There’s more diversity to Indian cinema than colorful Bollywood musicals, as the new, gay-run South Asian Film Festival is out to prove
If you mention Indian filmmaking to someone familiar with world cinema, he would probably immediately think Bollywood — splashy, colorful, light-hearted musicals with handsome men, pretty women and a happy ending. But there’s much more to South Asian filmmaking — to South Asian culture — than what you can see every weekend at a multiplex. Indeed, the diversity would probably surprise most South Asians, as well.
“There’s lots of cinema verite and independent filmmaking coming out of South Asia, [dealing with] issues like human sex trafficking, or an artists’ colony being destroyed by the government — things I didn’t know about until I saw these films,” says Jitin Hingorani. And that’s one of the reasons he founded the DFW South Asian Film Festival, which has its inaugural three-day run at the Angelika Plano next week.
“Dallas is the fifth largest media market in the country and the only one without a festival targeting South Asians — those from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka — specifically,” Hingorani says. We’re not showing a single Bollywood film — that’s on purpose. Many of these films have never seen the light of day — all either Texas, U.S. or world premieres. But at the end of the day, these are the true stories of South Asian lives.”
Accordingly, they span a spectrum, from family programming to women’s programming, and, perhaps most surprisingly for a fledgling film fest, LGBT issues. Indeed, much of that diversity is represented on the film fest’s advisory board itself: of the 18 members, four are gay men, and two of these —Hingorani and Tanveer Rahman — from South Asia themselves.
“I assure you that was not intentional, but we definitely have people I found synergy with and who have been supportive,” Hingorani says. “I reached out to Tanveer not because he’s gay, but because he’s a friend and so involved in marketing a media. And my partner Patrick [came on board] because he’s a complete Indophile since we met.”
Still, both men admit that breaking the barrier of showcasing gay issues in the South Asian community requires effort.
“They shy away from it,” Rahman concedes, “but it was very import in our thinking process [to include LGBT programming] because our community hasn’t embraced it as much as the mainstream community. It is a really an issue we have to reach out to.”
Two LGBT films will be screened at the festival, as a single program: The short documentary The Asian Pride Project, immediately followed by Fire in the Blood, a feature-length documentary about HIV/AIDS told through the story of an Indian man who is HIV-positive.
“We picked these films because they have such amazing stories to tell,” Hingorani says. “We want [the Asian community] to be more accepting and encouraging so kids don’t feel trapped [and can be more open about gay issues].”
Rahman himself has done his part to spread a sense of inclusion. For five-and-a-half years, he has co-hosted the Bengali-language talk show Radio Adda on FunAsia Radio, without hiding his orientation.
“The LGBT issue within our community is important to me personally since I got involved in the [LGBT and Bengali] communities. [Being gay] has been an accepted factor and they have come to me and thanked me for being out. I hope these movies do something similar for our community.”
It’s not just LGBT films, however, that the new festival is focused on; films starring the likes of Gillian Anderson, Mary Steenburgen and Justin Bartha, as well as directors from Singapore and Australia and Oscar winners like Emma Thompson and Jeffrey D. Brown are involved. The unifying theme has been to showcase how South Asians live in the real world. (Many of the films are in English, in part to appeal to the Dallas audiences, since more than a dozen languages are spoken by South Asians.)
Nevertheless, this is largely new ground for everyone. For three years, Hingorani did marketing and public relations for the New York Indian Film Festival, and Rahman has served as a judge for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas, but starting from scratch has presented a host of new challenges.
“ I do PR and event management and was a television reporter and anchor covering arts and entertainment, so I understand this process better than you know,” Hingorani says. “But it’s a lot more pressure being the founder and festival director, cuz you really appreciate how much people go through when you have a bird’s-eye view of everything from venues to tickets to after-parties.”
The process has been a grueling one, taking a year to get off the ground. Hingorani and his staff have “consciously curated every film — this isn’t a submission festival, it’s an invitation-only festival. We picked films that were generating audience buzz and winning awards [overseas].”
In total, 15 filmmakers will be flown in to attend the opening night VIP party and participate in post-screening Q&As. “We really want to create a true film festival atmosphere,” he says. “I am shocked at how many people who are not South Asian are buying tickets — like 30 percent. It took the New York Indian Film Festival 10 years to get to those numbers.”
And efforts are already underway for the second annual festival. “I already know what film festivals I’m going to, which board members will attend and that we want to focus on regional films,” Hingorani says. “We’re here to stay.”
Tickets are available for The Asian Pride Project/Fire in the Blood, which screens Feb. 28 at 2:15 p.m. with the filmmakers in attendance.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 20, 2015.