Indian Cinema’s American Summer
In its 19th year now, the New York Indian Film Festival has been celebrating independent, art house and alternate films from the Indian subcontinent.
Thirty-two movie screenings in six days! Among which were seven world premieres, five USA premieres and the rest being New York premieres, and films in languages like Assamese, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Kannada, Ladakhi, Punjabi, and Haryanvi! But the regulars at the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) won’t bat an eyelid at these facts. Because NYIFF, the oldest and most prestigious Indian film festival in America is known for celebrating thought-provoking movies made by people from the Indian subcontinent in various parts of the globe. Interestingly, the stories these films tell are not always about India or Indians, but have a link to the country!In its 19th year, the festival mesmerised New York City with a deluge of movies that defied geographical and political boundaries, and pushed the envelope to focus on new thoughts and dialogues. The festival, held between May 7 and 12 at the Village East Cinemas in Manhattan, New York, truly encapsulated the power of the India diaspora who, though settled across the globe, hold their motherland’s spirit close to their heart.
Other than variety, what also made headlines at this year’s NYIFF were four blockbusters, which hadn’t even screened in India: Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light; Rohena Gera’s Sir; Ritesh Batra’s Photograph and The Last Color by Vikas Khanna. The first, coming from the English filmmaker of Indian origin, talks about an Asian-British teenager from the 80s, who finds solace in the music of Bruce Springsteen. The film is said to have been inspired by the true story of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor.
Gera’s Sir, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year and picked up two awards at the NYIFF – Best Film and Best Actress (Tillotama Shome) – captures the story of Ratna, a widowed domestic worker. Bollywood filmmaker (director of The Lunchbox) Ritesh Batra’s new age romance, Photograph, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sanya Malhotra, won him the Best Director’s prize at the festival. The film follows the story of a street photographer in Mumbai who seeks the help of a college girl when his grandmother pressures him to get married. Celebrity chef Vikas Khanna’s debut film, The Last Color — based on the 2012 Supreme Court verdict allowing widows to play Holi in Vrindavan — closed the festival to much acclaim. The limelight was also shared by 19 regional films in Bengali, Assamese, Marathi, Tamil and other languages.
According to festival director Aseem Chhabra, there was a strong representation of regional cinema from India including a Ladakhi-Kashmiri children’s film. “We are proud to share a wonderful collection of new films from India. This selection of exceptional titles showcases the beauty, power and glory of film storytelling at its best,” said he. Agreeing, Rakesh Kaul, vice-chairman of Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC), the organising body of NYIFF, said, “Regional cinema brings out India’s true essence, and audiences in New York got to see India’s magnificence through the festival.”
The festival was founded by New Yorker Aroon Shivdasani, who successfully ran it for 20 years before retiring last year. His successors are now taking the festival to the next level with new partnerships. Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan is the latest addition to the IAAC board along with celebrity chef Vikas Khanna, who has also been appointed as the brand ambassador of IAAC. Khanna, whose movie, starring Neena Gupta, revolves around poignant relationships, said, “My movie is about symbolisms, social taboos and most importantly, about those whom the society considers to be outcasts. I have always wanted to tell this story and needed the right audience for it. This festival gave me the perfect platform.” Another much-talked about documentary showcased at NYIFF was celebrity hair stylist Sapna Bhavnani’s Sindhustan, which talks about the Sindhi culture. Talking about her film and NYIFF, Bhavnani said: “NYIFF was an excellent backdrop for the world premiere of my debut film. The audience was excited and supportive, and the screening was spectacular.”
However, the festival not only focussed on alternate films. Madhumitha, whose Tamil film KD, was also a part of the line-up, said, “Usually there is a misconception among the Indian audience that when a film does rounds of film festivals, it is meant only for a niche audience. On the contrary, film festivals usually mix and match both kinds of film.”
While Bollywood, the gigantic Hindi film industry in India, boasts hundreds of mega budget movie releases annually, filmmakers across the country work tirelessly to bring to life unique stories under more restrained conditions. And festivals like NYIFF offer these creative minds an international platform, just as the festival’s director Aseem Chhabra summed it up, “The festival is aimed at promoting films which otherwise would not have reached New York or a global audience. We try to make every story being told, heard!”