Where Were All the South Asian Films at the SFIAAFF?

March 24, 2007

Each film, program and event I attended was thought-provoking, inspiring and downright fun. (Here’s to Han Vodka for the bottomless pineapple-infused vodka martini’s they unraveled my night with at the Closing Party.)

Yet, from the launch party, as I sat too close to a speaker at 111 Minna and excitedly perused the catalog, I have been troubled by something: the lack of (good) South Asian programming.

Of course, as a South Asian American who locates herself as much in Asian America as I do inside my own ethnically-specific community, this feeling of being marginalized is not a new one. I know that it is a challenge to balance the communities in a pan-ethnic concept like Asian America. Chinese and Japanese Americans have a longer history here, a very different history, which allows them to have infiltrated media in a much different way. Take Authur Dong’s feature-length documentary Hollywood Chinese, for instance. It would be impossible to make such a film about South Asian Americans because we have just begun to make an impact in this realm.

But still the festival seemed lacking to me. The South Asian features were limited to the Bollywood remake of Umrao Jaan staring the ubiquitous Aishwarya Rai, Paul Mayeda Berges’ The Mistress of Spices (also starring Rai) and A Dream in Doubt, a documentary about the brother of Balbir Singh Sodhi – the first hate-crime murder victim after 9.11.


Okay, I know that a major Bollywood movie is always screened at the Castro in order for the over-the-top, melodramatic, Technicolor experience to be enjoyed in full Art Deco glory but I just don’t know if it is the best use of the festival’s time and space. I think this remake of the 1981 Umrao Jaan starring the unbeatable Rekha, which is about the woes of a lovely courtesan who falls in love with a nobleman -- kindof like Pretty Woman if Richard Gere’s father had told him he would disown him if he took Julia Roberts’ home –- is terrible. It loses all the heartbreak, elegance and substance of the original and leaves only the period costumes and Rai’s two tearful expressions – tearful joy and tearful anguish. Plus, it was a huge Bollywood hit that has already run at Bay Area Bollywood theaters like the Naz 8 and is widely available at video stores. Why not go for a slightly more obscure yet interesting Bollywood-esque movie like Dor? Featuring Amrao Jaan seemed like slightly lazy programming to me.


And Mistress of Spices. Sigh. I have a personal relationship to this film because my aunt is the author of the novel it was based on and I went to the set in Oakland where the filmmakers were shooting all the Bay Area location shots, where I got to meet Rai and Dylan McDermott (random). I loved this novel when it came out. I thought it was a really interesting mix of magical realism and immigrant stories. And I know director Paul Mayeda Berges used to run the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. And it is a South Asian American feature. I actually saw in on Singapore Airlines on my way back from a trip to India in January. Anyway, I’m not going to say too much: but I think this film was unsuccessful. I think it is very difficult to bring magic to the screen in a way that doesn’t make one roll their eyes, and it just didn’t work for me.


I’m sure Tami Yeager’s A Dream in Doubt was a powerful documentary. But I wasn’t that interested in seeing it, perhaps because I had recently seen Sharat Raju and Valarie Kuar’s Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath, which is also about the Singh Sodhi family, and also about the plight of Sikh Americans after 9.11.

So there it is, the largest International Asian American film festival of it’s kind and no South Asian feature that I *really* wanted to watch. I was bummed. I started thinking a lot about the state of South Asian film and the problem of not having a number of dedicated South Asian programmers at a festival like SFIAAFF.

We all know that there is a huge film industry in India. Bollywood churns out over 1000 films a year, but most of them suck ass. They are known to copy Western films, feature terrible acting and be filled with song-and-dance. (Check out a really interesting discussion over at Sepia Mutiny around Bollywood films and the Oscars from back in January.) But a lot of mainstream Hollywood movies suck ass, too. Just like in American film, if you step a little bit outside the mainstream, you’ll find some of the most incredible movies being made today.

Following in the footsteps of auteur Satyajit Ray, movies coming out of West Bengal – or Kolkata – are truly incredible. These are quieter movies about urban life and radical politics. I’ve heard there are similar small but mind-blowing movies coming out of Kerala, another of India’s communist states. Why are these films not being screened at SFIAAF? Bengali filmmaker Buddhadev Dasgupta often has films in the San Francisco International Film Festival, why not in the Asian?

Granted, I know nothing about the process for acquiring films but I think that these films would be more thought-provoking and interesting than mainstream South Asian films and showing them would provide more of a service because you can’t get them at the local Indian video store as easily. I urge the programmers of SFIAAFF to try and get a little deeper into South Asian film in order to bring us a richer program.


As for South Asian American film, I’m not sure what’s going on. After the initial wave of South Asian American filmmakers who made a series of identity-crisis films (American Desi, American Chai, ABCD), I am still waiting for the next strong wave. Last year’s Punching at the Sun was a powerful and moving film that captured a different part of our community and I loved it. I was expecting to come back a year later and go to the next level, but was left empty. The empty feeling was especially painful when the festival was full of other (if not great) interesting Asian American films from directors like Justin Lin to Eric Byler and even lesser-known directors -- like Korean American So Yong Kim, who made In Between Days, which was one of the best teen angst films I have ever seen in my life.

But I know there are South Asian filmmakers out there because where they were making their mark at this festival was in the shorts programs. The Third I Shorts program – which always seems to be one of the first things sold out, which shows the South Asian community’s interest – was great. I was really impressed by Vineet Dewan’s Clear Cut, Simple, which deals with the War in Iraq and was exactly the kind of diversity in story that I have been searching for in South Asian film. And to prove my point about Bengali film, my other favorite short was The Naming Ceremony by Konkona Sen, who is the daughter of Aparna Sen Sharma – one of the most celebrated filmmakers coming out of India today. This film, about a family of pickpockets, was really interesting. I know that Ivan Jaigirdar of Third I does a lot of great programming for SFIAAFF and for the Third I festival, but I think it can’t just be one person who is doing all the work.


But even outside of the Third I shorts, there were filmmakers making interesting work like San Francisco filmmaker M.R. Dhar’s Muzak, which opens with an Indian mom scolding her son for failing out of Georgetown and running up hundreds of dollars for phone sex on her credit card, while he only wants to be a techno DJ. This quirky film is exactly what I’ve been searching for: stories about real South Asian Americans dealing with life, failure, family and more.

Anyway, I am hoping that in the following years both the SFIAAFF’s programmers and South Asian American filmmakers get their acts together. Because I’m one hungry audience member who wants more of my people on the big screen.

Anyway, the Third I Shorts Program is playing again Sunday March 25th in San Jose. Go check it out and tell me what you thought about the South Asian representation in the festival.




i agree with you neela...and i was in one of the short films in that festival!i realize that there are many people/scholars out there who say that south asians are caught up in the model minority mess, but often i wonder if it is not the only thing keeping south asians from getting into the film world.specifically, even if we look at Kal Penn (i'll reserve my negative comments :P), we see a guy who's been at it in the comedy spectrum for years and yet continually gets roles that are not at all glamorous. when we envision the representations of south asian americans in film, particularly in this political climate, we see either the dorky kal penn caricature or the terrorist (both of which he ironically has played).i think that the absence of films at that festival as you said speaks volumes. IMHO, i think that there is a lack of space for SAAs to make films in outside of the film festival, maybe both physically and metaphysically; and so when you put up a week long event that is supposed to represent not only asians, but their productivity in the film industry during that year, you will be hardpressed to find SAA filmmakers, actors, etc, jumping in that boat. if i were to make a movie about the daily life of an SAA but kicked up for drama, maybe people would see it. but if i made one with aishwarya rai in the lead or about a hunky brown terrorist, both of whom one can fetishize, it wouldn't matter about the plotline or that it is completely unrepresentative of diasporic desis--people would see it because the current climate produces and reproduces those representations. what stories are not in that dialogue will rarely get the limelight.it's disappointing really...
I think a problem with some films ae they are to ethnic. Asians can identify with it, but not America as a whole. Wjen you look at American culture, what ethnic groups in America have crossover appeal and why? Can you all elaborate on this? What ae some answers if any of you have any?
Well in comedy, there's also director/actor Jay Chandrasekhar.http://imdb.com/name/nm0151540/He's done Super Troopers, Beerfest, and Club Dread, etc...His movies are fun... from a guy's perspective. ;-)
Feministador: Which film were you in? I don't know, maybe I am totally naive about the film world but I wonder if there were some really well-written small films with powerful characters that didn't fit cultural stereotypes -- maybe they would still do well. If it is all indie stuff anyway, shouldn't someone try. Anyone please TRY!!!!And for Jay Chandreshekar, I go back and forth between loving his work and kindof just rolling my eyes. Seeing a desi do all the nonsense of Beerfest was pretty awesome though!!
Those were some very funny comedies
Hi, this is Chris Au, Program Manager for the SFIAAFF. First I just want to say, I liked your post, Neela. Your passion for seeing South Asians stories on the big screen is awesome!Just wanted to address some of your concerns. As you alluded, programming a pan-ethnic film festival, particularly one that focuses on Asian American (as opposed to Asian) stories is difficult. Since the films we bring from Asia are kind of a "sidebar" (we call it International Showcase) to the main Asian American narrative and documentary competitions, we're really only limited to one (or sometimes two) features coming from any Asian country.Last year, for example, we DID show Buddhadev Dasgupta's Memories in the Mist, as well as Parineeta, and had a Gala presentation of Deepa Mehta's Water (a Canadian production filmed in India).Much of what we program is dependent on the films that are available to us. A certain South Asian film that is currently in theatres now was pursued by us very intensely, and would have been a great Gala presentation, but it was not available (I saw it the other day and it is truly such a beautiful film). We also pursued several South Asian UK productions, one starred Naveen Andrews and the other Lisa Ray, but both were unavailable.On the South Asian American front, look out for great things in the coming years from Vineet Dewan (Clear Cut Simple) and Tanuj Chopra (last year's Best Narrative winner for Punching at the Sun) who has a script in development that he wants to shoot in the Bay Area.And yes, Ivan is not the only one doing all the South Asian programming. The rest of us are on the lookout for excellent South Asian films as well. If you have recommendations, send them our way.Cheers,Chris
hey neela,i was in a short film called "ninja apocalypse!" mahaha :) for real. it was directed by joe montalbano, whom i went to school with.but maybe someday, when i get the courage...and the capital...maybe i will put out a few scripts/projects? but then, where to break in as a director with no connections is definitely an issue. maybe that is the real problem...
Neela, great post -- and one of the most insightful posts on this year's SFIAAFF I've seen anywhere. I agree with you about this year's SFIAAFF, and with what everyone else has said so far about Kal Penn and Jay Chandreshekar. On the other hand, I can also sympathize with Chris about the challenges in programming.Here's a thought that just occurred to me though: why aren't there more films that feature both South and East Asian Americans? It seems to me counterproductive that each is further ghettoized within the Asian American ghetto. Part of what made Harold and Kumar so wonderful was the "comparative Asian American-ness" but even more so the quirky, symbiotic tag-teaming against broader racism against Asian Americans.While I respect the fact that South Asians have very different experiences than, say, Japanese Americans, it seems natural that their individual struggles can be portrayed together, especially in narrative films about the contemporary U.S.....