DC South Asian Film Festival Celebrates Independent Cinema

South Asian Film Festival is a first for Washington

By Geeta Goindi

WASHINGTON, June 3, 2012 – The national capital region got its first-ever South Asian Film Festival offering a rare treat to movie-goers and a great platform for film-makers, actors and actresses, alike. Headlining the event from the Indian film industry were such celebrated names as Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Deepti Naval, Manisha Koirala, Rajit Kapur, Suneil Anand, Prashant Nair, Omi Vaidya, Samrat Chakrabarti from New York, together with our DC-based film-makers Manan Singh Katohora, Harpreet Kaur and Suneeta Mishra.

Organized by Manoj Singh and Sangeeta Anand of Ceasar Productions, known for bringing high-caliber programs to us, the three-day festival, June 1-3, held at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, was packed with meaningful cinema.

Addressing the distinguished participants on the eve of the festival, Deputy Chief of Mission Mr. Arun Kumar Singh, underscored that “films are a powerful force for entertainment, education and raising awareness in any culture. The increasing popularity of Indian cinema worldwide has illustrated the power of story-telling through images and showcasing the diversity, vibrance and richness of Indian culture. In my career, I have served in many countries and I can tell you that countries ranging from Russia to Ethiopia, everywhere, people would talk about Indian cinema”, he said.

Mr. Singh made these remarks at a reception, held at the Indian Embassy, recognizing the achievements of the artistes. He welcomed the gathering in the absence of Indian Ambassador Mrs. Nirupama Rao who was inaugurating an international gems and jewelry exhibition in Las Vegas, an area which boasts a significant Indian-American presence.

Mr. Singh commended the organizers for taking the initiative to host an Indian film festival in the Washington area for which, he noted, “our special guests, many leading lights of the Indian film industry, are visiting us. We are delighted to be associated with this festival as a co-sponsor”, he said. “Ceasar Productions has been active in hosting and promoting quality theater and films. The DC South Asian Film Festival will be a welcome occasion for all friends of India in the greater DC region and beyond to experience and enjoy the creativity of our film-makers”.

In his introduction of Mr. Shyam Benegal, the DCM pointed out that this national award-winning director’s “work has been appreciated for the sheer skill in film-making as well as the various realities of society that he has explored and presented through his movies”. Mr. Singh noted that a retrospective of Benegal’s films (‘Mammo’, ‘Sardari Begum’ and ‘Suraj Ka Satwa Ghoda’), in conjunction with other movies at the festival, “will tell a story of India – an India that has grown remarkably in many ways into becoming a significant and respected member of the world community, but continues to face many challenges”.

At a reception hosted by the Indian Embassy to welcome the artistes of the first DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) are seen clockwise from top left: actress Manisha Koirala with Sangeeta Anand of Ceasar Productions; directors Shyam Benegal and Harpreet Kaur; actor Rajit Kapur with Carrie Trybulec, Director of the Gandhi Memorial Center in Washington, DC; directors Shyam Benegal, Harpreet Kaur and producer Manmeet Singh

At the outset, Benegal stated: “My wife and I are delighted to be here, invited to this very first South Asian Film Festival by Manoj Singh and his wife, Geeta. I really enjoy being here. I am always very happy to be at the Indian Embassy and being hosted by the Indian Embassy, that is an added pleasure every time one travels abroad”.

The director, whose movies are masterpieces in themselves, told the gathering that “one of the good things about Indian cinema is that it is slowly being recognized not only by the Indian diaspora abroad, but also by people of various countries”. Citing facts and figures, he pointed out that the Indian film industry is the largest in the world. In India, more cinema tickets are sold than even America: 3.9 billion tickets a year versus 3.35 billion in the US. “The head count is fantastic, not the money”, said Benegal. “American films make much more money than our films do. We have to keep our tickets at an affordable price for our people to see the films”.

The director was upbeat about what he called the “wonderful collaborations” underway between the Indian film industry and its American counterpart. Today, several big banners like Fox and Columbia have made inroads in the Indian market, he noted.

Benegal waxed eloquent when it came to the new lot of film-makers. “The last decade has been fantastic in terms of the young, new generation of film-makers that are emerging in our country”, he said. “They are making extraordinary films. There is so much media presence and communication systems are extraordinarily quick between countries and people. All this has helped in creating styles in film-making which didn’t happen before … Earlier, Indian films were seen as something exotic by audiences outside”.

He continued to applaud the originality and creativity of young film-makers who possess an uncanny ability to think outside the box and yet remain true to their roots. “What I find most interesting about Indian cinema today is that although there is a constant pressure to standardize everything, young Indian film-makers are making some very original films that are culturally specific”, he gushed. “Mainstream cinema was finding it difficult to create global films that deal with local subjects”.

When queried by a member of the audience about the response to movies made by NRI film-makers, Benegal conceded that, apart from the likes of a Deepa Mehta or Mira Nair, younger film-makers have yet to find an audience in India. “It will take time because the business side of films is quite another thing … very difficult to fathom”, he said.

Drawing attention to the fact that this is the centennial of Indian cinema, Benegal, a director known for his keen observation, noted that “in these 100 years, the manner, the narrative style, the content, has hardly changed. There is a great deal of tradition behind Indian cinema”, he asserted. “When we react, we react very much in the same way as our culture determines. I find this very interesting given all the diversity in our country”.

He was chagrined at the term ‘Bollywood’ which he called “a very intellectually lazy definition”. Benegal told the audience, “It was a clever concoction by someone. I never use that term. It is a kind of non-definition. It signifies a place like Hollywood, so Mumbai is Bollywood. Unfortunately, it has got stuck”.

Looking around a packed hall at the Indian Embassy, he quipped, “It would be wonderful if all you folks didn’t just come to see us here, but saw our films”!

On stage with Benegal were Manisha Koirala, Rajit Kapur, Ketan Mehta, Suneil Anand and Samrat Chakrabarti.

Representing the younger generation of Indian-American actors, Samrat said, “I’m very excited to be here where the history of Indian cinema is standing. This is incredible! A lot of us are lucky enough to stand here”.

DCM Mr. Singh pointed out that “Samrat Chakrabarti is well known, especially in the Indian diaspora, not only for his films, but for his entertaining presence on television”.

Samrat was optimistic when it came to films by second-generation Indian-Americans. “Now we are talking about real situations, real problems, whether they are political or social issues”, he said. “It is now about being global citizens. It is a beautiful time! It is a very exciting time! We have gone past the simple stuff. Now, we are delving into an India that is both Bombay and New York. We can live in both places and still be Indian”.

At the festival, three of the films, in which he acted, were being screened: Ajay Naidu’s ‘Ashes’; Italo Spinelli’s ‘Gangor’; and Shome Banerjee’s ‘Hotel New York’.

The festival provided a platform par excellence! For the first time, the Washington area community was afforded a marvelous opportunity to choose from myriad meaningful movies, book readings, workshops, interacting with celebrated artistes from the Indian film industry – whatever perked one’s interest and intellect!

The opening night on Friday featured the customary walk on the red carpet by celebrities. Adding to the glamor were models displaying the ethnic creations of She’r Elegance by designer Nadia.

The festival schedule was packed with movies including: ‘Rang Rasiya’ by Ketan Mehta; ‘Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane Ki Baarish’ by Deepti Naval, starring Manisha Koirala and Rajit Kapur; ‘Memories in March’ starring Deepti Naval; ‘Delhi in a Day’ directed by Prashant Nair; ‘Big in Bollywood’ starring Omi Vaidya; ‘Shala’ and ‘Mee Sindhutai Sapkal’ (Marathi); ‘Abu – Son of Adam’ (Malayalam); ‘Abosheshey’ (Bengali); ‘Lucky’ (Zulu and Tamil); and ‘Tuesday’ (Hindi, Urdu and English). The event featured: workshops on the ‘Art of Film-making’ by Shyam Benegal and ‘Acting in Theater and Films’ by Rajit Kapur; book readings by Deepti Naval of her works – ‘The Mad Tibetan’, ‘Black Wind’ and ‘Lamha Lamha’; several short films and documentaries. It closed with a special segment in honor of Dev Anand which included a screening of his film, ‘Hum Dono’, and a music tribute to the legendary actor by Dr. Sajeev Anand.

About the festival, organizer Manoj Singh explained, it showcases “a lot of new films, very diverse films from all over the world. It’s a very busy festival with a lot of good films. We want to promote local talent. There are a lot of good movies made by Manan Singh Katohora (‘9 Eleven’) and Harpreet Kaur (‘A Little Revolution’)”. And the event affords an excellent opportunity for film-makers and artistes to “network with peers in the film industry”, he said.

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