Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Cinema in South Asian places


Scene from filmmaker M. Manikandan's The Crow's Egg. Photo: Courtesy 3rd i
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The 13th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, subtitled Bollywood and Beyond, can at first glance be confusing in format and screening venues, for both its devoted Indian-Pakistani-American fan base and its media explainers. Kicking off in San Francisco at the New People Cinema (10/22, 23, 25), making a one-day splash at the Castro Theatre (10/24), the Festival then travels south to Palo Alto's CineArts Theatre (10/25, 11/1). Caution: the Festival's press handouts were confusing, and I strongly suggest consulting their website for last-minute scheduling changes and info on money-saving Festival passes:

This year's theme of gender equality is illustrated by several short films, including Mardistan, or Macholand. Harjant Gill examines the once-dirty little secrets of Indian male privilege. This 25-minute short kicks off with writer/journalist Amandeep explaining his rejection of the sins of his fathers when it comes to gender inequality: "I would not like to become an uncle of mine who would beat my mother up. I would not like to become a senior [classmate] of mine who would define himself by sodomizing a junior."

Taun, a motorbike-loving college student, describes the insidious forces in the culture that push some young men towards sexual violence against women and other young men perceived to be vulnerable. His message is underscored by a scene where he's with his girlfriend in a department store picking out a stuffed teddy bear as a present: "Guys often ask, 'Are you a virgin or not?' Losing your virginity is treated like a rite of passage. Every guy has to do it. If a guy doesn't engage in a physical relationship with a girl, he's perceived as unmanly. He's considered a failure. He's called names like eunuch or gay."

Mardistan's most disturbing insights are conveyed by a handsome, masculine-appearing social worker and LGBT activist named Dhananjay. "When I came out to my wife as gay, she replied, 'I don't need my husband to be manly, I need him to be a kind human being, and you are!'"

Dhananjay felt social pressure to marry, and explains the pain this still causes him. "I cannot abandon my wife, she has no other options. Society will not accept her if I divorce her. Society always blames the wife for the divorce. I don't want her to suffer for my mistakes."

Journey This short switches seamlessly between urban comedy and rural tragedy. We see the plight of a young country girl, Gouri, as she is buffeted between the realities of her poverty and lower-caste status and the tyrannical demands of an older woman who has purchased the child from her desperately poor village-bound family. The film opens with the older woman pounding on the door of Gouri's sleeping chamber. "Open the door, bitch! I paid your mother good money for you!"

In a flashback we see that Gouri had been recruited by her female boss from a brothel, thus even further diminishing her options in a society governed by archaic caste constraints. Soon help arrives in the form of a kindly limo driver who helps Gouri's boss out on weekly excursions. Controversy arises when an expensive piece of jewelry turns up missing. The limo driver finds the missing treasure in his car and begins to treat Gouri like a father until an incident at a restaurant. Gouri, feeling unwanted attention from a young man at a nearby table, suddenly curses the youth out. The outburst tips her would-be mentor off to her tainted status as a former prostitute.

Sound confusing? Writer/director Pratyusha Gupta suggests that a society stuck between its postmodern aspirations and its feudal social realities is likely to be an especially cruel place for the gender-oppressed. (both at New People, check site for time)

Kay Kay Menon in director Vishal Bharadwaj's Haider, or Hamlet. Photo: Courtesy 3rd i

Haider, or Hamlet Filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj attempts yet another update of the Bard's most challenging play, by transferring the moody Dane's angst to the travails of ethnic (Muslim vs. Hindu) conflict in a divided Kashmir. (Castro, 10/24)

The Crow's Egg This story of two poor boys seeking their first taste of pizza will remind Western viewers of Danny Boyle's 2008 multi-Oscar hit Slumdog Millionaire. The filmmaker M. Manikandan attempts to pivot the boys' struggle to an Indian perspective. (Castro, 10/24)

Tigers Oscar-winning writer/director Danis Tanovic returns with an expose drama centering on a Pakistani baby-formula salesman's attempt to blow the whistle when he discovers the unadvertised dangers of his product. Filmmaker Tanovic won a Best Foreign Film Oscar for his 2001 drama No Man's Land, in which two soldiers, one Serbian, one Bosnian, find themselves trapped between lines of fire during the horrific civil-war hostilities in the former Yugoslavia. (Castro, 10/24)

PK Indian director Rajkumar Hirani places a young woman (Geetanjali Thapa) between two attractive men, at least one of whom is a space alien, and apparently without violating any of his contentious society's numerous religious and cultural taboos. (Castro, 10/24)

Scene from French director Jacques Audiard's Dheepan. Photo: Courtesy 3rd i

Dheepan French director Jacques Audiard is justly celebrated for terrifying excursions into subterranean pockets of his country's underground economy, where immigrants and social misfits are compelled to do the dirty work that greases the wheels of a modern, Euro-grubbing state. In 2001's Read My Lips, an ex-con teams up with a deaf woman to thwart a nightclub-based band of thieves; in 2009's A Prophet, Audiard ratchets up the stakes to portray the harrowing escapades of a half-Arab/half-Corsican kid who commits a gruesome murder at the behest of a Mafia crime boss.

Dheepan ups the ante again as a former rebel fighter, a one-time soldier with the Tamil Tigers, lands in a suburban Paris highrise ruled by white anti-immigrant thuggish youth. Dheepan is himself a fraud, entering the country with a wife and child who are not his. The film completes a trilogy of taut tales depicting the philosophical and personal challenges facing people trapped in the dangerous divide between haves and have-nots. Audiard presents emotional and psychosexual scenes guaranteed to push anyone's buttons. The story's finale in a bucolic English suburb only heightens the anxieties. This one, an odd mix of Marx, Che and Mickey Spillane, will stay with you. (UK-India-France, 2015, New People Cinema, check site for time)


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