I always feel semi-miserable near the end of October. It's because I've seen just a handful of films from the San Francisco Film Society's (and other bodies') glut of autumn film festivals or missed out on others entirely. I feel I can never keep up with what I should be seeing, which in my blacker moods I've guessed is exactly how these film entities want me to feel. But then I get the call to look over the yearly offerings of the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, aka 3rd i, and I cheerfully try to see every DVD screener that comes my way. There's no angst, because every work is rewarding in some way. This year's program is especially robust, and I'm hard put not to recommend spending the entire five days attending it. 3rd i launches Wednesday November 9 at the Roxie Theater, where it continues screening films Thursday and Friday, moves to the Castro Theatre for a full Saturday, then returns to the Roxie and Little Roxie on Sunday. Here are my impressions of most of the offerings in no particular order.
The local shorts program focuses on families. Mani Ram's First of Many is a sugar-coated Christmas tragedy. In Pallavi Somusetty's Pretty Tied Up, the heroine is a BART-riding Hayward gal harassed by a white guy who can't even pronounce Namaste. She's on her way to her secret job as a dominatrix but dreads the meeting her aunt has set up with a candidate for arranged marriage. In Vikram Ahuja's Do I?, a groom on the threshold of married life finds himself in a series of comical nightmares. Nara Denning's Narcissus, starring local journalist Nirmala Nataraj, is a dreamy gothic allegory about idolatry and reflection. Sandeep Sood's animated marital comedy series The Post-Nup Show includes an episode about the perils of wishing he were Salman Rushdie. And there's no telling what festival co-director and Hindi film parodist Anuj Vaidya has up his sleeve with a live, futuristic "neo-benshi" sendup of Manoj Kumar's 1970 Bollywood diaspora classic Purab aur Paschim (East and West, 1970).
Another shorts program of films from other parts of the world examines changing notions of gender and sexuality. The standout work is the 30-minute documentary The Boxing Ladies (dir. Anusha Nandakumar, 2011), about three Kolkata sisters who aspire to make a living with their fists. Most boxing movies celebrate the underdog, and these girls weigh in with fighting spirit as their only advantage. Their (offscreen) father encourages them, but their mother is aghast that they cut their hair and punch back instead of taking criticism silently. Still, if they win at the national level they'll get jobs and bring prosperity to the family. (Co-presented by Frameline.)
Bollywood at the Castro Saturday night presents Delhi Belly (Abhinay Deo, 2011) [Facebook], the hit bromance / caper film starring Imran Khan as a hesitant fiancé who along with his roommates incurs the wrath of a vicious crime lord when one of their stool samples is inadvertently switched for a cache of diamonds. You can imagine all the Apatowisms, not to mention the f-bombs, occurring in a plot in which a slobby but lovable guy is due to be snatched from his buddies by marriage. A blogger who keeps track of these things says Khan's Tashi is "not only the first Hindi-film hero to go down on his girlfriend but also the first to be embarrassed by an inconvenient erection." The hilarious retro dance numbers were choreographed by Farah Khan (Om Shanti Om).
In the spiritual road movie Semshook (Siddharth Anand Kumar, 2010), young exiled hero Tenzin embarks on a 500-mile motorcycle journey from Dharamsala, India, to his ancestral homeland Tibet. Also on a journey to find out what happened to his long-absent father, Tenzin opens the man's trunk to find only a photograph of the Dalai Lama with the word semshook (defined as the pursuit of truth and the courage for truth to prevail) scrawled on the back. Tenzin's journey becomes a 50th-anniversary commemoration of the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese, both outcomes tinged with uncertainty, violence and mortality. Minor flaws like corny musical choices are offset by the stunningly beautiful location photography and the deeply moving yearning of a man for the country of his birth.
Another film journey with enthralling visuals is The Image Threads / Chitra Sutram (Vipin Vijay, 2010), a trippy, sensuous exploration of the mental and spiritual landscape inside the mind of Hari, an IT professor. Hari's conversations with his acrobatic muse / avatar Ramani are cryptic and profound, as are scenes of his grandfather performing rituals of black magic. Don't labor to understand the voiceover narration literally. Just let it wash over the extravagant images created by stop-motion animation, lavish photography and a rich lighting and sound design for a fabulous compendium of Indian visual culture in the virtual age.
I Am Sindhutai Sapkal / Mee Sindhutai Sapkal (Anant Mahadevan, 2010) is a sturdy, hagiographic biopic of a woman who goes from illiterate rural child bride to orphans' Mother Teresa and literacy fundraiser. As the now admired and middle-aged Sindhutai takes her first plane ride to San Francisco to give a speech, the film employs a pedestrian flashback structure, where for example airplane turbulence reminds the heroine of being raped by her husband, or being confused by on-board immigration forms recalls making it only to the 4th grade. Comparisons to The Color Purple are apt, except that Celie doesn't get a triumphant ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to attend a conference in San Jose. But seriously, the film is inspirational if a little abrupt in its heroine's transformation from victim to victor. Winner of three National Film Awards, India's Academy Award® equivalent.
This year's program boasts a pair of strong feature documentaries about US-based Indian performers. If Big in Bollywood (Bill Bowles and Kenny Meehan, 2011) were billed as a mockumentary, I would have readily taken it as pure fiction. But it's not—it's all true. Indian-American acting hopeful Omi Vaidya lands a part in the Bollywood comedy 3 Idiots starring Aamir Khan and becomes an Indian superstar overnight. His film crew of American friends, doubling as a megastar's entourage, captures the film-crazy world of Mumbai guest appearances and awards shows. At every stop Omi struggles, but then complies, with the demand that he stay in character, delivering a speech in (evidently) hilariously bad Hindi praising a rapist.
I could watch only the first 40 minutes of Play Like a Lion: The Legacy of Maestro Ali Akbar Khan (Joshua Dylan Mellars, 2011) before my screener went dead. But this documentary, which was well-received at the recent Mill Valley Film Festival, begins promisingly with the life and times of Ali Akbar Khan, the legendary sarod (a fretless 25-string lutelike instrument) virtuoso and his influence on George Harrison, Carlos Santana, Mickey Hart and other major Western musical figures. Play Like a Lion celebrates the Khansahib's North Indian musical lineage, which can be traced to an ancestor in the 16th-century court of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Having attained the title Ustad (master musician) early in his career, he established music schools in Kolkata, Northern California and Switzerland, often played with his brother-in-law Ravi Shankar and taught at UC Santa Cruz, receiving the MacArthur "genius" grant in 1991. Suffering from kidney disease (he died in 2009), he cedes the more active role in this film to his California-born son Alam, who bravely tours India playing the sarod without his father.
Patang / The Kite (Prashanat Bhargava, 2010) also had strong buzz at Mill Valley and recently won an award at the Hawaii International Film Festival. A prosperous Delhi businessman returns with his Super 8-camera-toting teenage daughter to his hometown, the old city of Ahmedabad, amid its huge kite festival the Uttarayan. But clouding the colorful rituals he hopes will impress his daughter is the family heartbreak he left behind. His attempts to make amends cause more turmoil, while his daughter attracts a smitten young local. You probably won't see a more brilliantly colorful film than this all year. The usually fierce Seema Biswas (Bandit Queen) gives a wonderfully understated, Ozuesque performance as the widowed daughter-in-law.
I had to refresh my memory of Ajay Naidu appearing in comedies like Office Space and Loins of Punjab Presents to appreciate the seriously altered auteur of Ashes, in which Naidu directs himself as the title character Ashish, a minor pot dealer who's offered a chance to sell heroin just as his troubled older brother Kartik has been released from an institution into his custody. Ashish hesitates for good reason: besides just preferring to stay "strictly herbal," a promotion to the "hard stuff" means his associates carry guns. He has enough to worry about, with Kartik trying to reunite with another released mental patient. But the money and power of gangster life are too tempting; meanwhile, his brother grows increasingly unstable and despairing. The contrived, melodramatic plot is somewhat alleviated by gritty atmosphere—the rooftops and streets of Queens have never felt so mean. Winner of Best of Fest at the Queens World Film Festival 2011.
Selvaraghavan's 2006 politico-gangland epic Pudhupettai screened earlier this year at Pacific Film Archive's "Cruel Cinema: New Directions in Tamil Film" series (co-programmed by 3rd i co-honcho Anuj Vaidya). Now it's the closing-night film at 3rd i and strongly recommended for Dhanush's performance as Kokki Kumar, who claws his way from sniveling sap to callous kingmaker in the streets of Chennai. He's been described as having "the energy of a young Pacino," but I would liken him more to Bruce Lee in his operatic rages at being betrayed and abused. This is a rare look at a harder-edged, over-the-top musical alternative to Bollywood cinema.
I watched much of this year's classic film Gamperaliya / Changing Village (Lester James Peries, 1964) the Memento way: backwards in 10-minute segments on YouTube. Not a pleasure to view it this way, but I think I was less interested in the chronological plotline for my first viewing of this Sri Lankan family saga—which, by the way, has been recently restored and should be glorious on the Castro screen—and more impatient to discover, in my ignorance of Sri Lankan cinema, some earlier evidence of the formally eccentric touches that made two of 3rd i's latest Sri Lankan offerings so fascinating. They are definitely the most interesting films of the festival—does their being Sri Lankan have anything to do with it?
Flying Fish (Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, 2011) is the first one. If you're not aware of the last nearly 30 years of civil strife in Sri Lanka, the lovely wide-angle landscapes and ordinary lives, including outdoor sex, of the characters in this film might lull you into thinking it's an idyllic place. Wrong: personal relationships are corrupted by political tensions, and the languid pace and minimal dialogue of much of the film crackles into the explosive violence of the final minutes. Nominated for numerous awards, this beautiful and shocking debut feature, shot in the historically strategic city of Trincomalee, mourns the trauma of war in three interlocking stories.
Certainly the most richly allusive, most outrageous yet most irritating film of the festival for me was the second one from Sri Lanka: A Letter of Fire / Aksharaya (Asoka Handagama, 2005). (I didn't get to see Handagama's 2002 Flying With One Wing, which screened at third i's first event in 2003.) Scandal threatens to rock the aristocratic household of a depressed former judge, his beautiful magistrate wife and their coddled 12-year-old son, who dwell in a colonial mansion. When the boy kills a prostitute, his mother hides him in the apartment of a security guard at the Museum of Asian Civilizations. Relationships unravel in the mansion as scenes from a flamboyant TV serial and recollections, and the occasional literary reference, mingle with the murder investigation to spawn a self-reflexive phantasmagoria of desire, impotence, class conflict, rape, incest and revenge. I stopped trying to understand the convoluted backstory and just sat back to enjoy the spectacle of female power unleashed and "weeping like a she-bear" (whaaa?) over males cowering in a swath of destroyed antiquities. At one point the Sri Lankan government banned the film for its daring bath scene, charging child abuse.