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CSAFF: Chicago South Asian Film Festival

September 23, 2014

A look at the 2014 Chicago South Asian Film Festival

 

The festival

If you’re like me, you’re always craving more information about the latest and greatest in south asian cinema. One sure fire way to catch a glimpse of the new and the now is to keep up with the south asian film festival circuit. This year CSAFF (the Chicago South Asian Film Festival) celebrated its 5th anniversary in style with a high caliber, yet eclectic, selection of international films showcasing the very best that south asian artists have to offer.

 

The festival was held from September 18th to the 21st at the Showplace ICON Theatre in Chicago’s South Loop, with satellite CSAFF events concurrently taking place at the Evanston Public Library near the Northwestern University Campus. What made this iteration of CSAFF truly special was that it marked the first time in its short history that the slate of films was chosen by a film curator (Deepti D’Cunha). All told, CSAFF presented over 30 films including shorts, documentaries, and feature independent films over its 3-day 4-night schedule. The complete rundown of films played at CSAFF can be found at (http://www.csaff.org/filmguide). The screenings were accompanied by all the glitz of a celebrity-laden red carpet and the depth of post film discussions with the artists. In short CSAFF provided their audience a completely enjoyable and interactive movie going experience that was not to be missed.

 

The red carpet

CSAFF is presented by Zee Cinema and was attended by notable celebrities and dignitaries, including: Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Liar’s Dice, Monsoon Shootout, The Lunchbox), Rajat Kapoor (Ankhon Dekhi, Dil Chahta Hai, Monsoon Wedding), Imaad Shah (M Cream, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Tasher Desh), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Brahmin Bulls, Heroes, Covert Affairs, Beauty and the Beast), Ian MacDonald (Algorithms), Mahesh Pailoor (Brahmin Bulls), Manish Mundra (Liar’s Dice), Ric Gazarian (Hit The Road India), Shahnawa Zali (Mohammad), Ashok Vish (Boy Named Boris), and Sai Prasad (Color of War). The Festival was honored to have the Honorable Chicago Consul General of India, Dr. Ausaf Sayeed, in attendance as well.

 

The SAFA

Another first for this year’s CSAFF was the presentation of its inaugural South Asian Films in America (SAFA) Award. This year’s recipient was none other than one of India’s most sought after stars, Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Nawaz has experienced a meteoric rise since his breakthrough performance in Chicago-based Director Prashant Bhargava’s 2012 film “Patang.” Nawaz’s filmography since includes “Kahani,” “Gangs of Wasseypur” (Parts 1 and 2), “the Lunchbox,” “Monsoon Shootout,” and “Kick.” Nawaz has also become a mainstay at Cannes, firmly cementing his place as one the leading South Asian actors in the world.

 

Nawaz is not only very talented, but was also a joy to be around during the course of the festival. He attended all three days of screenings, and engaged with the audience in an honest, humble, and appreciative manner which was clearly a natural extension of his genuine personality. It was incredibly refreshing and awe-inspiring to be around an individual who is so clearly grounded and filled with gratitude while at the height of his craft. In fact, when asked by the media about his experience at CSAFF and what he’ll remember most about the weekend, Nawaz took the opportunity to give praise and press to the documentary “Algorithms,” (produced and directed by filmmaker Ian MacDonald) which centers around the little known world of blind chess players in India. That Nawazuddin Siddiqui chose to single out this underdog documentary film over all the other high profile films screened at CSAFF speaks volumes about Nawaz’s character and appreciation for the arts.

 

In addition to receiving the SAFA Award, Nawaz also introduced Festival’s opening night film, “Liar’s Dice.” Two days after CSAFF’s closing night, “Liar’s Dice,” which won two National Film Awards, was named as India’s official submission to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Oscar’s best foreign language feature category. If the film is indeed chosen by the Academy as an official nominee for the Oscar, “Liar’s Dice” will join the likes of “Mother India,” “Salaam Bombay,” and “Lagaan,” which is rarefied air indeed. Congratulations to Nawaz and the entire “Liar’s Dice” team for this wonderful honor and let’s all wish them good luck on bringing home both a nomination and the Oscar!

 

Two of the other headliner films Brahmin Bulls (Sendhil Ramamurthy), and Ankhon Dekhi (Rajat Kapoor) also drew large audiences. The team behind both films were present for Q & A sessions following the screenings as well. Below I will give my review of all three films. I hope you find them informative.

 

Reviews of “Liar’s Dice,” “Brahmin Bulls,” and “Ankhon Dekhi”

 

LIAR’S DICE – (Director: Geethu Mohandas, Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Geetanjali Thapa, Manya Gupta)

 

In my opinion, “Liar’s Dice” is in the same vein of “Dr. Zhivago,” “Mr. and Mrs. Iyer,” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” It is a slow-paced dramatic film filled with intrigue. If you enjoyed those films, then you should see “Liar’s Dice.” If you enjoy more fast-paced action-packed films, then this will not be your cup of tea. On the surface this indie film centers on the plight of migrant workers and their families in India. However, at its core “Liar’s Dice” is a mystery taking the audience on a journey of attempting to answer the questions of what happened to the female lead’s husband, and the true identity of the male lead accompanying her on the search for her husband. The central actors, which include a goat and a small child, subtly unveil the story for the audience, building the tension till a pivotal scene where Geetanjali (the female lead) unleashes an emotional performance that will give you goosebumps. In fact, Geetanjali won the National Film Award – Best Actress for her performance in the film. Unfortunately, the ending will likely leave you with a lot of questions about what really happened between the characters, and may even leave you slightly disappointed that these plot questions weren’t answered.

 

Overall the film was very well acted and directed with wonderful cinematography. You’ll also likely find Manya Gupta and the little goat in the film quite adorable. With the possible exception of the conclusion, “Liar’s Dice” was an enjoyable slow burn of a film, which built up to a dramatic climax. I rate the film a 7 out of 10.

 

BRAHMIN BULLS (Director: Mahesh Pailoor, Starring: Sendhil Ramamurthy, Roshan Seth, Cassidy Freeman, Preeti Sharma, Justin Bartha, Mary Steenburgen, Michael Lerner, George Newbern)

 

For me, personally, the highlight of CSAFF was “Brahmin Bulls,” which is a cross-generational crowd pleaser on many levels.   The film featured one of my favorite actors, Roshan Seth (Gandhi, A Passage to India, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) along with a tremendous cast led by Chicago’s own Sendhil Ramamurthy and the familiar faces of Justin Bartha (the National Treasure series, the Hangover series, and New York, I Love You), Mary Steenburgen (Back to the Future III, Philadelphia, Ragtime, Melvin and Howard), Michael Lerner (Barton Fink, Eight Men Out), and George Newburn (Father of the Bride, Scandal). The film takes a very realistic look at the family dynamics between an Indian father and son without delving into some of the typical stereotypes that would normally appear in such a story. The legendary Seth delivers yet another quality performance filled with intelligence, sophistication, subtlety, and heart. It is refreshing to see Seth’s character written and portrayed without the need for bad accents or a more traditional immigrant backstory.   Ramamurthy is able to hold his own with Seth in every scene and delivers a high quality performance filled with warmth and depth. It is refreshing to see Ramamurthy’s character reflect a realistic modern portrayal of an Indian individual of his generation. The biggest surprise of the film for me was the high-profile supporting cast and the ease with which these stars fit the story without overshadowing it. Justin Bartha is believable as Ramamurthy’s close friend and colleague. (On a side note, if you haven’t had the chance, I recommend you see the indie film “New York, I Love you,” which counts Bartha amongst its star studded cast.) Steenburgen is also very natural and believable as Seth’s love interest. “Brahmin Bulls” does a good job of reflecting back to its audience a depiction of society that is both imperfect and relatable. One where the audience can say to themselves as they’re watching the film, “I have friends like that…I have relationships like that…I’ve had experiences like that.”

 

The film is not perfect, of course. As within anything in life, there is always an area for improvement, and you too may have minor critiques of this film as well, when you watch it. During the screening I found myself wishing that certain scenes and conversations were portrayed differently, and wishing other plotlines were developed a bit more. For example, in my opinion, the tennis scene with Ramamurthy and Seth detracted from the central conflict between the two characters. The climactic scene between the pair in the kitchen more than makes up for that, however. Additionally, it would have been nice if the relationship between Ramamurthy’s character Sid and his ex-wife Ellie (portrayed by Cassidy Freeman) was further developed. The chemistry between the pair also seemed a bit lacking given the emotional bond the story presumes for them. Finally, the scenes between Steenburgen and Ramamurthy probably should have exhibited a little more awkward tension and angst than they did.

 

All told, “Brahmin Bulls” is a complete film: well-acted, well-cast, and well-directed. I for one hope its gets a broader release so more audiences have the opportunity to enjoy it, as I did. If you enjoy complicated yet entertaining films exploring family dynamics such as: “It’s Complicated” (Comedy), “The Namesake” (Drama), “The Substance of Fire” (Drama), you’ll enjoy

 

“Brahmin Bulls.”

I rate the film an 8.5 out of 10.

 

ANKHON DEKHI (Director: Rajat Kapoor, Starring: Sanjay Mishra, Rajat Kapoor, Seema Pahwa)

 

Ankhon Dekhi is Bollywood Veteran Rajat Kapoor’s latest directorial endeavor, and was one of the most anticipated films at CSAFF.   Kapoor is both an accomplished actor (Dil Chahta Hai, Bheja Fry, Monsoon Wedding) and Director (Fatso!, Mixed Doubles). During the CSAFF press conference, Kapoor had high praise for star Sanjay Mishra’s performance, and vocally supported the film’s central theme that seeing (or rather experiencing) is believing. Kapoor is an extremely thoughtful respectful and communicative individual. His intelligence and respect for the arts, as well as the audience, was abundantly clear throughout CSAFF’s September 21st events. I’ve found that he always delivers in his performances as well, and his direction of “Ankhon Dekhi” is to be commended. The film had a similar warmth and balance of comedy / drama as “Fatso!” his last feature Kapoor directed before “Ankhon Dekhi.”

 

“Ankhon Dekhi” centers around Mishra’s character, Bauji, who has an epiphany; that one cannot believe something is true simply because they are told that it is true. From that point on, Bauji only chooses to believe that which he can experience himself. At first this philosophy causes those around Bauji to question his sanity, but as time moves on, those that once mocked him become his disciples. Another central plotline of the film is Bauji’s relationship with his daughter as well as his brother (portrayed by Kapoor).

 

I liken my experience with “Ankhon Dekhi” to the Ricky Gervais film, “The Invention of Lying,” and to some degree the “Munna Bhai” films. The film is enjoyable and permeates warmth and character, yet there are points where the story simply loses its footing. The characters are very likeable, Mishra’s performance is infectious, the music is fantastic, and Kapoor has done a wonderful job with the direction of the film. However, as likeable and enjoyable as the general experience of the film is, I felt parts dragged and went off in tangents. For instance Bauji’s teen patti gambling escapades as well as the ending of the film leave a lot to be desired. (I won’t go into detail on the ending as I don’t want to get into plot spoilers.) Now lest you think I’m not taking the film in the lighthearted manner it appears to have been intended (and no one will accuse the film of taking itself too seriously) I do appreciate the film for what it is: a farcically light hearted, yet thought provoking experience. Even in that context, however, there were aspects that simply did not meet the enchanting quality of the rest of the film. The musical score by Chicagoan Sagar Desai is truly one of the highlights of the “Ankhon Dekhi”. “Ankhon Dekhi” is currently available on Netflix.

 

I rate the film a 7 out 10.

 

Shorts

I enjoy shorts because they provide an insight into the future of film. The directors and actors that display their talents in these short films often progress to features. Shorts are an opportunity to both showcase one’s skill and hone one’s craft. It’s also quite impressive that these artists are able to communicate a complete story, with complexity and depth, in such a limited amount of time.

 

CSAFF screened several shorts worth checking out including “It’s About Time” directed by Chicagoan Snehal Patel, and starring Omi Vaidya (“3 Idiots”). I had the opportunity to speak with the directors of three other CSAFF screened shorts: Ashok Vish (A Boy Named Boris), Sai Pawar (Color of War), and Syed Owais Ali (Mohammad).

 

Ashok’s “A Boy Named Boris” shares the story of a boy suffering from a speech impediment who goes to a new school and is forced to introduce himself in front of his class. This was a story close to Ashok’s heart as he overcame stuttering himself. An interesting tidbit I learned from Ashok is that those who stutter in the presence of others, do not stutter when they are alone and speaking aloud.

 

Sai is a veteran of shorts having made nearly a dozen. His “Color of War” deals with a World War I vet, Gerald, who runs a movie theater. The only way the theater will survive is if he shows a film in color. However, Gerald is afraid of the color films as they trigger painful memories. While the story is set nearly 80 years ago, the subject of PTSD in post-war vets is a very real and relevant topic today.

 

Syed is a filmmaker studying at Northwestern University from Qatar. “Mohammad” is Syed’s first film and is based on a true story. The film deals with a young boy, who pays the price for uttering words against the Holy Prophet to an Islamic Extremist in Pakistan while trying to protect the honor of his late father. Syed is a very passionate and brave filmmaker daring to shed light on controversial events.

 

All three directors are very bright and talented. Keep an eye out for their names on future projects. Good luck gentlemen!

 

For more information:

For more information on CSAFF, including information on submitting a project for consideration for CSAFF 2015 visit www.csaff.org or email programming@csaff.org.

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