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Indian Diaspora Film Festival, New York

The fourth edition of the festival organized by the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC) wrapped November 7. Dedicated to showcasing filmmakers of Indian origin it had a successful four day run at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre and the Anthology Film Archives. As Aaron Shivdansani, the executive director of IAAC stressed in her welcoming speech, the opening film BRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Gurinder Chandha was not meant for afficiendos interested in high culture, an observation applicable to numerous recent films on the program. BRIDE AND PREJUDICE had the Hollywood stamp of high production values, marvelous sets, well orchestrated crowd scenes, and attractive actors. It featured numerous music and dance numbers, driven by the story line of a desperate mother trying to marry off her three daughters, hopefully to rich Indians living in the American diaspora. No question, the stunning female lead Aishwarya Rai, known to her Indian admirers as the Queen of Bollywood, stole the show with superb acting, singing and comedian skills. As the New York Times pointed out, Rai is one of this year’s three must see actresses, followed by Mabel Rivera and Lynn Collins.

Catering to the large Diaspora of Indians from the New York metropolitan area, the festival had the flair of a community event staged for an enthusiastic audience, mostly upscale and affluent individuals with household incomes more than twice as high as that of average American families. The program attracted a fairly large crowd due to an astute combination of films and personalities. The line up consisted of classic features like Mira Nair’s SALAAM BOMBAY and Merchant Ivory’s JANE AUSTEN ON MAHATTAN, popular movies such as Nikhi Kamulkar’s INDIAN COWBOY, and a sidebar of short films and documentaries. The presence of celebrities like Mira Nair, Madhur Jaffre, Shabana Azmi, and
Salman Rushdie as well as the honoring of other long time patrons like Ismail Merchant certainly added to the audience appeal.

Most noteworthy was Sharmeen Obaid’s documentary REINVENTING THE TALIBAN, a compelling analysis of rising radical Islamic fundamentalism in large segments of Pakistani society. Produced in 2002 by a novice film maker the film should be mandatory viewing for US policy makers since it links the rise of fundamentalism to Pakistan’s government supporting the United States. In the short film SANGAM by Prashant Bjhargama, Hesh Sarmalkar’s provided a class act performance in his role of the naïve newly-arrived Indian immigrant roaming the New York subway system. The festival concluded with IN THE NAME OF BUDDHA, a feature length docudrama by Rajesh Touchriver on the impact terrorism embedded in ethnic conflicts has on innocent civilians in Sri Lanka, a film that cannot be shown in that country nor in India according to its producer Sai George.

Run by volunteers over the last four years the Indian Diaspora Film Festival has grown in leaps and bounds doubling in two the number of productions shown from 17 to 36 films and adding a second screen. This success is due to savvy programming that synchs with its affluent target audience, a well defined niche no other festival competes for, and the rise of ethnic consciousness in the United States. The fest will go professional next year since fund raising for a salaried festival staff is under way.

Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent

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