DC South Asian Film Festival Celebrates Fine Independent Cinema


May 15, 2013

By Geeta Goindi

May 15, 2013

By Geeta Goindi

Indian Ambassador Mrs. Nirupama Rao (center) was the distinguished guest at the closing ceremony of the second annual DC South Asian Film Festival, on May 12.  Seen in this photo, from left to right, are: Geeta Singh, co-organizer of DCSAFF; Ambassador Rao; Manoj Singh, co-organizer of DCSAFF; and Mr. Sridharan Madhusudhanan, Counsellor of Press, Information and Culture at the Indian Embassy.  Photo credit: Ceasar Productions

Rockville, MD – The second annual DC South Asian Film Festival, one of the most acclaimed events in the national capital area, opened on a glamorous note, on May 10, Friday evening, with celebrities and models taking to the Red Carpet, followed by a special screening of the thought-provoking Farooque Sheikh-Deepti Naval starrer, ‘Listen Amaya’, which set the tone for an exceptional event.

And what a selection of films there was – a real treat for a discerning, erudite audience!  The weekend was packed with meaningful cinema!  Some 40 films were screened from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, in keeping with the festival’s theme: ‘Experience different cultures through films’.  From India, the regional reach was expanded to include movies in Hindi, Urdu, English, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Bangla, Punjabi, Assamese and Kannada.

Indian Ambassador Mrs. Nirupama Rao, lending weight and clout to the closing ceremony with her gracious presence, emphasized that “South Asia is a region of great importance globally”.  She told the audience, “I often say that on South Asia’s success depends the success of the world because it has within its confines a vast majority of the world’s population, at least 25 percent”.

Indian Ambassador Mrs. Nirupama Rao (center) was the distinguished guest at the closing ceremony of the second annual DC South Asian Film Festival, on Sunday.  In the photo, she is flanked by co-organizers of DCSAFF, Geeta Singh (left) and Manoj Singh

Commending the gifted husband-wife team, Manoj and Geeta Singh of Ceasar Productions, for organizing a festival highlighting the talent, technical excellence and substance in South Asian films, Ambassador Rao dwelt on the unifying force of such events!

“Often, we are hampered by political divisions, by differences between countries that have come up from time to time, and people outside of South Asia tend to focus on these differences rather than on the factors that unite us”, she said.  “I am so happy that you had a film festival that looks at South Asia as a whole and brings home to American audiences, particularly, the various characteristics that unite us, rather than divide us.  That is very important for us as South Asians to communicate to the rest of the world”.

The envoy pointed out that “this year, we celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema.  I would not use the term ‘Bollywood’ because the term came into being much later”, she said, to applause from an appreciative audience.  Noting that the Partition of India had not happened in the initial days of cinema, she mentioned, “the Pakistani and Bangladeshi film industry also shares in that anniversary”.

Throughout her remarks, Ambassador Rao reiterated the impact and import of regional cinema.  “The movie industry of South Asia really tells a story of South Asia’s people – their emotions, their hopes, their aspirations, their passion, their feelings about the world around them, the environment in which they live and their hopes for the future”, she said.  “I think it is essential that universities and institutions of learning in the west focus on (such) films.  As relations between the United States and India grow from strength-to-strength, I’m sure you will find a growing interest also in the film industry of our region, particularly of India because India is the largest film producer in the world.  We produce even more than what Hollywood produces and in different languages.  So, the film industry showcases the diversity of India very truly”.

Opening night at the second annual DC South Asian Film Festival.  Organizers Manoj (right) and Geeta Singh (left) of Ceasar Productions are seen with Miss India-USA and Miss India-DC Priyam Bhargava on the Red Carpet

Together with Ambassador Rao, the festival drew its fair share of distinguished guests and celebrities including: Kumar Barve, Majority Leader of the Maryland House of Delegates; acclaimed actors Farooque Sheikh, Sarita Joshi and Sanjay Suri; fine film-makers Goutam Ghose, Avinash Singh, Jaideep Verma, Nitin Adsul, Leena Jayaswal and Meher Jaffri; actress and model Pooja Batra; and Miss India USA / Miss India-DC Priyam Bhargava.  Mrs. Nilima Mehra, Global Television Network, served as the emcee.  Opening night featured a special Bharatanatyam performance by Medha Swaminathan, a student of Natananjali School of Dance, founded and directed by Lakshmi Swaminathan.

A highlight of the festival was a musical tribute to Jagjit Singh by Richmond-based ghazal singer Poojaa Shah Talwar, with ‘Shayari’ (Urdu poetry) by Farooque Sheikh.  “I had a fabulous weekend performing for a great audience at DCSAFF, meeting all the esteemed guests and film personalities, actors, directors, interviewing with TV channels, watching classic short films and much more”, gushed Poojaa, a disciple of Jagjit Singh.  She thanked Manoj and Geeta Singh for giving her the opportunity to perform at the festival and Farooque Sheikh for his introductory remarks, a testimony to his “amazing insight on the essence of Urdu poetry”, and “encouraging the audience to embrace and applaud ghazals just as heartily as any other art form”.

A highlight of the DCSAFF was a tribute to Jagjit Singh by his disciple Poojaa Shah Talwar (left).  She is seen here with Mrs. Nilima Mehra, Executive Producer and President, Global Television Network (center) and Priyam Bhargava, Miss India-USA and Miss India-DC

Addressing the audience on opening night, Majority Leader Kumar Barve admitted, “I have always been a great fan of independent film”.  Not so when it came to mainstream, commercial cinema.  “I think a lot of what is happening in film today is really very boring and trivial”, he said.  “How many ‘Transformer’ movies can you see?  But, I’ve always loved independent film from everywhere”.

Barve commended the organizers for bringing a South Asian film festival to Maryland.  “I’m so happy that you are choosing this area to showcase some of the most talented and exciting artistes”, he said.  “I hope that this will be a recurring event”.

It’s interesting to note that the film festival was held to fill a void in our area for such events. Talking to INDIA THIS WEEK, Manoj Singh said: “I think this was something that was lacking in Washington, DC.  Since I want to learn more and make feature films, I thought we should start something like this here, so we can have a platform for like-minded people to meet, talk, learn more about film-making — the whole process from script-writing to production and marketing”.

Geeta Singh informed us about the selection process for screening films at the festival.  “We get a lot of entries”, she disclosed, and “our criterion is that it has to be an independent film”.  She bemoaned the “sad state” of such films.  “Independent film-makers are making such beautiful films, but they are never released”, she said.  “No one can watch them.  Selecting them for the festival is a very difficult task because most of them are really good.  We have a passion for showcasing them.  Last year, we showed 18 movies, of which only two were released.  No one could watch the others.  They are true artistes who make these films”.

Actresses Pooja Batra (left) and Jyoti Singh at the opening ceremony of the second annual DC South Asian Film Festival, in Rockville

Farooque Sheikh, who is renowned for his role in films such as ‘Umrao Jaan’, ‘Chashme Badoor’, ‘Noorie’ and ‘Saath Saath’, to name a few, was here in the US to attend the DC and New York South Asian film festivals.  Speaking to INDIA THIS WEEK, he said: “It is people who are living here (US) who are from there (India) connecting with their cultural roots.  Nothing connects as nicely as the art form, and cinema is the amalgamation of all the art forms that we know.  It really brings back happy and warm memories for people who are here”.

The seasoned actor is not only well informed; he possesses a keen observation and a pleasing magnanimity when it comes to his field.  He told us: “What is more interesting, I find, this time is that there are young people who are interested in cinema of their own.  They are based in the US, but they are interested in their own kind of cinema which is a very encouraging sign.  So, that is one thing which I am enjoying this time”.

Acclaimed artistes – actor Farooque Sheikh and ghazal singer Mrs. Vatsala Mehra (left) at the opening ceremony of the second annual DC South Asian Film Festival, in Rockville

He hoped “the festivals could tap into the regular ticket-buying audience somehow, so that they develop an interest in this off-the-mainstream cinema.  The interest in mainstream cinema is perennial and thank God for that”, he said.  “But, if they (movie-goers) develop an interest in this other cinema as well, then I think it would benefit cinema and it would benefit them as well.  It’s a different kind of cinema that also needs to be seen”.

Farooque Sheikh pointed out that “there is a largely ‘educated’ audience here.  So, you cannot dish out just about any rubbish and expect it to pass”, he said, with candor.  They will scrutinize it a little more than the audience back home”.

About independent cinema, he stressed, “I think it is something that they (the audience here) need to get more of so that they understand there is the mega-budget, multi-star cinema coming from India and there is also this other cinema coming in which probably meets their standards more because this kind of cinema gives you something to think about.  You leave the auditorium with a thought.  That’s very important and that’s very nice”, he said.

We queried him about the film, ‘Listen Amaya’, in which he plays a protagonist.  “It’s a first-time writer, editor, director, producer combination of Mr. Avinash and his wife Geeta Singh”, he told us.  “It’s an interesting film, a new look at how an emotional relationship can happen at any age and how people who are not of that generation look upon that relationship” he said.

Indian Ambassador Mrs. Nirupama Rao presenting the award for ‘Best Director’ to Avinash Singh for the film ‘Listen Amaya’ at the second annual DC South Asian Film Festival.  Photo credit: Ceasar Productions

We caught up with Gautam Ghose, an acclaimed film-maker who is based in Kolkata.  He told us that while he has attended the international film festival in Washington a number of times, he is delighted that the South Asian community now has its own festival.  “I would suggest for next year that films be included from South East Asia – Philippines, Korea, Indonesia and Thailand”, he said.  “They are making wonderful films”.

He is a staunch supporter of film festivals.  “Otherwise you don’t have the opportunity to see these films from other countries, even Hindi films by independent film-makers”, he told us.  “In the process, you see the country – the elements, the different layers of the country”, he said.

Actor Noor Nagmi (left) with his family on the Red Carpet at the second annual DC South Asian Film Festival, in Rockville

We asked him about his film, ‘Shunya Awnko’ (Act Zero) which was being shown at the DC festival.  He replied, “It’s a multi-lingual film in Bengali, Hindi and English.  It’s a socio-political film. The film is about many Indias’ under one India.  Six characters are interacting with this conflicting India”.

Among the local films by South Asian American film-makers and directors which were screened at the festival were: ‘Roots of Love’ (Harjant Gill); ‘Crossing Lines’ (Leena Jayaswal and Indira Somani); ‘Together Forever’ (Nitin Adsul); ‘Widows’ Colony’ (Harpreet Kaur); and ‘Recuperation’ (Manoj Singh).

Actress and model Pooja Batra is flanked by guests at the opening ceremony of the second annual DC South Asian Film Festival, in Rockville

The organizers are concentrating their efforts on encouraging people to watch independent films.  “If people like them, independent film-makers may get a distributor or some platform to show their film”, Geeta told us.

Manoj Singh mentioned that next year, the film festival will likely be held in the Fall.  “We are going to continue to organize it”, he said.  “It is our passion”.

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