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Astronaut Pankaj, played by Indian American actor Ravi Kapoor, in Faroukh Virani’s “Vimana.” (Facebook photo)

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — Indian American writer-director Faroukh Virani’s science fiction film “Vimana” is among the 25 short films featured as part of the PBS Online Film Festival, which runs from June 15 to July 17.

The 17-minute bilingual (Hindi and English) film follows three Indian astronauts — Pankaj (played by Indian actor Ravi Kapoor), Naaz (Hina Khan) and Rishi (Anjul Nigam) — who are sent on a 40-light-year trip to colonize the planet Gliese 581g for India in the year 2021.

The astronauts face a dilemma when their captain Rishi, whom Naaz is in love with, falls sick as an adverse reaction to hyper-sleep.

Mission Control requires the astronauts toss his body overboard in order to avoid contaminating the new colony when they land. Yet Naaz does not want to give up on Rishi, preventing the ship from being able to land on Gliese, much to Pankaj’s dismay.

The next envoy is relying on the crew to successfully colonize Gliese before their arrival from their depleted home planet.

Virani, 32, told India-West June 14 that he had always been interested in film. His parents, who ran a small Indian grocery store that also had VHS tapes of Bollywood films, were a big influence.

The film is partly about cultural identity, Virani explained, but he also “wanted to make a script about how we deal with losing somebody who is a huge part of our lives,” and thought a space shuttle miles away from Earth would be an “interesting setting to deal with death.”

The Houston, Texas-native had lost his father just before entering film school in 2010 and said it was a major preoccupation while he was working on the script.

Virani told India-West he wanted to use an all-Indian cast, because he wished to see more Indian actors in hero roles similar to those of Western sci-fi films such as “Gravity.”

Yet, he admitted the film was more for Western audiences since Indian audiences, though they appreciated the film’s technical value, seemed to think the Hindi dialogue was inauthentic.

The actors in the film, Virani said, to whom he had personally reached out, did a great job. He had seen Kapoor in a couple of short films and other work and decided to send the actor, whom he met at a film festival in Los Angeles, the script of “Vimana.”

Kapoor agreed to do the film and got Nigam interested as well.

“I was lucky to end up working with a lot of these people,” Virani added.

Virani also reached out to musician, composer and singer Gingger Shankar, whom he had met a couple of years earlier and had collaborated with in the past.

Shankar told India-West June 15 that she loves science fiction and loved Virani’s film after seeing it.

“It was nice to see an Indian twist on that (genre) because you don’t get to see it very often,” Shankar said.

Wanting to “stay true to the sci-fi” genre, Shankar added a taste of Indian music to give the film a sense of place, using various strings, drones, tones and Indian instruments, such as the double violin.

Shankar was perfect “for setting the tone of the film,” noted Virani.

The film project originally began in 2013, with Virani funding the film through Kickstarter.com, grants, scholarships and loans. He said the University of Southern California, with its faculty mentors and exceptional resources, was instrumental in allowing him to take on such an ambitious project.

Virani wrote and directed the film as a part of the thesis for his Master of Fine Arts in Film Production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, which he completed last year.

The film has already screened at 13 film festivals and has won three awards, including “Best Student Drama” at the USC First Film Festival in April, “Best Student Film” at the Mississippi International Film Festival in October 2014, and “Best Student Cinematography” at the Kolkata Shorts International Film Festival in August 2014.

Viewers of the PBS Online Film Festival will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite films, which they can watch for free, once every 24 hours for the duration of the festival.

To watch and vote for “Vimana,” visit: http://to.pbs.org/1QxPqNz.

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