From art-house classics to documentaries, from innovative and experimental visions to cutting-edge Bollywood, 3rd i’s 17th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond will be promoting diverse images of South Asians through independent films.
The festival launches at the New People and Castro Theaters in San Francisco, Calif., from Nov. 7-10, before moving to Palo Alto a week later on Nov. 16. The five-day festival will screen over a dozen narrative and documentary features and shorts by independent filmmakers from South Asia and the South Asian diaspora, including stories from India, Sri Lanka, the U.K., Italy, and the U.S.
A highlight of this year is Gitanjali Rao’s animated feature, “Bombay Rose.” “In the rich, colorful and layered hand-painted animation there is an ethereal brightness to the chaotic Mumbai streetscapes where Bollywood cinema is both satirized and romanticized, and small-town folks in the big city can be crushed by its mean streets, or redeemed by love,” according to the festival.
The film moves seamlessly between a documentary feeling of present-day struggles in Mumbai, to the lusciously designed dream sequences set in ancient India and inspired by Mughal folk art.
“Class and political commentary are subtle and second to the visual evocation of this story about unsung heroes struggling for survival, who live and love across time and memory. Part network narrative, part city symphony, part meditation on longing, ‘Bombay Rose’ will entrance you,” said the fest.
This year, a special focus will be on young voices with a host of films that feature stories with strong youth characters. Dar Gai’s “Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence” is a witty, off-beat take on the road movie, set against the breathtaking landscapes of Ladakh. The film features an inter-generational storyline about the relationship between a young boy and an elderly man, as they head for the peace and tranquility of the Silent Valley, leaving the hustle and bustle of the city behind. Filmmaker Gai, a philosopher by training and originally from Ukraine, has made India her filmmaking home and is touted as an exciting new voice in Indian cinema.
Also part of this youth focus is Rima Das’ “Bulbul Can Sing,” which also doubles as part of the annual festival’s continuing regional focus on northeast India, with films from the burgeoning Assamese New Wave. Following on the heels of 2018’s “Village Rockstars,” Das’ film takes viewers back to the timeless beauty of the northeast in this bittersweet narrative that draws inspiration from her own experiences of growing up in the Assamese countryside. “This is no simple rural idyll however; in Das’ deft hands, the film transforms into a deeply compelling exploration of love, loss, and adolescence,” according to the festival.
Safdar Rahman’s heartwarming story of young “Chippa” features Sunny Pawar (award-winning child star of “Lion”). Chippa sets out into night-time Calcutta looking for a father he has never seen, finding a city of migrants who speak in a curious mix of languages and a “marvelous realism” that is akin to the works of literary giants such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chippa is not oblivious to the grim reality and communal suspicion surrounding him, but chooses to encounter this world with a mixture of bravado, curiosity and humor. Seen through his eyes, the road ahead is full of adventure, surprises and hope.
Another film in the youth category is “The MisEducation of Bindu,” screening in Palo Alto. It follows a day in the life of formerly homeschooled Bindu as she endures an American high school and tries to graduate early. Her mother, played by Priyanka Bose (“Lion”), does her best to keep Bindu on track while maintaining her South Asian heritage, and her clueless stepfather (David Arquette, “Scream”), tries to give Bindu advice on boys and high school life in America. Director Prarthana Mohan will be present for a Q&A.
Rounding out the youth films in Palo Alto is the romantic comedy, “Bangla,” with Phaim, an awkwardly charming 22-year-old Italian Bengali who panics when he falls in love with an impulsive and spirited Italian girl. The attraction between them is immediate, and Phaim will have to figure out how to reconcile his love with his life full of rules. The film takes a unique look at the multicultural experiences of second generation South Asian Europeans in the Italian context. This whimsical lens on the clash of cultures is based on the director’s own life, who, as the lead, plays a fictionalized version of himself.
Another stellar narrative in Palo Alto is Rohena Gera’s “Sir,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. A nuanced and sensual film, it explores the forbidden attraction between Ratna, a maid, and her employer Ashwin, a wealthy Mumbai bachelor, with each character quietly yearning to break free from the narrow bounds of their class and gender-based expectations.
The festival features stories of addiction, which include acclaimed black and white photographer Ronny Sen’s indie, “Cat Sticks.” A gritty and haunting narrative, the film follows the stories of several addicts looking for the high of halogen, a synthetic brand of heroin that created havoc in India at the turn of the millennium.
The other film in this focus is Bhaskar Hazarika’s “Ravening” (Aamis). An unforgettable meditation on taboo and transgression, the film blends gentle romance and body horror into a unique cinematic experience.
While this year’s program predominantly showcases narrative features, documentaries are also part of the lineup. Equal parts comedy, and self-discovery, Laura Asherman’s intimate doc, “American Hasi” is a portrait of an Indian American comedian, Tushar Singh. In an attempt to accelerate his career, Singh maps out a 35-day tour in India (with his mom in tow), taking part in India’s flourishing stand-up scene. In the process he discovers the challenges of cross-cultural comedy and confronts his hybrid identity head-on. Part verité road trip, part character study, this refreshingly candid doc features interviews with influential comics such as Russell Peters, Bill Burr, and Vir Das.
Comedy also features prominently in this year’s edition of ‘Coast to Coast,’ 3rd i’s signature shorts program which brings California filmmakers into conversation with filmmakers from South Asia and the diaspora. The program includes Varun Chounal’s “Gabroo” about a young Sikh boy’s complicated relationship with his hair, Mahesh Pailoor’s portrait of Pakistani American comedienne Mona Shaikh, and Andrew Sturm’s political satire on the border wall, “31 Foot Ladders,” along with a variety of short docs, narratives, and music videos.
This year for the first time in the festival’s history, 3rd i will be offering a free master class in filmmaking from the talented documentary filmmaker, Nishtha Jain (“City of Photos” and “Lakshmi and Me.”
Jain will talk about her filmmaking process, present excerpts from past and present work, talk about the different social and political movements in India, and its alignment with her work.
Women’s issues are at the forefront of several other films on the lineup. Vasanth S. Sai’s “Sivaranjani and Two Other Women” pays a cinematic homage to the “everyday” woman and is a deeply moving work that focuses a critical lens on patriarchy.
Acclaimed Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage will be returning to the festival to screen the historical epic feature, “Children of the Sun,” about a Sinhalese Buddhist woman in the 1814 Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, stripped from nobility who subverts the destiny forced upon her. Vithanage will join a panel discussion following the film screening.
LGBTQ+ themes feature prominently in Poonam Brah’s “Home Girl” and “Coast to Coast: Mumbai to the Mission.”
Castro Passes ($35) are only available online until Nov 5. Tickets to individual films are $11/online and $13/at the door. More information about the festival, including expanded program, guest and ticketing information, will be available at: www.thirdi.org.