Indian American filmakers hit their stride
Films by Indians in the Diaspora no longer harp on immigrant stories or confine themselves to explorations of their roots. They are coming-of-age and deal with complex issues of identity in ways that go beyond the frontier of clichŽs. 2011 witnessed many such refreshing films, which shaped the course of the slowly strengthening independent cinema movement in India. As these films travelled to film festivals across the globe, they lent a distinct sensibility to Indian cinema. The films were personal and universal at the same time. They evoked a certain nostalgia and yet steered clear of the boxed notions of Diaspora films, striking a chord with audiences the world over.
Patang directed by Prashant Bhargava, is a composition of three interwoven stories centering on a family that reunites for the Uttarayan kite festival in Ahmedabad. The film came to Bhargava when his travel to Ahmedabad in 2005 coincided with the city's annual kite festival. "When I first witnessed the entire city on their rooftops, staring up at the sky, their kites dueling ferociously, dancing without inhibition, I knew I had to make this film," he says.
For the next three years, he returned to Ahmedabad and documented his experiences, accumulating 100 hours of video footage. He acquainted himself with the city and connected with shopkeepers, street kids, gangsters and grandmothers, who helped him develop the characters and the story of his film. "Patang is an anthem of Ahmedabad,Ó says Bhargava, "But from Ahmedabad to Berlin, Tribeca to Hawaii, audiences have spoken of Patang's story as their own family story." Patang marks the first feature film of the director who started out as a graffiti artist in his hometown of Chicago.
The film began its international journey at the Berlin Film Festival Forum and travelled to Tribeca Film Festival and the Chicago International Film Festival. Failing to pick up any distributors, the resolute filmmakers have turned to crowd-funding through the Indiegogo.com to raise $40,000 to release the film in U.S. theaters. At press time they had raised $6,000 with 20 days to go for the campaign.
An entirely different objective brought Sarovar Banka to his grandparents' home in India. His film A Decent Arrangement is the story of an Indian-American copywriter who goes to India looking for an arranged marriage guided by his cousin. In Banka's own words: "A Decent Arrangement came from a really simple idea. How strange it was that someone like me who had grown up in America with the western concept of falling in love and then getting married - could if they wanted to - simply because they were of Indian origin go out and seek an arranged marriage."
Banka who hails from Philadelphia spent a considerable time in Chandigarh and Mumbai to become comfortable with India, as it was, and not just perceived from abroad. As it turned out, the journey of the main character Ashok ended up mirroring his own. In A Decent Arrangement, Ashok thinks he has made a traditionally Indian choice only to discover a much more complex landscape where Indians themselves are conflicted about the role of arranged marriages. There is a telling scene in the film where Ashok goes to a nightclub and perhaps contrary to expectations, he is the least cool, most conservative, and least liberated person there. "Indian culture, like American culture is constantly changing, and I wanted to show the complexity of the world that Ashok has projected himself onto,"says Banka.
"When we were screening rough cuts of the film in Philadelphia, people were surprised at how different India looked from what was familiar to them,"he says. A Decent Arrangement, Banka's debut feature film, was screened at the New York Indian Film Festival and Montreal World Film Festival and played at the Mumbai Film Festival recently.
The film was shot at Banka's grandparents' house in Panchkula and Chandigarh in Haryana- a rare location for any Indian film. One of the most emotional moments for Sarovar was shooting at Kalka station where as a kid he and his grandfather would drive up, have tea on the platform and watch people coming and going.
For Natasha Mendonca too, shooting her thesis film on the Mumbai floods, titled Jan Villa, after the house in suburban Mumbai where she grew up, brought back a flurry of memories. A short film by the same name won her the prestigious Tiger Award for short films at Rotterdam International Film Festival in January 2011 and Ken Burns award for Best Film at the Ann Arbor Film Festival 2011.
Mendonca who was studying Fine Art at the California Institute of the Arts travelled to her hometown in 2009 to shoot her thesis film on the infamous floods of Mumbai. As luck would have it, it rained very little that year and the film widened its scope to become an essay about Mumbai as a city and her understanding of family structures there. "In the film, the floods serve as a metaphor for destruction, decay and neglect,"Mendonca says.
Mendonca is a queer activist and co-founded Larzish, India's first international festival of films and videos on sexuality and gender in Mumbai in 2003. She shuttles between Mumbai and New York.
It was a rather difficult homecoming for filmmaker Sonali Gulati. When after 11 years she decided to go to Delhi and confront the loss of her mother, to whom she never disclosed her sexual orientation, it became the starting point for her documentary I Am. She set out on a journey to meet other gays and lesbians who had come out of the closet, and tried to have a conversation with other parents that she hadn't had with her own mother.
I Am was shot all over India over a period of six years, between 2005-2011. She focused on people living in India, because at the time, lawyers in favor of keeping Section 377 (the law that criminalized homosexuality in India) argued that homosexuality was a western import and that it was not part of Indian culture and history.
One of the challenges that she faced was convincing lesbian and gay children of the families she met to be a part of the film. "I really wanted queer people in the film to have a voice and speak for themselves, as opposed to being silenced and talked about,"says Gulati. The families were relatively easy to convince as they saw her as someone from inside the community trying to tell their stories with sensitivity.
Gultai who is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been organizing the South Asian queer rights movement for over a decade. Her documentary went on to win nine awards including Grand Jury prize for Best Documentary at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles 2011 and Special Jury award at Kashish Queer Film Festival Mumbai 2011.
Identity is a multi-layered issue and these filmmakers have shown how it can be traversed through films, which don't adhere to stereotypes.