Sixth Annual DC South Asian Film Festival Opens at Montgomery College

Eclectic lineup of independent films at three-day festival is a treat for viewers

By Geeta Goindi

Rockville, Maryland, September 10, 2017 – The sixth annual Washington DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) opened with a celebrity lineup supporting some of the finest films in independent cinema.

The three-day festival is an eagerly-awaited, one-of-a-kind event organized by Manoj and Geeta Singh, and it attracts the best and brightest from the world of art cinema, and beyond. The 2017 edition, held September 8-10 on the Rockville campus of Montgomery College, followed a tradition of impeccably organized, informative events drawing among the most erudite attendees.

Opening night at the Theater Arts Arena saw distinguished guests on the Red Carpet: seventies and eighties actress Zeenat Aman who, at 66, looked beautiful and radiant in a simple, muted color Indian suit; Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett; Delegate Aruna Miller, now running for Congress from Maryland’s 6th Congressional District; gifted directors Ananth Mahadevan, Vinay Pujara, Indira Somani, Azaan Khan, Mehreen Jabbar, Harjant Gill, among others. Talented local artistes Meera Narasimhan and Rajiv Paul served as the eloquent emcees.

Indian actress Zeenat Aman is presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by Manoj and Geeta Singh, organizers of the 2017 Washington DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF), at the Theatre Arts Arena of Montgomery College, Rockville

Addressing the gathering, Leggett noted, “Montgomery County is a fairly diverse county and South Asians make up a substantial part of it”. He commended the organizers of the festival “for providing a platform where everyone can come together”, particularly in light of all the challenges in the world today when people are not treated with respect, and there is an inability to understand different cultures and religions.

“Through film, through art, we are able to break down those barriers”, he said. “So, this festival comes at the right time. If you look at the films and documentaries screened at the festival, you will see there is not only a lot to entertain us, but to enlighten us”.

Zeenat Aman Lends Star Power to Sixth Annual DC South Asian Film Festival

Miller emphasized the “incredible opportunities” in the US and the need to give back to the larger community. The Indian-American community is “extremely successful”, she noted, “but, we need to give back as much as we can to the greater community across the US. I chose a career in public service because I felt this was the greatest way that I could give back to my community”.

Miller came to the US as an immigrant when she was six years old and admitted, “everything that I’ve learned is because of the services that are provided in this country. I went to public schools where I learnt English because I didn’t know a word of English when I came here. Later, I went to college and everything that happened to me is because of the good services that government provides for all of us. And when you are afforded with these incredible opportunities like I’ve had and many of you have had, we have a responsibility to give back to our community”, she said.

About Miller, Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner told the audience, “Just know that you have someone in the house who could very well be the next member of Congress. She is terrific”, he said, to much applause.

Berliner presented a certificate to the Singhs for organizing a festival which promotes visual arts and cultural diversity in Montgomery County.

Montgomery County Council President Roger Berliner presented a certificate to Washington DC South Asian Film Festival organizers Manoj and Geeta Singh for promoting visual arts and diversity

Manoj Singh emphasized that “the DCSAFF is a platform for cultural exchange providing opportunities to independent filmmakers to come and showcase their films. Filmmaking is very challenging, competitive, and involves a lot of hard work”, he said. Some films take years to make from inception to completion and some sadly are not even released on account of prohibitive distribution costs, he lamented. “Some independent filmmakers are financing their own films”, he said, imploring the audience to watch the movies and give constructive feedback to directors and actors attending the festival.

Geeta Singh pointed out that the annual event gives considerable prominence to women-centric films, those which highlight issues affecting women and girls such as Deepa Mehta’s documentary, ‘Anatomy of Violence’. There is also a charitable component insofar as the festival directors are supporting ASHA for Women, a non-profit organization which helps victims of domestic violence in the South Asian community. “So behind the pomp and show is serious business”, Geeta Singh said. “The message is meaningful films matter”!

Celebrity actress Aman was accompanied by her son Azaan Khan, director of ‘Bankster’, an action film starring Naseeruddin Shah which was screened on opening night. She has co-produced the film with her talented son and Gautam Arya.

An epitome of grace and humility, she was elated that her home production is the opening feature film of the festival. “I think Geeta and Manoj are wonderful people and I was very happy when they invited me. I have never been here. So, it is very special”, she said.

Director Ananth Mahadevan (second from left) mingled with guests and volunteers at the 2017 Washington DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) held on the Rockville campus of Montgomery College. Seen second from right is Meera Narasimhan and at right is Vikram Kolluru

Mahadevan mingled with the gathering on opening night. He is the gifted director of Doctor Rakhmabai (120 minutes, Marathi with English subtitles), a biopic about India’s first practicing lady doctor, which was screened on Saturday.

Among other offerings were a trilogy of films starring Adil Hussain — ‘Hotel Salvation’, ‘The Violin Player’, ‘Mantra’; Punjabi films — ‘The Black Prince’ by Kavi Raz, starring renowned actress Shabana Azmi and singer Satinder Sartaaj, ‘Moh Dia Tandhaa’ directed by Priyanka Gill, ‘Sent Away Boys’ by Harjant Gill; works of Pakistani independent cinema – ‘Lala Begum’ by Mehreen Jabbar, ‘Saawan’ by Farhan Alam, and the ‘100 Steps’ documentary by Shahnawaz Zalli.

Director Harjant Gill (second from left) whose film ‘Sent Away Boys’ was screened at the Washington DC South Asian Film Festival is seen with, from left to right: Moni Gill; Paul Bath; and Kuldeep Gill

The festival featured a good selection of works by US-based filmmakers: ‘Clash of Morality’ directed by Vinay Pujara; ‘Five O’ Clock Shadow’; ‘Birds in Flight’; ‘Surrogate’; ‘Stalking Shadows’; ‘The Valley’; and ‘Bretton Place’.

The DCSAFF is a platform where art and culture transcend boundaries! “Let’s come together and celebrate what we have in common, put our thoughts together for resolving issues. Love and peace”, read a statement by festival organizers.

Maryland Delegate Aruna Miller (right) with director Azaan Khan whose maiden feature film, ‘Bankster’, was screened on opening night of the Washington DC South Asian Film Festival

We caught up with Azaan who described ‘Bankster’ as “an action-packed drama”. Given that your Mom championed commercial cinema, can you explain your interest in art films, we asked.

“I think it came from a very young age”, Azaan replied. “I used to watch a lot of films. My father (the late Mazhar Khan) had an amazing collection and it was the highlight of my day coming home from school and watching a film with him. So, it came from the amount of films I watched as a kid. And by watching films in the ‘Star Wars’, ‘Indiana Jones’ series, I just turned to different aspects of filmmaking”.

‘Bankster’ is his maiden venture which will be released worldwide in December.

Azaan was delighted that it is the opening feature film at the DCSAFF. “It’s a huge honor”, he said. “I’m so delighted to be here and for people to see my film. I’m really anxious to know what they think of it”.

About the festival, he gushed, “It’s a great platform for independent filmmakers and I love the vibe. There is so much passion and energy at these festivals. It’s the best place to be”.

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