This autumn I feel more oppressed than usual by the relentless march of regional/generic film festivals that San Francisco Film Society stages a week after the Mill Valley Film Festival ends: Taiwan Film Days, French Cinema Now, New Italian Cinema, Cinema By the Bay, children's film, animation. It was little different a year ago, so maybe it's the excitement surrounding—and the viewing choices conflicting with—the SF Giants' participation in the World Series this year that has me so rattled.
But one filmfest that I greet each fall with satisfaction sans stress is 3rd i, or the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival. Maybe because it's screening safely after (joyfully, I hope at this writing) the World Series will have ended, or maybe it's just another great lineup I get to preview with confidence.
In its 8th year, 3rd i opens this Wednesday, November 3 at the VIZ Cinema in Japantown, continues November 4-5 at the Brava Theater in the Mission, and closes November 6-7 at the Castro Theatre. It is the definitive festival for catching the past year's best independent works of the South Asian continent and diaspora—plus a big Bollywood production and a masterwork from the past.
I'll comment on all the films I've seen in order from least to most impressive in my opinion. The three for whom I've written the catalogue descriptions, I'll rank without comment to avoid any perception of conflict of interest (although I'm dying to say what I thought of them).
This year's Bollywood entry, I Hate Luv Storys (India: Punit Malhotra, 2010), was released in Indian theatres in July and was a hit by all the usual measures. A sampling of reviews assures that it doesn't blaze any new narrative or stylistic trails. Knowing it will pack the Castro without any help from me, I'll decide at the last minute whether to see it or not.
The Well / Vihir (India: Umesh Kulkarni, 2009)—This is the film I most look forward to seeing. The reviews I've read go lyrical in praising this Marathi-language remembrance of adolescence, a product of Amitabh Bachchan's production house and closing-night film of this past July's first annual London Indian (Independent) Film Festival.
Road, Movie (USA/India: Dev Benegal, 2009)—More than one movie this year has been marred by a sullen, overprivileged male protagonist. Vishnu (Abhay Deol, Dev D) here nearly fits the bill, offering to drive a mobile cinema truck across the deserts of Rajasthan to escape from his father's old-school hair-oil enterprise. Along the way he collects passengers who overcompensate for his sulks: a smartass boy, a domineering mechanic, and a beautiful water-seeking gypsy (played by the radiant Tannishtha Chatterjee of Brick Lane fame, who is scheduled to appear at the screening). To add a bit of Road Warrior menace to a cute magic-realist plot, an evil "waterlord" demands to know why Vishnu has tampered with his water supply. Vishnu's resourcefulness and newfound awareness of cultures less privileged than his own determine his fate, and you can bet that movies and hair oil play important and entertaining roles. If nothing else, I enjoyed seeing the Jodhpur and Jaisalmer locales I visited many years ago photographed so beautifully.
Slackistan (Pakistan/UK: Hammad Khan, 2009)—Anyone who associates Pakistan solely with the Taliban will be jarred by this look at the wasted lives of middle-class, American School-bred college graduates stuck in their hometown of Islamabad, "a city that always sleeps." There, it seems, aspiring filmmaker Hasan can do what any kid can do in suburban L.A. except find a copy of Scorsese's Mean Streets. (Is it possible that there's not a single cinema in the town, as he says?) Hasan is another overprivileged male protagonist in a funk which keeps him from picking up the expensive video camera he stores in a box. Then sure as you can say "Johnny Boy," a plot develops: Hasan's best friend Sherry owes big-time gambling money to the most unpleasant character in town. At this point I'm grateful for anything that can shake Hasan out of his narcissistic brooding, if only to bring an end to this fitfully interesting but mainly soporific saga of South Asian slackerdom.
Journey from Zanskar (Tibet/USA: Frederick Marx, 2010)—Hoop Dreams producer Marx presents another documentary about poor struggling kids, this time in a place as far from the rest of the world as a region can be: the village of Zanskar in Northern India on its border with Tibet. Pursuing his bodhisattva vows to help eliminate human suffering, Monk Geshe Lobsang Yonten takes 16 village children on a spectacular epic trek across treacherous mountain passes and temperatures dipping below zero, to enroll them in Buddhist schools and monasteries in the town of Manali near Dharamsala. The children's parents are torn between hope for their kids' (and their village's) improved future and the certain knowledge that, once they see their kids enrolled, they won't see them again for 10 to 15 years. With every painful step of the way lightened by the round-faced Geshe's good nature and works, the film earns its suspense and tears and the optimistic attitude of its final frames.
At My Doorstep (India: Nishtha Jain, 2009)
LSD: Love, Sex aur Dhoka / Love, Sex & Betrayal (India: Dibakar Banerjee, 2010)
Four Lions (UK: Christopher Morris, 2010)—Islamic jihadists are a familiar stereotype nowadays, and although they're depicted as poor planners or psychotics, nowhere are they depicted as complete buffoons as they are in this blackest of black comedies. Four South Asian British Muslims—well, a fifth is white—vow jihad and decide to inflict terror on the London Marathon. Led by a father who distorts the plot of the "Lion King" story he tells his son at bedtime, the cell communicates via a children's chat site and disguises themselves as big fluffy animals on the day of the planned attack. You won't know whether to laugh or cry as you watch this, and some of the time you'll be shocked into doing both.
Asshole / Gandu (India: Q, 2010)—Sheer visual exuberance and punk musical rage fuel this expressionist portrait of a loser (or gandu = asshole) living in Kolkata with his slatternly mother. When her boyfriend Dasbabu arrives to have sex with her, Gandu crawls along the floor to steal from his wallet. When he's not hanging out at Dasbabu's Internet café and eavesdropping on a girl Skyping with her boyfriend, he's performing beat-box or writing hiphop lyrics and dreaming about a demo. But most of his days are spent masturbating and smoking heroin with his pal Riksha. The film's lustrous black and white bursts into color for a beautifully explicit erotic interlude between Gandu and a voluptuous, meowing pink-wigged creature. Wide-angle photography and liberal split-screen images lend propulsive energy to an ordinary story. Director Q will appear at the screening to answer your no doubt puzzled questions.
Third Person Singular Number (Bangladesh: Mostofa Sarwar Farooki, 2009)—If I hadn't read an overview of this film as a story of a woman's search for independence, I would have wrongly judged it a horror film based on its opening scenes. Ruba, a young woman just kicked out of her common-law husband's household when he is sent to prison, and arousing unwanted male curiosity simply for being out on the streets alone, asks another woman for the location of a Dhaka police station. Incredibly, the woman identifies herself as the real-life Shima Chowdhury, an 18-year-old garment worker raped and murdered while in "safe-custody" at a Chittagong police station in 1996, whose police assailants were all acquitted a year later. Shima herself had been arrested for the spurious charge of walking the streets with a man to whom she wasn't married.
Soon it becomes clear that this is not a horror film but something much more complex. Ruba survives her own period of police custody and finds a shaky living situation while being repeatedly turned away for being a single woman wanting to live alone. After a series of undesirable offers by middle-aged men, she moves into a sleek high-rise apartment with a friend (Topu) who's now become a popular hiphop artist. She herself gets a good job as a copywriter. Her common-law husband is deteriorating mentally while serving his two-year sentence, and Ruba's unflagging concern for him is just one thing that makes this film interesting past the one-hour mark. Ruba starts being visited by her younger selves, of which the 13-year-old is a strident scold reminding her of her wifely duties. Meanwhile Topu, who confounds the usual stereotype of the successful pop star, waits patiently for a sign that Ruba wants to bestow the sexual favors she's been withholding all this time.
The tone of a number of these intermediate scenes was hard for me to read. Usually I would attribute that to my own thickness, a filmmaker's incompetence or that rare third possibility: a film's determination to depict a complex and unstable inner life. Ultimately I give the film credit for that final possibility, as it moves into a series of resolutions that are open-ended and grounded in a real world. I'll vote for Third Person Singular Number as the freshest and most intellectually stimulating film of this year's lineup. It's also Bangladesh's submission for the Foreign Film Oscar next year, an honor for which that country has never been nominated.
In Camera (India: Ranjan Palit, 2009)
The Blue Tower (UK: Smita Bhide, 2009)—The title refers to a big blue gasometer tower with the letters "LH" that point airplanes to London Heathrow. At a key point in this film, the blue tower ominously replaces the romantic red brick tower in protagonist Mohan's mind. Both structures are the two most famous landmarks of the west London district of Southall, known for its huge Punjabi community. Young and unemployed, Mohan is stuck in a loveless arranged marriage to Asha. He made a promise to his parents before they died that he would care for his Aunt Kamla, who lies rooted upstairs in her bed like a family curse. Now she's snarling and complaining about Judy, the new Anglo nurse who's come to care for her. In Auntie-ji's closet lie dozens of boxes holding wads of cash she won't entrust to a bank. "She's your future," his parents told him, and as he senses an ally in the increasingly attractive Judy his dark plans begin to form. The film's intensely palpable and claustrophobic sense of place infuses its gradual plot complications with dread, leading to a shocking resolution as in the best neo-noir.
Madhumati (India: Bimal Roy, 1958)—The only way I've been able to review this influential classic, accurately described as "a gothic noir about reincarnation and revenge," is in 10-minute unsubtitled chunks on YouTube, on my iPhone yet. This unpleasant experience (no, I didn't see the whole thing) excited rather than diminished my desire to see this lush musical romance uninterrupted in 35mm and soft-titled (English titles projected live on-screen) at the Castro. It's the only collaboration between director Bimal Roy and screenwriter Ritwik Ghatak, whose masterpiece The Cloud-Capped Star we saw at 3rd i 2005.
Cross-published on Twitch.