DC South Asian Film Festival Showcases Finest in Cinema


September 23, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Gaithersburg, MD: Now in its third year and steadfastly moving from strength-to-strength, the DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) drew discerning artistes and audiences to view the finest in cinema at the sprawling and scenic Rio Entertainment Center.

September 23, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Gaithersburg, MD: Now in its third year and steadfastly moving from strength-to-strength, the DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF) drew discerning artistes and audiences to view the finest in cinema at the sprawling and scenic Rio Entertainment Center.

Manoj and Geeta Singh, organizers of the highly acclaimed DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF).  Photo credit: Ceasar Productions

Organized by Manoj and Geeta Singh of Ceasar Productions, the three-day festival attracts among the best talents in the field from South Asia and across the US.  This year was no exception!  Headlining the event were actress Nandita Sen, actors Manoj Bajpayee and Senthil Ramamurthy, directors Prakash Jha, Nagesh Kukunoor and Bedabrata Pain, and comedian Dan Nainan – all celebrated artistes in their own right!

The festival featured 12 short and 16 feature films, including two full-length films by Indian-American directors: ‘Arrange to Settle’ (Ishu Krishna) and ‘Brahmin Bulls’ (Mahesh Pailoor).  Additional attractions were informative workshops, insightful panel discussions, and a great platform for local talented artistes.

Actor Manoj Bajpayee (third from left) is seen with Geeta Singh, co-organizer of the DC South Asian Film Festival

The sparkling opening night saw: a fashion show with models showcasing an ethnic-wear collection by designer Namita Arora; melodious singing by supremely gifted 12-year-old Saanika Mahashetty; and a riveting Bharatanatyam dance performance by Medha Swaminathan, a student of the Bethesda-based Natananjali School of Dance founded and directed by Lakshmi Swaminathan.

Closing night festivities included the awaited awards ceremony with the historical film ‘Chittagong’, set against the backdrop of a 1930 armed uprising against the British Raj, bagging top honors.  Directed by Bedabrata Pain and starring Manoj Bajpayee in a pivotal role, it won awards in the Best Feature Film and Best Director categories.  Among other winners were: Indian-American Senthil Ramamurthy – best actor for ‘Brahmin Bulls’; Monali Thakur – best actress for her role in Nagesh Kukunoor’s film, ‘Lakshmi’; Pakistani filmmaker Iram Parveen Bilal’s thriller, ‘Josh’ – Best Story and Best Film in the People’s Choice category; and Indian-American director Vandana Narang’s ‘The Ring’ – Best Short Film, People’s Choice.

Renowned director Prakash Jha is flanked by ghazal and Sufi singer Poojaa Shah Talwar (left) and Amarjeet Talwar at the third annual DC South Asian Film Festival

Manoj Singh said, that organizing such a festival is “a very challenging job.  You are tracking which films to screen – the latest releases just before the festival, you are tracking the actors and directors of the film and their availability to attend the film festival.  The right combination has to happen”, he said.  “One of the attractions of film festivals is to meet actors and directors, rather than just watching the film”.

We asked director Prakash Jha, whose films ‘Damul’ and ‘Parinati’ were screened at the DCSAFF, about the relevance of such events.  He replied, “You get an opportunity to interact with a targeted audience and people who are interested in cinema.  It gives you a good feedback”.

Leading a discussion on film-making, Jha told the audience, “I have no agenda to change the world”.  He admitted that he does “have a curiosity and a questioning mind” and he “uses films as a medium to tell a story”.

And what amazing stories he tells: ‘Damul’ (1984) is a film about caste oppression; ‘Parinati’ (1989) is a folk tale about human greed and the havoc it causes; ‘Mrityudand’ (1997) highlights male aggression and women’s empowerment; ‘GangaaJal’ (2003) focuses on the relationship between society and its police; ‘Apaharan’ (2005) reveals how in the absence of opportunities, youth take to crime; ‘Raajneeti’ (2010) is a film about politics which took the nation by storm; ‘Aarakshan’ (2011) dwells on the commercialization of education; and ‘Satyagraha’ (2013) is about good governance, the right of ordinary citizens to serve.

It’s interesting to note that Jha considers Naseeruddin Shah as the “complete actor” which is, indeed, a compliment as he is not easily impressed.  “Some of the great actors in India are never beyond their own personality”, he said, during the course of the discussion.  “They are playing themselves time and time again.  Most of the actors don’t even know how to walk.  They walk in their own gait”.

Actress Nandita Das with director Nagesh Kukunoor at the third annual DC South Asian Film Festival, organized by Manoj and Geeta Singh of Ceasar Productions, at the Rio Entertainment Center in Gaithersburg, MD.  Photo credit: Ceasar Productions

Regarding the relevance of film festivals, director and screenwriter Nagesh Kukunoor believed they “are very necessary”.  He told us, “When you make a film, you need a platform for it to be shown.  Anywhere you can find an audience, it’s great!  There is no right and wrong.  Yes, eventually, the Holy Grail is a commercial release.  But, film festivals are great stepping stones.  That’s how I got my break”.

Nagesh recalled how his film ‘Hyderabad Blues’ (1998) was selected to be showcased at the Mumbai Film Festival organized by Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI), how he didn’t have the money to fly back to the US where he was based.  “But, I went and the rest is history”, he said.  “The film was seen at the festival, picked up by a distributor and I had a career.  So, film festivals can make the dream happen.  They are very necessary”.

‘Hyderabad Blues’ went on to become one of the most successful independent films in India and Nagesh honed his skills as a director with subsequent films – ‘Rockford’ (1999), ‘3 Deewarein’ (2003), ‘Iqbal’ (2005), ‘Dor’ (2006), ‘8×10 Tasveer’ (2009), ‘Mod’ (2011) and ‘Lakshmi’ (2014) which was screened at the DCSAFF.

We learnt that he gives paramount importance to the story.  “I go where the story takes me”, he disclosed.  “A lot of times, I let the story talk.  I don’t consciously say, I’m going to make a comedy or a very dramatic film.  I just wait for the right story to grab me”.  He averred, “The starting point for any film-maker is when you feel absolutely maniacal about it – that you want to tell the story.  That’s why I’ve straddled genres, expectations”, he revealed.

His most recent film, ‘Lakshmi’, revolves around a girl who is forced into prostitution.  “It’s a true story”, Nagesh told us.  “The heroic element is when she was rescued and she actually took her traffickers to court and won the case”.

He disclosed, “It’s a very personal movie for me.  I believe passionately in this cause.  There is an NGO that I have been working with and to come across such a true-life, historic story and actually use it to showcase something horrible that goes on in our society was really a life-changing experience for me”.

Nagesh noted, “Almost all the prostitution that happens in India happens at a socio-economic level where it is all forced.  There is no consensual prostitution”.

He believed the much-publicized case of beleaguered actress Shweta Basu Prasad, who was recently sent to a remand home in Hyderabad after being caught in a prostitution racket, was an aberration and not the norm.  Incidentally, Shweta won accolades for her performance in his award-winning film, ‘Iqbal’.

Renowned director Prakash Jha on the Red Carpet at the third annual DC South Asian Film Festival (DCSAFF).  Photo credit: Suzheila Reyes-Bunnag

Regarding the DCSAFF, Nandita Das noted, “It’s a small festival.  What I like is the spirit.  It has got it’s heart in the right place and it’s trying to bring good cinema to the audience of this region”.  She pointed out that the organizers, aided by volunteers, “are really making it South Asian because they are getting films from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.  It’s a good beginning”, she said.  “I’m sure the festival will grow and learn from its challenges”.  On her own part, she affirmed, “I’m always happy to support new initiatives because I know it is very difficult to start something”.

When we asked her about the importance of such festivals, she pondered, “I think we either put them on pedestals and say if this film has gone to a festival, it must be good, or we run them down and think just because it’s gone to a festival, it doesn’t mean it’s a good film.  It’s neither”, she stressed.  “A festival is yet another platform to showcase films, to have an opportunity to interact with actors, directors and film-makers.  I think it’s a wonderful platform especially for independent cinema where the space is shrinking.  Much of the space has been taken over by the mainstream cinema.  So, film festivals provide the space for independent cinema, for audiences to be able to see these films.  Otherwise they would never see them”.

Director Nagesh Kukunoor with Kamana Sharma on opening night of the third annual DC South Asian Film Festival in Gaithersburg, MD

As an actress, Nandita is best known for her performances in Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ (1996) and ‘Earth’ (1998), ‘Bawander’ (2000) directed by Jagmohan Mundhra and ‘Aamaar Bhuvan’ (2002) directed by Mrinal Sen.

Always a trailblazer, she was at the DCSAFF with a new endeavor, ‘Between the Lines’, which is a CinePlay, a word she has coined.  “We are trying to capture theater in a cinematic way”, she explained.

‘Between the Lines’ is a home production with her husband, Subodh Maskara.  “It’s my husband’s initiative”, Nandita told us.  “I’m playing more of a supportive role”.

It’s really a riveting concept and, as we discovered, so relevant – capturing theater cinematically!  “Anything new, of course, is challenging”, Nandita said.  “But, so many plays have just come and gone.  You will never be able to see some great classics because they have not been documented.  They have not been archived.  Also, theater has remained, sadly, an elite activity because it’s only in urban areas, it’s a little more expensive, you have to have access in terms of time, space, money, etc.  It hasn’t really reached out to other audiences.  So, when you capture it on film, it becomes accessible to many more people whether you are in New Jersey or a small town in India.  It’s archived for posterity; you can see it”.

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