Thursday, November 12, 2009

2009 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival

The 2009 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival ran from November 5 to 8. The first two days were at the Roxie and remaining days at the Castro. I saw 10 films at the festival:

Supermen of Malegaon; documentary; Hindi with English subtitles; (2008)
Warrior Boyz; documentary; (2008)
Love in India; documentary; Bengali/Hindi/Tamil with English subtitles; (2009)
Quick Gun Murugun; Tamil with English subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Full Moon; Urdu with English subtitles; (1960)
Bombay Summer; Hindi with English subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
My Heart Goes Hooray! starring Rani Mukherjee; Hindi with English subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Iron Eaters; documentary; Bengali with English subtitles; (2008)
Mad, Sad & Bad; (2009) - Official Website
Zero Bridge; directed by Tariq Tapa; Kashmiri/Urdu with English subtitles; (2008) - Official Website


Quoting from their website, 3rd I is a non-profit, national organization committed to promoting diverse images of South Asians through independent film. We represent filmmakers and audiences from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, The Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the South Asian Diaspora. We support our mission by providing film screenings, filmmaking courses, networking resources, and a distribution channel for the South Asian-American film community and our audiences.

That seems a little far afield for me. My interest in Asian films centers on Japanese films with side order of Chinese. I don't think I can identify Bhutan, Nepal and The Maldives on a map. Also, there were a couple languages in the film list that I didn't even know existed. Despite my geographic and linguistic ignorance, I've become mildly interested in films from South Asia.


My favorite film of the festival was Zero Bridge. The film tells the story of two young people in Kashmir. Dilawar is a 17 year old boy. Intelligent and ambitious, Dilawar is also a juvenile delinquent and looks to be a budding sociopath. He steals a young woman's purse including her passport. By coincidence (that can only happen at the movies), he encounters the woman (named Bani) at her travel agency. The two strike up a relationship. It develops into something more than a friendship and less than a romance.

The two have much in common. Bani studied physics at a US university; back in Kashmir, she feels stifled by her second class status. Society and her own family expect her to assume a role of subservience befitting a woman in Kashmir. Dilawar has been abandoned by his mother and lives with his uncle - brutish and ignorant although not entirely uncaring. When Bani's family arrange a marriage for her (with her cousin no less!), she decides to run away. She enlist Dilawar to accompany her as he has had his fill of his uncle. Ultimately, Bani's escape attempt is thwarted and Dilawar, without Bani resolve to steel his spine, skulks back to his uncle's home.

The film is unrelenting in its disconsolate depiction of reality in Kashmir. The audience is left to believe that Bani & Dilawar will live the rest of their lives as domestic chattel and in poverty, respectively. Dilawar in particular, seems to have lost the battle for his own soul. Even after Dilawar becomes friends with Bani, he sells her passport for some quick cash. He knowingly denies her an escape from the country because she can't get a new passport without her disapproving family's permission. Bani is unaware of this action but she becomes aware that Dilawar has been deceiving her. Under the ruse of helping him with his math homework, Bani has been unwittingly doing homework for other teenagers who have paid Dilawar to do their homework. After becoming aware of Dilawar's scheme, Bani forgives him.

The film evoked so many contradictory feelings in me. Towards the end, I was rooting for Bani & Dilawar to become romantic and escape their circumstances. Yet, I couldn't fully commit to the relationship because I knew it was built on Dilawar's lies and deceptions. I found myself so drawn to Bani (or actress Taniya Khan's portrayal) that I surprised myself with my emotional response to her getting caught while trying to avoid her arranged marriage.

Dilawar (Mohamad Imran Tapa) was the more complex character. I am reminded of the phrase "hate the sin, love the sinner." I think that is a Christian precept but applied to Dilawar (a Muslin). I can't recall a film that engrossed me and manipulated my emotions in such a skillful manner.

After the film, director Tariq Tapa (most likely a relative of the actor who portrayed Dilawar) spoke about the film. I found Mr. Tapa to be one of the most eloquent and articulate speakers I've ever witnessed at a film festival. He skillfully deflected a criticism (disguised as a question) from an audience member about his choice of not depicting the martial law currently imposed in Kashmir. Without ever doubting his strong opposition to the current state of affairs, Tapa masterfully argued that by focusing on the story of two individuals, he could better render a critique of Kashmir. After seeing so many agitators and polemicists (on the stage and in the audience) at the various film festivals, it was beyond refreshing to see a thoughtful and affable filmmaker. I look forward to see future films from Tapa. He shared that he is currently working on a miniseries about the FBI.

I guess I should mention that Zero Bridge was Tapa's film project at Cal Arts film school. From film school project to festival circuit darling, Zero Bridge has exceeded all expectations by the director.

Taniya Khan (left) and Mohamad Imran Tapa in Zero Bridge


Another powerful film was Iron Eaters, a documentary about ship dismantling in Chittabang, Bangladesh (fortunately, there was a map at the beginning of the film). Giant container ships are sold to ship-breaking yards in Chittabang that use cheap labor as their biggest asset. Northern farmers head to the southern coasts during the dry season to earn extra money as ship breakers. The work is brutal and only the poorest of the poor will do it. Most of the work involves pulling ships or pieces of ships through mud and muck or shoveling the foulest of sludge from the inner holds of the ships as they are broken apart.

The documentary focuses mainly the migrant workers who handle their dire circumstances with an amazing combination of humor, optimism and pragmatism. The film leads to the inevitable confrontation between the owners and a middle layer of management comprised of local businessmen and the migrant workers. The ending is not a surprise but still moved me. Iron Eaters is a story of poverty that has been told many times in many different ways but still manages to be fresh.


The Bollywood spectacular was My Heart Goes Hooray! starring Rani Mukherjee. Mukherjee is a huge star in Bollywood. Undeniably beautiful, she exhibits a flair for comedy in My Heart Goes Hooray!. Mukherjee plays a cricket playing phenom from a small town. When the Indian national team holds open tryouts, she is denied entry because she is a woman. Fortunately, her family runs a theater/cabaret so she has access to props and makeup - namely a fake beard and a turban. Veera returns as Veer the next day and gains admission.

She's not home safe yet (mixing sporting metaphors). She has to deal with hard-ass team captain Rohan (Shahid Kapur) who doesn't approve of Veer's showboating on the field. Also, when caught (buck naked in the men's locker room), Veera claims to be Veer's sister. You guessed it - Rohan and Veera begin romancing while Rohan and Veer bonds as teammates and potential brothers-in-law. The ending is telegraphed an hour in advance but it doesn't take away from a film like this. Rousing dance numbers and cross-dressing humor carry the film. I will say that when compared to Om Shanti Om or Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, My Heart Goes Hooray! suffered. The song & dance numbers were not quite as ebullient and the laughs not quite as uproarious.

Rani Mukerjee


A few other quick notes.

Warrior Boyz was documentary about South Asian teenage boys in the Vancouver, British Columbia area who fall in with street gangs. What made the film fascinating was that these boys do not come from poverty. Their families are working class & middle class which is not the typical gangbanga profile. More than wannabe gangstas, these Sikhs and Punjabis are dying and going to prison. The film nor the filmmaker answered the question as to why these boys are engaged in this pernicious lifestyle which taken root in the community.

Quick Gun Murugun was high camp and a cult film/character in India. Unfortunately, the reference (and a poor subtitling placement) left me bewildered. Without familiarity of the cultural touchstones in the film, I missed most of the humor (but none of the outrageousness).

Bombay Summer was an unhurried film about a summer in Bombay. The story involved a slow developing love triangle that pitted the sexes and classes (maybe castes would be a better term for an Indian film). Languid in the best cinematic sense of the word, the humid heat of Bombay could almost be felt in the way the characters interacted and drank their cold coconut water. Matters come to a tragic conclusion which left me silently stunned. The three leads turned in strong performances but I was most impressed by Tanishtha Chatterjee as the center of the love triangle.

Tanishtha Chatterjee in Bombay Summer

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