Film festival Director Aseem Chhabra speaks on a panel at the 2023 NYIFF. Photo by: Carolina Valencia

There’s so much more to India’s film industry than Bollywood. That’s abundantly clear in the New York Indian Film Festival’s lineup

Epicenter is a proud media sponsor of the film festival, which takes place Friday, May 31 to Sunday, June 2 at the Village East by Angelika. We have a limited number of free tickets available for our members for the Saturday and Sunday screenings, and we have discounted tickets for nonmembers. If you are interested, contact us at Not a member yet? We also have a limited number of discounted tickets available (you really should consider becoming a member though!).

We also caught up with film festival director Aseem Chhabra to ask him about themes among the movies being shown, his “can’t miss” recommendations, and how Indian film is faring on the global stage. Edited excerpts:

Mitra: It’s great to be with you again. I love the background of this film festival. Could you catch us up on why we need a New York Indian Film Festival? 

Aseem: This is our 24th year. This was the first Indian or South Asian film festival in all of North America. It started in 2001, and it’s very significant to talk about why we have it. We launched after 9/11, when people were sort of afraid to step out. 

The mayor of the city [at the time], Rudy Giuliani, asked arts and other social organizations to basically arrange events so that people would come out. In fact, the Tribeca Film Festival started as a response to that. Soon we realized that there was a great need for the vetted audience that we have. It’s not just the Brown South Asians. This involves people of every shade and color of New York City. Indian film is a big part of the Indian arts. And we are bringing quality Indian films from India and the diaspora. 

Listen to Mitra’s and Aseem’s full conversation in our podcast.

Mitra: Were you there 24 years ago for the first event? 

Assem Yes. I wasn’t working for the festival, but one of the best moments I remember is Mira Nair had won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for “Monsoon Wedding” just a few days before 9/11. At NYIFF, “Monsoon Wedding” was the closing night film and the New York premiere of the film. 

Mitra What an amazing story, especially because she’ll be with you again this year, correct? 

Aseem: That’s true. She’s been a big supporter of the festival from the beginning. 

This year, we are going to show a film called “Fire,” a film made in the late 1990s starring Shabana Azmi. This is Shabana Azmi’s 50th year in cinema. In 1974, she acted in the film “Ankur,” which means “seedling.” So we are celebrating 50 years of Shabana, and Mira is going to have a conversation with her. 

Mitra: That’s great. The Shabana Azmi-Mira Nair conversation is getting some buzz. 

Aseem Tickets are almost sold out for that.

I’m proud of that programming. Once Shabana came on board, I emailed Mira; she keeps moving between Delhi and New York and Uganda. She responded in less than 12 hours and said, “Yes, I’d definitely like to do it.”

Red carpet arrivals at the 2023 NYIFF. Photo by: Carolina Valencia

Mitra: What are the must-see films of this festival? You always give us a good taste of the lineup. 

Aseem A few themes have emerged. First of all, we have a few films that are focusing on the diaspora. 

  • The opening film is called “Dear Jassi,” which is directed by Tarsem Singh. He directed “The Cell” with J. Lo and directed the music video for REM’s “Losing My Religion.” This is his first film set in India. It’s in Punjabi and English. An Indian-Canadian, a young woman from Vancouver, falls in love with a young man in Punjab. It’s very, very powerful. It won the 2023 Platform Award at the Toronto Film Festival. 

  • We have a film that’s looking at the Indian-Australian diaspora called “Sahela,” an LGBTQ story about a man who, after marriage, comes to terms with his sexuality. 

  • We have a film called “Yellow Bus,” which is set in Abu Dhabi, about the Indian working class, and a tragedy happens.

  • Then we have a film called “Paradise,” which is about an Indian couple traveling to Sri Lanka during the economic crisis in Sri Lanka last year. That’s a co-production between India and Sri Lanka. 

So there’s a range of stories about Indians in different parts of the world. We also have a set of films about films and filmmakers. 

  • We have a wonderful documentary called “Merchant Ivory.” James Ivory and Ismail Merchant had some of the best collaborations, a business as well as in their personal relationship. It tracks their work from the early ‘60s where they made a bunch of films in India— “The Householder,” “Shakespeare Wallah,” “The Guru”—and then went on to the U.S. and then they went on to make some of the best British dramas, like “Howards End,” “A Room with a View,” “The Remains of the Day,” until Ismail Merchant’s death in 2005. James Ivory is going to be 96 this year, and he’s going to be there at the festival. I’ll have a conversation with him. 

  • Then we’ll show a documentary about a very well-known Bengali actress and filmmaker, Aparna Sen. It’s called “Parama.”

  • We have another film called “Padatik” in Bengali, a fictional narrative story about Bengali filmmaker Mrinal Sen.And we have a film about an Assamese film family called “The House of the Baruas.” The film looks at the house, but it also looks at the various generations that played a prominent part of the Assamese film community, and how it now faces betrayal from Assam. 

Mitra: I’m excited about that one because I’m moderating the talkback. I knew right away the house that you were talking about. The grandson of one of the filmmakers from that house lives in Delaware and is friends with our family.

Aseem: We have films in 12 or 13 languages from across India: Malayalam, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, and Assamese. 

There’s a wonderful film called “The Umesh Chronicles” about a Kashmiri family, settled in Uttar Pradesh, and it has this very beautiful, tender feeling of nostalgia. One of the most beautiful things about this film is that Amitabh Bachchan plays a very strong supporting role; it’s not like those big action Amitabh Bachchan films.

2023 NYIFF; Epicenter and NYU hand out awards. Photo by: Carolina Valencia

Mitra: So over the last few years, the festival has sort of become the preview of what will be nominated for India and the Oscars. Seems like there’s been quite a bit of energy around India in the documentary category, no? 

Aseem: The last three years there’ve been Indian films in the documentary category nominated. Last year we showed a film called “To Kill a Tiger,” directed by an Indian-Canadian filmmaker and that film was nominated for an Oscar. 

I am really happy about, you know, the way our programming works because the festival is followed by several Indian film festivals in Europe, and in the U.S. and Canada. I’ve been told by many programmers when I run into them in film festivals that they actually look at our program and then they pick films from there. It’s a nice compliment. 

Mitra: I love that about this festival. So much of film criticism focuses  on getting the proverbial asses in the seats, like it’s the preview or the review on whether you should see it. But when you see a film, you want to talk about it right away. I love the talkbacks you all do. 

Aseem: You get to hear the director. In most cases we have the directors or maybe the producers to talk about the making of the film. Why did they make the film? 

I’m a film journalist and many, many years ago, I went to a screening with a friend of mine who was also your friend, Arthur Pais. He then took me to meet Mira Nair in 1983; he was interviewing her as she had made a documentary called “So Far From India,” which was shown at MoMA. That was the first time I actually sat in front of a filmmaker, hearing her talk about a film. I just watched, and I said, this is fascinating. And that’s what led me to film journalism. And that’s what we’re doing here at the festival also.

Mitra: Can we talk more into the number of documentaries coming out of India right now? Is there a particular moment that India is reacting to? What is behind this phenomenon? 

Assem Festivals and the Academy have been reacting to Indian documentaries for the past four, five, six years now. There has been at least one documentary from India playing at Sundance. Sundance is the festival that starts the process itself. 

Many of the filmmakers are coming from a particular university in Delhi called Jamia Millia Islamia university. Many of them then go to various documentary labs, in London, Calcutta, and then across Europe, where they fine-tune their projects and they get funding also. 

This year we have five documentaries. 

  • We have a wonderful documentary by Anand Patwardhan who is the godfather of Indian documentaries. This is a very personal film called “The World Is Family.” It’s basically about his parents and his parents’ involvement in the Indian freedom movement. And so he was filming the pair for a very long time and uses old footage. It’s a lovely film.

  • We have a documentary called “Zende: The Supercop.” It’s about a very, very, outspoken, loud, man who’s retired now, a police officer from Mumbai, who, among other things, caught the well-known fugitive criminal and serial killer Charles Sobhraj. He’s half Vietnamese, half French, a criminal who is a free man after all these years living in France. 

Mitra: You’re sitting in Cannes now for the film festival. What are people talking about?

Aseem: This will be the biggest year for Indian cinema here because there are seven films, including a short film from India. And for the first time in 30 years, an Indian film is playing in the main competition: It’s “All We Imagine As Light” by Payal Kapadia, the filmmaker who already won the top documentary award a few years ago for “A Night of Knowing Nothing.” Other films to note: “Shameless,” which is actually made by a Bulgarian filmmaker set in India and Nepal, and “Santosh,” set in India by a British-Indian filmmaker. Also “Sister Midnight” is a very quirky story about a young bride who comes to Mumbai and she’s bored and slowly becomes a vampire. It has this bizarre, very interesting, quirky music. This is the third year that a restored Indian film has been shown at the Cannes Film Festival. They showed a 48-year-old film called “Manthan,” made by filmmaker Shyam Benegal. There’s a restoration of the film by the Film Heritage Foundation, and it’s actually going to play in 70 cities across India. So it’s a great year. I hope to bring perhaps a few of these films to New York, unless they get theatrical release before that.  (Editor’s Update: Days after this interview, Kapadia indeed clinched the Grand Prix award at Cannes, the first Indian to do so.)

Mitra: My last question: What do you want New Yorkers to know about the film festival? And what do you need from them? 

Aseem: People need to realize we don’t show Bollywood films because most Bollywood films get released theatrically. We show strong independent films from different regions of India in the different languages that I had mentioned. These are films that you may not be able to see in New York again. These are independent artistic voices, and very powerful stories. Some are very fun stories. People should buy tickets.

There’s lots of choices, too many choices, which is good. 

Mitra: That’s great. Congratulations, Aseem. We look forward to seeing you at the festival. 

Aseem Thank you. 

Reminder: Epicenter has a limited number of free tickets available for our members for the Saturday and Sunday screenings, and we have discounted tickets for nonmembers. If you are interested, contact us at Not a member yet? We also have a limited number of discounted tickets available (you really should consider becoming a member though!).

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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