as Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s prescient grandmother in the movie “Photograph”. The fact that her husband encouraged her to study after marriage and act in films at a time when most women were home bound, is commendable.
Best movie during this COVID pandemic by far. I watched it twice back to back. Hats off to the cast and crew of Gulabo Sitabo! Well done Shoojit Sircar!
Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.
Raised in a small town in Maine, born to immigrant parents, it has indeed been a long journey in filmmaking for the Indian American writer and director, Mahesh Pailoor.
Having studied filmmaking at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and later honing the skills from various film schools, Mahesh did his first short film, Little India in 2001. It premiered at SXSW and screened at different film festivals around the world. He has also directed award-winning documentaries, commercials, and branded content.
On May 1st, 2020, he made his episodic television directing debut with NBC’s The Blacklist.
“I always wanted to be known as a visual storyteller, creating as many unique stories as I can. It has been a long journey so far and the goal was always to break into TV, meeting and networking with acclaimed directors. This Emerging Director program opened up a new universe for me and I would love to venture more in this space. Hopefully, this opportunity will pave for others,” opined the director.
Mahesh was chosen from 500 applicants for the NBC’s Emerging Director program, the network’s annual initiative for ethnically diverse male and gender non-binary directors.
Celebrating its 10 year anniversary, the program aims to increase representation among scripted series directors. It took Mahesh years of hard work, perseverance, and rejections before this golden opportunity knocked at his doorstep.
“I have been eyeing on this program for a while and had even applied once long back but did not get through. Though many networks offer such programs, the one offered by NBC is one of the best amongst them mainly because they offer lots of support, opportunity to shadow the directors, and then guarantee an episodic directing credit. The entire process involved the submission of my work and different levels of interviews. Once selected, my work was then sent to its different shows for the various teams to review. I was lucky enough to be chosen by the episodic directors of The Blacklist to shadow them,” said Mahesh Pailoor.
Lauding the team, Mahesh claims the experience on The Blacklist set in New York as invaluable, which helped him learn more about the nuances of television direction. “The shadowing experience was really amazing, especially to work with such experienced directors. Right from being on set, pre-production to post-production, it was great to have the first-hand experience. I got to work with them twice before embarking on my own directorial debut,” he said. “Once the crew knew me, they were really supportive as I ventured into directing. They were very cordial and rooted for me, which was the best part. The entire period with the team was phenomenal. To be a small part of this incredible series that has been running for seven seasons with remarkable characters, was an enriching experience,” added Mahesh.
Fascinated by his father’s video camera, Mahesh was attracted to the craft of storytelling at a very young age of 12. The captivating power of visuals made him realize its potency in communication and connecting with the minds of people. “The great stories around and the visual medium always inspired me.
Growing up, I realized the need for having more stories that I could relate to and which later steered my path into filmmaking,” recollected the director. Speaking further on how the representation of Indian Americans in Hollywood and American TV space has been evolving, he added, “Earlier, we could not relate to any characters on screen and the representation was very less. But things have changed over the last 3-5 years with more Indian Americans not just behind the camera but also in front of the camera. Even programs like NBC’s Emerging Director makes it more welcoming for all. Changes are evolving but still, there is a long way to go.”
Aiming at the television space for his immediate future plans, Mahesh is currently looking out to venture further into episodic direction. He is also co-writing a dramatic feature, an immigrant love story based on true events, which he also plans to direct with half setting in India and rest in the US.
Foreseeing a remarkable era for creativity and cinema, Mahesh concluded, “This is a golden time with so many digital platforms evolving, we get to watch such amazing content, accessible to all from anywhere around the world. The geographical barriers are disappearing and with the advancement of technology, anyone interested can now make a movie even with their iPhone and broadcast it. My advice to upcoming filmmakers is to grab this promising phase. Don’t wait for someone to say yes. If you have an amazing idea to share, then just do it. There is no need for a big crew or equipment, you can make something with friends. The goal should be to passionately follow your dreams and you will definitely find your way.”
Suchithra Pillai comes with over a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and the United States. In her spare time, you would either find her scribbling down some thoughts in the paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things or expressing her love for dance on stage.
Although social distancing has brought our daily lives to a grinding halt, the latest update from Amazon Prime Video proves that the show must truly go on. It is heartening to know that amid the chilling outbreak of the coronavirus, Bollywood has persevered in its attempts to amuse and bring us together. These latest releases are a reminder of how critical online entertainment truly is during this pandemic. Hopefully, Shakuntala Devi and Gulaabo Sitabowill bring a necessary slice of positivity into your lives.
To satiate your appetite for some B-town, Amazon Prime announced the premiere of Gulabo Sitabo, an Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana collaboration. The two leads amuse audiences in an intricate game of cat-and-mouse, offset by the conflicting agendas of the supporting cast.
Regarding the film, Mr. Bachchan said, “I was excited about my role since the first time Shoojit showed me the character’s look. It took me almost 3 hours each day to get into character with its different look. I had a wonderful time working with my very talented co-star Ayushmann Khurrana. Even though we are constantly bantering in the film, it has been a pleasure working with him for the first time. This family entertainer has the power to cut across geographic boundaries and we are pleased to bring Gulabo Sitabo to audiences.”
Amazon Prime also recently announced the premiere of the highly publicized Shakuntala Devi. The film will be available to audiences across the globe and is available on the Amazon Prime app on nearly every device. With the formidable Vidya Balan at the forefront, Anu Menon’s latest film certainly cannot go wrong. Vidya Balan intrigues audiences in her retelling of the life of Shakuntala Devi, India’s “human computer.”
Devi is one of the world’s most celebrated geniuses, bringing her talents to India, Hong Kong, and all over the globe. Not only was she recognized for her inexplicable mathematical prowess, but also because she was India’s first woman to publish a paper on homosexuality.
When asked about her role, Balan said, “She was truly someone who embraced her individuality, had a strong feminist voice, and braved many a naysayer to reach the pinnacle of success. But what truly fascinates me is that you wouldn’t normally associate a fun person with math…and she completely turns that perception on its head.” Balan later added that Ms. Devi was “one of the most inspiring women of this country,” and that she was “extremely excited” to bring such an extraordinary woman’s tale to life.
Other Amazon Prime Movies direct-to-service slate:
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the youth editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.
Every Saturday night (7 to 10 p.m. CDT) from May 16th to June 27th, audiences can live stream a festival-quality South Asian film(s) that will be curated around a specific theme.
For every person who registers, we will donate a 3-layer, microfiber mask in his/her/their name to NYC or Texas hospitals in need. Watch a film, save a life!
The line-up includes globally acclaimed films like:
Hellaro –During the Emergency in India, a group of suppressed women from a village in Kutch, find someone in the desert and their lives are changed forever.
3 Days To Go – When their father passes away, four grown siblings come together with their collection of husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Together this crazy family needs to survive each other, under one roof for 3 days, before they spread their father’s ashes and part ways again.
Venus – Venus, is the witty tale of Sid, a transitioning woman, whose life takes a surprising turn when a 14-year-old boy named Ralph arrives at her door with the surprising announcement that he is her son.
For the full line-up and tickets, check the full schedule here!
The Internet exploded as news of the death of veteran actor Rishi Kapoor blistered on iPhones. The news moved swiftly from Amitabh Bachchan’s tweet. It was carried on waves of Whatsapp messages across oceans. Just as Californians were getting ready for bed, horror and disbelief jolted them.
Many had seen Chintu Baba, their Ryan O’Neil, in his launch movie Bobby, a teenage love story. The parents had relived the Nargis-Raj Kapoor romance; the boys had swooned over the virginal heroine in schoolgirl clothing, while the chocolate hero, with scarfs as long as his pedigree, had stolen hearts of girls. Forever, the GTS bike he rode in the movie became as iconic as the hippie Volkswagen was.
“Worked very hard to get Rishi Kapoor back as my name! Parents must never nickname a child. I never did,” he tweeted.
Then Chef Floyd Cardoz immortalized the Chintu name. Bombay Canteen named a whole menu Chintu. After a culinary career spanning 27 years in New York, celebrated chef Floyd Cardoz had made his restaurant debut in Mumbai, the city of his birth, with The Bombay Canteen. Chintus, or tasting size portions were circulated as the guests waited for their tables. Here guests could order a Chintu portion of crisp, thinly sliced fried lotus stem chips seasoned with salt and amchur, or the Chintu desi devilled eggs.
Rishi was seen sampling the menu at the Canteen and at the Paowala in New York, both restaurants of great renown and belonging to Floyd Cardoz.
The Chef and he had more than one thing in common, they both loved food, and they both flitted between New York, where Rishi was undergoing cancer treatment, and Mumbai.
The Chef was on his way from Mumbai to New York when he felt uncomfortable. He checked himself into a hospital in New York. He was diagnosed with Coronavirus and died there on March 24th, 2020. He was 59.
Stories of plight, of unrequited love, of untold history are the threads that stitch the seams of our ever-expanding world. These are the narratives that empower us to learn and to empathize with small tales of astronomical weight.
This has become Paras Borgohain’s mission: storytelling of impact. As a filmmaker straddling industry in both America and India, his unconventional life path has given him the power to bring these narratives to the screen. He aims to bridge the gap between everyday people and important stories from around the world.
Borgohain began his academic career at the University of Delhi, where he studied English Language and Literature. Early in his life, he began to see the importance of telling stories and bringing many of these narratives out of the shadows for public consumption.
“I needed to find a point of entry into the industry,” he said, speaking of the time of tumult towards the end of his education. Following Delhi University and a graduate diploma in Communication from Mumbai, Paras found himself at a production company that exclusively worked on daily Indian soap series.
“It was not something I wanted to work with because I hated watching them as a kid,” he said. While it was a grind for him, he knew that it would be the best way to network into the industry. It taught him about working under pressure. He recounted staying up late into the night, coming up with storylines that would be filmed at 7am the next morning. But still, the industry was stagnant, the plotlines of mothers-in-law and revenge were often hard to identify with as a young person.
Borgohain’s thirst for mission driven work brought him to Galli Galli Sim Sim, India’s Sesame Street. Collaborating with in-house educational researchers breathed life into his career. He was finally doing something that mattered to him: shaping the development of the next generation of Indian children.
Galli Galli Sim Sim was a safe space for the production group. People on the team got married – that’s the kind of family the show was.
“Writing for children isn’t what I thought I’d be doing in terms of my artistic goals,” he said. He wanted to write about things that mattered to him, metafictional narratives and stories about minority groups, topics too heavy for a children’s television show. Due to this, Borgohain took up several freelance projects over the next few years. He worked on community radio shows for UNICEF, for pockets of the world that didn’t have access to television. He assisted with the screenplay writing for Turner Broadcasting. He helped contribute to a National Geographic documentary about how the 1980s changed India. Through these projects, he learned about the issue spaces he cared deeply for, but he realized he needed to stop doing commission work.
“I was afraid that I would lose my individual voice,” he said.
This was the tipping point for him. He decided he needed to write his own feature film, “Deepest, Darkest or How Not to Lie.”
The story begins with a gay man who dies mysteriously. He writes a letter to his friend, a PR professional, and she is tasked with figuring out what happened to him. She explores his life and must come to terms with their mirrored experiences with unrequited love and suppression. She must find out what lead him to believe that life was hopeless.
The story, about loss, acceptance, and identity, had huge success, winning the Bluecat Roshan Award for best Indian screenplay in 2016. Paras finally had a way into the industry, telling stories close to his heart of the struggles of LGBTQ+ communities in India. This was the type of storytelling he always dreamed he would be known for.
“Do your words on the page do your thoughts justice?” He always found himself asking himself about the authenticity of his words.
Today, he is working on fleshing out projects that he began at UCLA. He’s working on a project about Assam from the 70s to 90s, taking a historical lens that has rarely come to the mainstream media. He is in pre-production for a film about the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, called “The Crash of ’14,” which was his final project during his professional education.
The project closest to his heart is one about an LGTBQ+ activist and author from the 90’s named Stan Leventhal. Back in 2013, Borgohain had written a blog post about how much Leventhal’s writing had moved him, with its lucid and unique voice about the AIDS epidemic. With serendipitous help from the internet, he managed to get in touch with the late Leventhal’s family, who gave him permission to turn his book into a movie.
Paras looks back at his career with gratitude.
“It’s taken me 14 years to get from working on soaps to something I give a damn about.”
His advice for aspiring Indian American filmmakers is simple: be open and resilient.
“If you want to break into a tough industry like entertainment, you have to be thick skinned,” he said. It took him several failures and jobs to get to where he is today.
But above everything, he says to trust your internal creative compass.
“What’s going on inside you as an artist, what your personal experiences are, that’s your next creative masterpiece.”
Swathi is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.
Zero, one, two, three, four, five… how many slaps justify the end of a marriage? Whichever numerical digit you picked or didn’t pick after watchingThappad, if introspection is your thing, you will feel guilty for being a part of a system that feeds patriarchy, enabling men and women to diminish a woman’s status.
Thappad does a fine job of meticulously and neatly unpacking layers of permissiveness, hypocrisy and privilege which runs through Indian society and its people. How all of us casually, unknowingly, knowingly chip away a woman’s respect with words, sentences, action, inaction, behaviours, interactions and deathly silence. How the tolerance level for failing men is way higher than women and why they get away with worse and beyond, without many murmurs.
Marie Shear defined feminism as the radical notion that women are people. The writers don’t let this window of opportunity slip even for a nanosecond to prove it right. They even place the blame for the one slap where it belongs, which by itself is a monumental step, with the man. Yes, you heard that right! Not his work, not his mood, not his whim, not his fancy, not his mental illness, not the woman. Him. We live and perpetrate inequities to such an extent that even questioning bad behaviour or inhumane treatment becomes an extreme act or rebellion, when really it’s a justified fight for a little space, voice, breath, expression of emotion, and most importantly, respect.
The movie starts simply, Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) frantically stretches herself to manage the home front while her husband Vikram (Pawail Gulati) races up the corporate ladder, losing her own identity and desires in the process. At a party meant to celebrate his success, Vikram involuntarily slaps Amrita in front of guests forcing her to introspect and examine her place in the marriage. Is she happy, is she respected? The answer seems to be painfully obvious even though Vikram himself fails to comprehend the real issue. As in real life, not one person questions the man on the slap but some of them do expect that Amrita should let that pass.
Breaking the mould of the Hindi cinema heroine with gusto is Amrita, who refuses to play the sacrificial lamb or be bullied into a happy ending. She takes her time and space to question the routine of her marriage. She rightly asks: why did he feel comfortable enough to deliver that slap in the first place? Such a relief to see a determined woman in the face of opposition by people around her, starting from her mother Sandhya (Ratna Pathak Shah), mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi), brother Karan (Ankur Rathi), even her own lawyer Nethra (Maya Sarao) before she takes up her case. Supports include her father Sachin (Kumud Mishra), maid Sunita (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), sister-in-law Swati (Naina Grewal) and neighbours Sania (Gracy Goswami) and Shivani (Dia Mirza).
I loved the subtle ways in which the writers bring out the vagaries of everyday existence and our own blind spots. That moment when the progressive father realises he has been an ignorant husband is a hallmark scene. The dilemma of the lawyer who benefits from her in-laws repute, lives within an abusive relationship even as she fights for women’s rights. The maid who has no one fighting for her, the way she battles her own violent husband with spirit. The moves in the legal chess game, as the story progresses, with a delightful cameo by Ram Kapoor who plays Vikram’s lawyer Pramad. Many, many such satisfying moments to cherish in a balanced, exceptional movie.
It is a must-watch not only for its message but for some stellar, well-rounded performances from an ensemble cast. Taapsee Pannu delivers her career best performance, supported strongly by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan (the Soni actress, outstanding, once more), Maya Sarao (effective), Pavail Gulati (excellent, he dishes his final scene sincerely), Dia Mirza (graceful), Ratna Pathak Shah (layered), Tanvi Azmi (natural), Kumud Mishra (superb) and Ram Kapoor (entertaining).
Hat tip to Anubhav Sinha (co-writer, director) and Mrunmayee Lagoo (co-writer) who deliver a living, breathing master stroke, conveying a crucial message with the balance, love and dignity it deserves. Every character is layered, living a dichotomous existence, highlighting our systemic and collective responsibility effectively.
Thappad is subtle yet strong in its message, devoid of unnecessary drama, yet sends the message loud and clear that we jointly tolerate, contribute and benefit from patriarchy. The spunky female fights the good fight and no justification is offered for privileged male behaviour. This slap is designed to fight patriarchy and it does.
rating: 5 out 5
Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.
Oscar-nominated actor Dev Patel hits Hollywood with a new movie, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Starring alongside Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, and Ben Whishaw, he plays a re-imagined David Copperfield right out of Dickens’ acclaimed novel. Following the original plot, the film focuses on the ‘quirky’ rags-to-riches tale of Copperfield, whose life begins at a ruthless London boarding school and finds its way to a lavish Victorian estate. The 2020 comedy offers a unique lens on a traditionally Caucasian tale, with its diverse cast and taste in humor. The film itself represents a transition towards a more inclusive, cosmopolitan Hollywood — where individuals from different backgrounds can forge their own narratives, and re-invent stories that already exist. The Personal History of David Copperfield brings warmth and a sense of originality that resonates with fans of the silver screen, based on positive audience reviews of the film’s new trailer. The movie hits theatres on May 8th, when Copperfield can finally win applause and steal hearts.
This year Cinequest celebrates thirty years of elating audiences, artists, and innovators, honoring its legacy of bringing together Silicon Valley’s technologies and spirit of innovation with the arts to empower great creations – Connecting audiences, youth, artists, and innovators with these creations and with each other.
Showcasing premier films, renowned and emerging artists, and breakthrough technology—the festival’s stellar reputation not only hinges on its knack for creating a powerful line-up, but also for securing distribution for many of its honored filmmakers.
With over 200 international movies from 44 countries, the festival will once again bring a world of cinema, fans and moviemakers to downtown San Jose and Redwood City. Cinequest is renowned for its many socials, soirees, and parties, fusing the community of film lovers with film creators, so do plan on attending one or more and meet directors, artists and like-minded enthusiasts.
Here is a sneak peek into films of Indian origin:
The Elder One (Moothon)
An action thriller film features a bilingual narrative in Malayalam and Hindi. The film tells the story of a 14 year old child from Lakshadweep who comes to Mumbai in search of his elder brother.
Ghost of the Golden Groves
Strange incidents occur in the heart of “Shonajhuri” forest in rural Bengal, which develops an ominous character of its own that allures and finally engulfs the protagonists.
In the heart of an Indian market, the captivating portrait of lives of everyday people with everyday stories, not dignified as heroes, but nevertheless people who make the lives of each other better.
Nirmal Anand’s Puppy
An ambitious super-fit Pharma salesman is faced with a major dilemma after being diagnosed with a health condition. Shattered, he is forced to relook at his life’s priorities. He then decides to listen to his heart’s calling and embarks on a new path that he believes will make him happy. But little does he realize that this quirky pursuit of happiness is going to shake up his married life and threaten its very foundation.
Opening Night Screening and Celebration: John Pinette: You Go Now is director Bob Krakower’s loving tribute to the funny man who made us forget our troubles and laugh at our foibles. Famed comedian, Matt Donaher will lead the screening with a ten-minute live set. Tuesday, March 3, 7:15pm, California Theatre
Closing Night Screening and Celebration: The world premiere of Resistance, the powerful retelling of the story of Marcel Marceau and his incredible efforts to save lives during WWII. Sunday, March 15, 6:00pm, California Theatre
Cinequest 2020: March 3 – 15 in San Jose and Redwood City. www.cinequest.org
A notable cultural event of the SF Bay Area, the 22nd San Francisco Independent Film Festival features poignant and evocative content. From clever gangster dramas to social dystopias to dark comedies, the myriad of Asian films presented at this event provide a stirring yet raw glimpse into the Asian identity.
The festival takes place from January 29th to February 13th at the Roxie Theater and Victoria Theater in San Francisco. The content presented is refreshing and diverse.San Francisco audiences will have the awesome opportunity to view new independent films and digital programs from around the world, including India, China, and Japan. This year’s festival has 57 shorts and 47 features from 21 countries. Complete program information can be found at www.sfindie.com.
Regular tickets are $15 and Opening Night tickets are $25 (21up). The FestPass, good for all screenings and parties at the Festival, is $250. Advance tickets are available now at sfindie.com and at 415.552.5580.
When I learned that the Oscar International committee had disqualified a movie from Nigeria because it was predominantly in English, I was appalled. I’m an Indian immigrant who came to America in 1985 but I’ve been speaking English since I was a child. Sometimes, I have thoughts in my mother tongue, Tamil. However, more often than not, my thoughts are in English. This may be because I write only in English, since English remains one of India’s 23 official languages.
Thanks to the British empire, the English language is now the language with commercial heft. It’s as local as it is international. There are many versions of English. The Nigerian poet and novelist, Gabriel Okara, who explored African ideas and folklore in the English language, articulated this perfectly with respect to the English he acquired: “Why shouldn’t there be a Nigerian or West African English which we can use to express our own ideas, thinking and philosophy in our own way?”
For years, I’ve been asked how I speak English well given that I immigrated to the United States as an adult. Americans often don’t know about India’s history of colonization, or that English is also an official Indian language, or that my medium of education was, in fact, English. If I were to narrate India’s story of colonization, I’d have to begin in 1608 when the first Englishman landed in Surat on India’s north-western coast. I’d have to talk about how Indian laborers were forced to grow indigo—in place of food crops—so that Britain could sell the precious blue dye that Europe coveted. And of course, the English wanted to drink rum so they enslaved poor Indians to plant sugar cane around tropical islands. Oppressed by the Raj, we were forced to buy thick cotton that rolled out from English mills even when we were making our own fine muslin for a fraction of the cost. In time, Indians learned, also, to enunciate English vowels and consonants. They were hammered into those reporting to the Crown. Soon, the Englishmen made us cringe at our own mother tongues, telling us, in the voice of essayist and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Around the world, over centuries, colonizers wiped out countless languages, erasing the names of ancestors.
Here are just a few stories of conquests from the last many centuries. In the 1500s, the Portuguese landed in Brazil—1200 men on a fleet of 12 ships. They decimated most of the natives and harvested Brazilian wood for its red dye, ramming Portuguese words down the throats of those who survived the pillage. 1619, the imperial nations began looting African villages, separating children from parents, so they could build their new colonies in the Americas. In Australia, they silenced aborigines. 1950s in Kenya, if a student uttered a word of Gikuyu near his English school, he was caned or fined; sometimes he was made to wear a metal plate around the head with the words “I am stupid” or “I am a donkey”. In the Philippines, 500 years of Spanish and American rule has killed any appetite for Tagalog literature.
This is a plunder, of not just nations but also of memories, cultures and tongues. In Nigeria, too, as in India, the British force-fed their tongue. So the English language is as local to the Nigerian as Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba or any of 500 native tongues. But alas, the arbiters of acclaim in Hollywood now object to Nigerians using English as a conduit for art, not appreciating that in Nigeria, English now unifies them and allows them to communicate with one another.
According to the Oscar committee, the Nigerian entry did not fit their rubric because it was not foreign enough: Lionheart had only eleven minutes of non-English dialogue. Look at the irony of the life of the once-colonized. We were taught how to speak. Now when we speak the language well, we are told to not speak too much of it. Shouldn’t the Oscar committee be driven, instead, by the origin of the submission? For while our medium of expression may be eclectic given our histories, our roots are often ours alone. They color our tongues and narratives.
Kalpana Mohan is the author of ‘An English Made In India: How A Foreign Language Became Local’ and of ‘Daddykins: A Memoir Of My Father And I’. She lives in Saratoga, California.
The advent of winter brings with it the annual 3rd i Film Festival, a visual smorgasbord of fresh perspectives and brave new voices by independent filmmakers from South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora, including stories from India, Sri Lanka, UK, Italy, and the USA. 3rd i’s 17th Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond (SFISAFF) launches at the New People and Castro Theaters in San Francisco from November 7-10, moving to Palo Alto on November 16. Some of the movies are unafraid to explore issues that are uncomfortable, give voice to the oppressed and shed light on matters often overlooked or ignored.
A highlight for this year coming straight out of TIFF and Venice Critics’ Week is Gitanjali Rao’s animated feature Bombay Rose. In the rich, colorful and layered hand-painted animation there is an ethereal brightness to the chaotic Mumbai streetscapes where Bollywood cinema is both satirized and romanticized, and small town folks in the big city can be crushed by its mean streets, or redeemed by love. The film moves seamlessly between a documentary feeling of present-day struggles in Mumbai, to the lusciously designed dream sequences set in ancient India and inspired by Mughal folk art. Yoav Rosenthal’s original score merges swooning ballads with traditional Bollywood music and a haunting Latin love tribute.
This year’s special focus is on Young Voices, with a host of films that feature stories with strong youth characters. Dar Gai’s Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence is a witty, off-beat take on the road movie, set against the breathtaking landscapes of Ladakh. The film features an inter-generational storyline about the relationship between a young boy and an elderly man, as they head for the peace and tranquility of the Silent Valley, leaving the hustle and bustle of the city behind. Filmmaker Gai, a philosopher by training and originally from Ukraine, has made India her filmmaking home and is touted as an exciting new voice in Indian cinema.
Also part of this youth focus is Rima Das’ Bulbul Can Sing. The film takes us back to the timeless beauty of the northeast in this bittersweet narrative that draws inspiration from her own experiences of growing up in the Assamese countryside. This is no simple rural idyll however; in Das’ deft hands, the film transforms into a deeply compelling exploration of love, loss, and adolescence.
Safdar Rahman’s heartwarming story of young Chippa features Sunny Pawar (award-winning child star of LION). Chippa sets out into night-time Calcutta looking for a father he has never seen, finding a city of migrants who speak in a curious mix of languages. Chippa is not oblivious to the grim reality and communal suspicion surrounding him, but chooses to encounter this world with a mixture of bravado, curiosity and humor.
Another film in the youth category is The MisEducation of Bindu screening in Palo Alto, which premiered at Mill Valley Film Festival, and follows a day in the life of formerly homeschooled Bindu as she endures an American high school and tries to graduate early. Her mother does her best to keep Bindu on track while maintaining her South Asian heritage, and her clueless stepfather tries to give Bindu advice on boys and high school life in America. Paying homage to Bollywood rock with one fantastical Bollywood dance number, Bindu dreams about escaping and longs for her home in India. Director Prarthana Mohan will be present for a Q&A session after.
Rounding out the youth films in Palo Alto is romantic comedy Bangla, with Phaim. An awkwardly charming 22-year-old Italian-Bengali panics when he falls in love with an impulsive and spirited Italian girl. The attraction between them is immediate, and Phaim will have to figure out how to reconcile his love with his life full of rules. This whimsical lens on the clash of cultures is based on the director’s own life, who plays the lead fictionalized version of himself.
Another stellar narrative in Palo Alto is Rohena Gera’s Sir, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival. A nuanced and sensual film, it explores the forbidden attraction between Ratna, a maid, and her employer Ashwin, a wealthy Mumbai bachelor, with each character quietly yearning to break free from the narrow bounds of their class and gender-based expectations. Gera achieves a particular delicacy in her directing, combining an appealing, understated sweetness with an edge, and thwarting all expectations and stereotypes of a typical Indian love story.
The festival features stories of addiction, which includes acclaimed black and white photographer Ronny Sen’s indie Cat Sticks. A gritty and haunting narrative, the film follows the stories of several addicts looking for the high of halogen, a synthetic brand of heroin that created havoc in India at the turn of the millennium.
The other film in this focus is Bhaskar Hazarika’s quietly shocking The Ravening (Aamis), which opened to great acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival. An unforgettable meditation on taboo and transgression, the film blends gentle romance and body horror into a unique cinematic experience. Hazarika masterfully concocts a tale of love and addiction that builds slowly – from a lilting rhythm to a pounding finale.
While this year’s program predominantly showcases narrative features, documentaries are also part of the lineup. Equal parts comedy and self-discovery, Laura Asherman’s intimate doc American Hasiis a portrait of Indian-American comedian, Tushar Singh. In an attempt to accelerate his career, Singh maps out a 35-day tour in India (with his mom in tow), taking part in India’s flourishing stand-up scene.
Comedy also features prominently in this year’s edition of Coast to Coast, 3rd i’s signature shorts program which brings California filmmakers into conversation with filmmakers from South Asia and the Diaspora. The program includes Varun Chounal’s Gabroo about a young Sikh boy’s complicated relationship with his hair, Mahesh Pailoor’s portrait of Pakistani-American comedienne, Mona Shaikh, and Andrew Sturm’s political satire on the border wall, 31 Foot Ladders, along with a variety of short docs, narratives, and music videos.
This year for the first time in the festival’s history, 3rd i will offer a free Master Class in filmmaking from the talented documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain (City of Photos, Lakshmiand Me, At My Doorstep, Gulabi Gang). Jain returns to SFISAFF to talk about her filmmaking process, to present excerpts from past work and the present, and to talk about the different social and political movements in India and its alignment with her work. Jain’s work holds up a mirror to some of the most pressing concerns in India today, including India’s #metoo women’s movement.
Women’s issues are at the forefront of several other films in the lineup. Vasanth S. Sai’s Sivaranjani and Two Other Women pays a cinematic homage to the “everyday” woman and is a deeply moving work that focuses a critical lens on patriarchy, with outstanding performances by each of the lead actresses. The film captures the micro awakenings of identity and self-worth when family dynamics, early marriage, and pregnancy threaten to usurp the individuality of three women, unfolding across three different time periods.
The festival brings back Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage with a screening of the historical epic feature Children of the Sun (Gaadi) about a Sinhalese Buddhist woman in the 1814 Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, stripped from nobility, who subverts the destiny forced upon her. His searing masterpiece is a period drama that takes on caste conflict and British colonial influences in Sri Lanka in the early 1800s. Director Vithanage will join a panel discussion following the film.
Among the voices to amplify, LGBTQ+ themes feature prominently in Poonam Brah’s Home Girl about a British lesbian woman’s coming out story while navigating her mother’s death in Coast to Coast, 3rd i’s shorts program, as well as Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks illuminating the life and trials of a transgender sex worker, and Rima Das’ engaging youthful exploration Bulbul Can Sing.
Castro Passes ($35) are only available online until Nov 5. Tickets to individual films are $11/online and $13/at the door. More information about the festival, including expanded program, guest and ticketing information, please visit www.thirdi.org
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter, Facebook for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news and magazines.
Cover photo credit: 3rd i Films.
This article was edited by Culture and Media editor Geetika Pathania Jain.