More than Bollywood: New York Indian Film Festival shows another side of a huge movie industry


The New York Indian Film Festival opened on Monday, May 5, with a screening of Ugly at NYU's Skirball Auditorium. The opening-night ceremonies included a reception, a post-screening question-and-answer session with director Anurag Kashyap, and a gala party.

Running through May 10, the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) will screen 34 features and documentaries, all receiving New York City premieres.

The closing-night ceremonies, which include a screening of Goynar Baksho, also takes place at Skirball Auditorium. Other screenings in the Festival will run at the Village East Cinema on 2nd Avenue and 12th Street. Festival passes and individual tickets are available here.

According to Festival director Aseem Chhabra, the move to the Village East allowed the Festival committee to expand its offerings. "In earlier years, we had to say no to many films because we just didn't have the space. This year, we screened about 250 submissions, including shorts," Chhabra said in a telephone interview. "We scout other film festivals, talk to filmmakers and directors, we do everything we can to get the best titles here. In fact, six of our films this year were honored at the National Film Awards, which are handed out by the Indian government."

Most viewers here think of Bollywood when they think of Indian cinema. But India releases around a thousand titles a year, and Bollywood—Hindi-language commercial movies made in Mumbai—makes up only a third of that output.

"We don't show Bollywood films at the NYIFF. They are readily available to viewers, and we believe there is a lot more to Indian cinema. India has four southern states, all of which produce movies, there are films from the East Coast, amazing movies from Bengal, and a whole range of independent movies similar to the indie movement here in America in the 1980s."

Chhabra notes that The New York Times referred to the NYIFF as the Indian version of Sundance. The Festival may focus on more niche titles than Bollywood, but these are still popular movies in their home markets. "India is a country of 1.2 billion people. So there is a big audience for all kinds of movies. Our titles attract a lot of attention in big cities like Mumbai and Calcutta, and in more medium-size towns. In fact, they are for anyone who is interested in seeing what is happening in Indian cinema."

The growing number of multiplex cinemas gives theatre owners the opportunity to run independent films alongside big-budget Bollywood movies. And Chhabra adds that indie films have become a strong presence on television.

In addition to Indian films, this year's schedule also includes movies from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Zinda Bhag, or Run Alive, was Pakistan's entry for the Academy Awards.

Ugly, the opening movie, screened at Cannes, but has yet to open in India. "It was directed by Anurag Kashyap, who is a leading voice of what is now called the Independent Film Movement in India," Chhabra explains. "He's made a range of films that often deal with dark stories of India, like the two-part Gangs of Wasseypur."

Ugly starts with the kidnapping of a young girl, then expands to show how the police and the criminal underworld interact. "It's a gripping film," Chhabra says. "You feel you are watching a real story unfold before you, because Kashyap shows a side of Mumbai that Bollywood films don't."

The centerpiece selection is Liar's Dice, the story of an Army deserter on the run who meets a mother and daughter searching for her husband. As they travel, they form a fragile, unstable family. Star Nawazuddin Siddiqui also appears in The Lunchbox, an Indian production that has been released worldwide by Sony Pictures Classics.

"The Lunchbox just opened in China, Israel, Mexico and Portugal," Chhabra adds. "It opened in India last September and did good business. It's the kind of cinema we try to feature in our Festival."

Closing this year's Festival is Goynar Baksho, or The Jewelry Box. Director Aparna Sen started in movies as an actress, appearing while still a teenager in the Satyajit Ray masterpiece Two Daughters. Sen became a well-known actress in Bengali and Bollywood films. Starting with 1981's 36 Chowringhee Lane, she has written and directed several movies. According to Chhabra, Goynar Baksho is a lighthearted ghost story about relatives competing for an elderly woman's estate. It stars the director's daughter, Konkona Sen Sharma.

This year, the Festival is honoring Gurinder Chadha with a special 20th-anniversary screening of her landmark Bhaji on the Beach, as well as three of her documentaries that are receiving their first New York showings in decades.

"Bhaji on the Beach is about a group of women on a day trip to Brighton Beach," Chhabra says. "They are all different ages and types, and they all have different situations. One is a single mom, another is having an affair, so the movie is really about these taboo issues that women face."

Chadha's film was one of the first to explore the South Indian diaspora, and inspired its own movement of several other similarly themed films. Chhabra points out that Chadha's movies, which include Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice, are marked by their positive, upbeat style. Chadha is one of several directors writers, and actors who will be appearing during the Festival.

The Festival includes a strong slate of documentaries, three of which examine music from different parts of India. The Auction House is about two brothers who try to revive a business in Calcutta. "This is not like Sotheby's or Christies," Chhabra says, "it's this dilapidated space that takes a lot of effort to get going again."

Chhabra also singles out Gulabi Gang, about a group of women who try to fight injustice, especially in rural areas, and An American in Madras. "It's the story of Ellis Dungan, who was born in Ohio and graduated from USC in 1935. His classmate came from a film family background. He said, 'Why don't you come to India, my dad is building a studio there and we'll make films.'

"So Dungan goes to Madras. The studio plans fell through, but he ended up staying there for 15 years making some of the most important films of the time—even though he didn't speak Tamil, the language there. He launched the careers of major actors and screenwriters. He introduced a new, realistic style of filmmaking, because at that time, especially in South India, movies were very theatrical, everything was done in a very exaggerated manner. He took the camera out of the studio into location shooting and made fluid camera movements a part of moviemaking. All the while working through translators.”

Another film Chhabra champions is Fandry, made by first-time director Nagraj Manjule. Set in a small village, it examines how the caste system, outlawed by the Indian government, still rules the lives of the poor. Somnath Avghade, who won the National Film Award for Best Child Artist, plays a young Dalit, or lower-caste youth, who falls in love with his upper-caste classmate. Manjule also won the Indira Gandhi Award for Best Debut Film at the National Film Awards.

"Fandry looks at class issues and poverty in a way which has not been done before," Chhabra says. "It's an eye-opener, for all of India. It's precise and accurate, and it shows exactly what it is like, what is happening in some rural parts of India."