Does a film have to be made in India to be regarded as Indian? Does it have to be in Hindi, English or a regional language? Does it have to be financed by Indians?
The answer to all these questions is no, no and no – as we discovered at the 2019 New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF), the oldest and most prestigious Indian Film Festival in America, with films from various parts of the globe, in many regional tongues, and financed all over. Over the 19 years of its existence, the festival has shown hundreds of thought-provoking films which defy boundaries of geography and language. In our new global world, Indians are migrating to many parts of the world and making their own kind of films, often with an Indian essence.
Gurinder Chadha with Aroon Shivdasani.
Indeed, filmgoers in New York have a decided advantage over the audiences in India: and thanks to the NYIFF, they got to see four films with big buzz before they were even released in India:
Blinded by the Light by Gurinder Chadha; Sir by Rohena Gera, Photograph by Ritesh Batra and The Last Color by Vikas Khanna. New Yorker Aroon Shivdasani, who had founded NYIFF and orchestrated it for almost two decades as part of Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC), retired last year and handed it to a new group of impresarios who are taking it to the next level with new corporate partnerships. The new IAAC has a brand new board of directors with Dr. Nirmal Mattoo as the chairman, Rakesh Kaul as the vice-chairman, and Sunil Hali is the executive director. There is also a touch of celebrity with Maestro Amjad Ali Khan as the newest board member, and noted chef and filmmaker Vikas Khanna anointed as brand ambassador. Aseem Chhabra with Vikas Khanna at NYIFF.
IAAC has also found a staunch ally in Sandeep Chakravorty, Consul General of India, who supported the film festival on several levels. “Unfortunately the image of India abroad is Bollywood all the time but India is much more,” he said. “India is not one culture but an amalgamation of cultures and it’s important to realise that some of the finest films are happening outside of Bollywood.” He also curated some of the Bengali films, joking, “I reviewed three, and the fourth in typical Indian fashion, I outsourced to someone else!”
Rohena Gera's Sir has won the best film award. Photo credit- CineVue.
At the centre of it all is Aseem Chhabra who has been festival director for the past ten years and who takes on the thankless but addictive task of scouting for the films at various international festivals and of seeing hundreds of films each year to select the ones which make the cut for NYIFF. Over 250 films were reviewed by the six-member programming committee. He says: “It’s a chance for Indian Americans and other New Yorkers to taste the best of new independent films from India. This year's programme was really strong with 19 regional (non-Hindi) language films, a focus on the new Bengali cinema, and a good representation of Tamil and Assamese films.” Some of these films included
Bhoga Khirkee and BulBul Can Sing (Assamese), Abode (Malayalam), Baggage (Kannada), Kattumaram (Tamil), Paani (Marathi) Sa and The Bose Family (Bengali).
Indeed, cinema is in the DNA of Indian-Americans and nothing draws them like films about India and the Indian Diaspora – and this year it was no different. The six-day festival, with all the films being screened at Village East Cinema, was a big draw. The ebullient Mira Nair, who has been the face of NYIFF, was there on opening night and several celebrities including Gurinder Chadha, Ritesh Batra, Rohena Gera, Bohman Irani, Vikas Khanna and Madhur Jaffrey came in during the festival.
The mix of independent films was delicious. There were several features and documentaries from immigrant filmmakers as well as from India. What can be more satisfying to immigrants than to watch this continuation of links with the homeland? Gurinder Chadha, who is Asian-British, showed
Blinded by the Light, her paean to the life-affirming music of Bruce Springsteen, set in 70’s Britain.
Left to Right: Rakesh Kaul, IAAC vice chair; Aseem Chhabra, NYIFF festival director; Madhur Jaffrey; Mira Nair; Dr. Sushma Kaul, wife of vice chairman Rakesh Kaul; Vanita Kaul, wife of executive board member Rajeev Kaul; Rajeev Kaul, IAAC board member; Malvika Tikoo, wife of board member Anurag Harsh and Sunil Hali, IAAC executive director.
The opening night film
Sir by Rohena Gera, touched upon what most Indians have experienced firsthand – the class divide which occurs in India and is seared into the psyche of Indians, often following immigrants on their journey. The marvelous Tilottama Shome won the award for best actress in the film, which was selected as the best film, a choice the audience whole-heartedly agreed with.
Yet another Indian film-maker who lives abroad is Ritesh Batra whose earlier film
The Lunchbox captured the essence of Mumbai so well. In Photograph, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra, Mumbai is almost a character as the film follows a struggling street photographer and his random encounter with a middle-class college student. As these two unlikely strangers interact, will the cultural and social order unravel?
The closing day film was Chef Vikas Khanna’s debut film
The Last Color – a poignant film about social stigmas and class barriers for street children and widows, ugly taboos of class and caste. It is an emotional, color-drenched tale of the possibilities and potential of the girl child.
Khanna proved he’s as adept in the film studio as he is in the kitchen, and had a full house for this film which is currently doing the festival circuit. With Vikas Khanna’s flair, the evening was a buzz event with a pink carpet, pink carnations and even pink dessert at the after-party with a Sufi band.
The best film award went to
Sir, which was a big audience pleaser. Other winners were Best Director: Ritesh Batra ( Photograph); Best Actor: Adinath Kothare ( Paani) and Best Actress: Tillotama Shome ( Sir). Sapna Bhavnani won the Best Documentary feature for Sindhustan while the best shorts were Best Documentary Short: Daughters of Polo God (Director: Roopa Barua) and Beat Short (Narrative): Bebaak (Director: Shazia Iqbal).
The number of short films and innovative themes proves that the local Indian-American talent is also thriving. Making movies and watching them are something Indians do all over the world. The short film
Forbidden Tikka Masala by Indo-Canadian filmmaker Rahul Chaturvedi showed that our hearts and our cinema are never very far from our palates and our plates. On the rainy closing day of NYIFF in the city, cinema fans wrapped themselves in the warmth of Indian cinema which is, for Indians abroad, always close to the heart and comforting.
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina.