Epicenter is a proud partner of the New York Indian Film Festival, which takes place May 11-14 mostly at the Village East by Angelika. Publisher S. Mitra Kalita sat down with festival director Aseem Chhabra to ask about the event’s history, which films are must-watch, and this moment in South Asian arts and culture. This is the first of two parts, to preview the festival. Part 2 features us talking about the desi explosion in theater (Monsoon Wedding The Musical debuts May 6, Life of Pi is currently on Broadway and Mughal-e-Azam is coming to Lincoln Center in early June). 

S. Mitra Kalita: Why do we have an Indian film festival in New York City? Let’s start there. 

Aseem Chhabra: Our festival is 23 years old. It started in the late fall of 2001 after the attacks on the Twin Towers when people were afraid to go out. One of the things that then Mayor Giuliani at that time did was ask the arts organizations to organize events.

In fact, the Tribeca Film Festival was born out of that, in the spring of 2002. Our festival started in November 2001.

SMK: Well, we’re proud we’ve been covering you for the last few years. I know you put a lot of thought into what opens the festival, what closes it and everything in between. Tell me a little bit about what we should be sure to catch. 

AC: This year, we have two very strong films opening and closing. As a coincidence, both deal with middle-aged women with dementia, although a very different story thematically. There’s substantial star power from the Indian film industry. 

The opening film is called Three of Us, and it stars Shefali Shah. If people saw Delhi Crime

SMK: To clarify, Delhi Crime is a series on Netflix. 

AC: Yes, and she was the lead, the main cop of that. Three of Us is a lovely story about a woman in the early stages of dementia who starts to feel that she’s forgetting things.

And she tells her husband that she wants to go visit this particular town, which her husband didn’t even know about, where she grew up, where she spent a few years as a teenager. So she goes there and then reconnects with her old friends and old love, you know, teenage crushes kind of a story. It’s very beautifully textured and it’s beautifully shot. 

I saw Three of Us at the International Film Festival in Goa in November. It was sold out. I somehow managed to get in. There are times you will genuinely weep. But throughout the film you are smiling. It had a very different effect on me than anything I’ve seen before. It’s very gentle. 

The closing film is called Goldfish, and it’s an English language film. It has Kalki Koechlin, a French actress who was born in India and lives in India. It’s a story about her coming to England to see her mother who’s in the advanced stages of dementia and we learn Kalki’s character is half British. 

SMK: What trends did you see in submissions? 

AC: Trends evolve. I’m looking more for films in different languages, as much as representation of India, the South Indian languages and films from the East.

We have powerful films about rape, a father’s quest to get justice for his daughter in To Kill a Tiger. Then the other one is called Siya, which is inspired by a true life case where a young girl was gang raped also. 

SMK: The last two Oscars have seen Indian nominees in the documentary category with Writing With Fire and All That Breathes, and The Elephant Whisperers, which won. Are you all making an effort in this space? 

AC: We have four or five documentaries. One is slightly short; it’s called Colonel Kalsi. It’s about a Sikh man in the armed forces and he wanted to wear a turban, and that’s a part of his faith, but he’s also an American. He wanted to serve America.

To Kill a Tiger is a doc. There’s a lovely documentary called Urf (AKA) about how in small towns in India, there are men who look like Bollywood stars, like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, and they make public appearances and they dance on stage.

SMK: That reminds me of that great film, Supermen of Malegaon

AC: Yeah, it’s actually very similar.

SMK: I wanted to put in a plug for two things: One I will be moderating a discussion after the Colonel Kalsi film with Col. Kalsi himself. And Epicenter is featured in one of your documentaries, Bring it to the People, about vaccine equity. 

AC: Yes, there’s also another very interesting program we do with an NYU professor who does these one-minute cell phone  films with his students. He makes them go shoot and teaches them how to edit it down to one minute. He gives them a Bollywood theme, and they’ll play with Bollywood songs; they make their own narrative story in exactly one minute.

Next week: South Asian works on and off Broadway

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

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