SAIFF Day 5, Sunday

By the time day 5 rolled around, I was quite tired. So, I only managed to go to see just one film, but what a brilliant film!

MYSTIC INDIA by Keith Melton is a 45-minute IMAX film. It was the most visually stunning film of the festival. Using the story of Neelkanth, who walked the length and breadth of India for seven years (from 1792 to 1799), the film reveals India’s amazing geographic diversity.

This quote for the film’s website states it best.

Mystic India takes you through icy peaks to the cool blue Lake Mansarovar, into the wild jungles of Sunderbans and the rainforests of Assam, through barren deserts and to the silent shores of South India. Explore and learn from the majesty and mysticism of India’s art and architecture, music and dance, faces and festivals, customs and costumes which are brought to life on the giant screen.

Kajurahoh TajKailashGolden

Monks in prayerTemple bellsRameshwaramNeelkanth

Also, at no point in the film did they make it religious. It stuck to the realm of spirituality and this post (and discussion) on Sepia Mutiny confirms that.

If you have a chance to watch this film, do so – it is quite a moving experience to see the amazing diversity of India.

As an aside, Day 5 was also SAIFF’s Children’s Day and they did a really good job. The theater was packed with kids. Excellent marketing idea to dedicate a day for kids.

SAIFF Day 4, Saturday Evening

Saturday evening started off with three movies — UNTITLED (my short), BLACK AND WHITE and MADE IN INDIA.

UNTITLED by Shripriya Mahesh is a 9 minute narrative short. It is hard to review your own film. But since I finished it almost six months ago, I’ve had some distance from it. Here’s the synopsis

Sanjay and his wife lead a cookie cutter existence in Manhattan. One day, as he returns home, he is handed a flyer to a gallery opening and on a whim, decides to attend. Siddharth, the gallery owner, educates Sanjay on art and introduces him to a captivating painting. With Siddharth, as his bodhisattva, leading the way, Sanjay is more ensnared with each successive visit. Has Sanjay found what he has always been looking for?

You can find my analysis (what was good and what could be improved) of Untitled here.

BLACK AND WHITE by Mahesh Shimpi is a 13 minute short that he made at the New York Film Academy. The concept is credited to Wait Until Dark and is about a blind woman who enters her house when there is already a burglar in the house. The rest of the short deals with how she figures out that there is a burglar in the house and how she deals with it. The film is shot in black and white and that lends itself to making the film more interesting (colors don’t distract you). The actress did a good job – even with her sunglasses off, she is a believable blind person. The biggest issue is that it is taken from Wait Until Dark. Since so many people have seen that movie, when watching this one, you know what’s going to happen and so makes the movie seem longer than it is.

MADE IN INDIA by Deepti Paul is a documentary about Deepti’s struggles against arranged marriage. Told from a first person perspective, it is a funny look at a situation where her parents (who did not have an arranged marriage) are pressuring her to get hitched. Deepti talks to her parents, her grandmother and peers to understand their view of the situation. She then heads off to her family village in Kerala to give the system a whirl before saying no. We see amusing anecdotes of what the relatives think of the situation and are even privy to her arranged meeting of a potential groom, Benny. The audience was in stitches, laughing at the situation, but also laughing at Benny and I felt quite bad for the guy — he did nothing wrong. In fact, he was the only guy who gave Deepti permission to show the footage and it seemed harsh to laugh at the poor guy because he wasn’t polished. Overall, this was a very entertaining documentary, but I have one suggestion for improvement – it was too long (yes, I know, this is a recurring theme. Blame Marc DeRossi, my editing professor). There was almost a 10 minute section where Deepti interviewed her parents. I think she couldn’t make it shorter because it was *her parents*, whereas the film would have been better if it was 40 minutes instead of 62. I spoke with a few people after the screening. I found that most Americans loved this documentary – it was revealing and educational. Most Indians (ABCD or FOB) found this somewhat clichéd. This is bound to happen with any doc – those who are closer to the topic will find it repeats the obvious. Not sure how to solve this issue in the documentary world… any thoughts from those with more experience?

Overall, since it was Saturday evening, the theater was packed. There were only about 40 free seats. It was great to play in front of such a packed house.

SAIFF Day 4, Saturday

Day 4 started with lunch for the filmmakers to mingle and get to know each other. It was a very good idea and it was nice to talk to other filmmakers, especially those based in NYC. Then, I dashed off to try to catch some of their films.

RED ROSES, a short documentary by Madhuri Mohinder and Vaishali Sinha was their thesis film at The New School. This documentary looks at South Asian women who frequent the Red Roses beauty salon. It was an interesting look at the issues faced by South Asian women, many of whom come to the United States through marriage. A wide ranging set of topics were covered from immigration to arranged marriage to divorce and how South Asian women deal with these topics.

THE LEGEND OF FAT MAMA by Rafeeq Ellias was a short documentary about the Indian Chinese community in Calcutta and Canada. Wrapped in the search for Fat Mama, a legendary cook in Calcutta’s China town, this documentary touched on history of the Chinese immigrant community and the issues they’ve faced. I was shocked to learn that many of the Chinese in Calcutta were forcibly deported to Rajasthan during the Indo-Chinese war of 1962, very similar to the US internment of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Why isn’t this vile treatment of Indian citizens mentioned in Indian History textbooks? At least one line? Terrible. It was sad to hear that most Indian Chinese leave for countries like Canada and Australia. It was also touching to see these former Indian citizens, singing Hindi songs, speaking fluent Hindi and in many other ways proving that they are really Indian. But… why do they have to prove it?? India, unlike the United States, is not an immigration-based country, but it is time we gave equal importance to all of our ethnic groups and it is time the government apologized for how we treated this minority in the aftermath of 1962.

SITHARIYA MUTHUKKAL (BROKEN BEADS) by Hari Das is a 30 minute film set in a village in Tamil Nadu. It dramatizes the very real issue of female infanticide that takes place in the state. Muniamma is expecting a child and her husband and mother-in-law make it clear that a son is the only acceptable outcome. All her efforts to show them that women are needed in society are in vain — the mother-in-law will not even see that she herself would not be around if she’d been disposed off after birth. And of course, Muniamma has a girl. She wakes up to see her mother-in-law trying to suffocate the newborn infant and saves the child, but the next night when she is asleep, the child is taken from her. The movie weaves in the Cradle Baby Scheme where the government encouraged families to anonymously drop their girl babies in the cradles placed outside the offices instead of killing them, but this has had very limited success. Muniamma discovers that her mother-in-law, in cahoots with her husband, have killed the child by feeding it an uncooked grain of rice (which then cuts up the baby’s insides that are not ready for even soft foods). When her mother-in-law promises to keep exterminating all female children Muniamma bears, she takes her revenge. There were many in the audience that thought that this film was over-dramatized, but unfortunately, it is the reality in Tamil Nadu.

NO PLACE TO HIDE by Yousaf Muhammad deals with gang rape abuses by the Pakistani Army. This narrative depicts the situation of a woman who was gang raped by army men and then when she informs the authorities, the same men return and kill her husband. This issue was in the news when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ridiculed that these abuses happen and had the gall to say that women made up these stories to make money. It outlines how the callous President’s statements have made it even harder for the victims of brutality to get any justice. The acting (besides the lead actress) could have been better (the husband and the lawyer in particular could have been cast better) and if this movie had been 25 minutes instead of 35 minutes, it would have been more impactful.

SAIFF Day 3, Friday

I saw quite a few really good films on day 3 of SAIFF.

FIVE GUYS FOUR BULLETS, a documentary directed by Karan Singh, is a travelogue of five buds cruising to the highest motorcycle trail in the world on Enfield Bullets. The five guys bike from Delhi to Ladakh and along the way, face various obstacles like mudslides, rain, flooding and altitude sickness. It was very entertaining primarily due to the fact that one of the five, Brij, had excellent camera presence and was very humorous.

In terms of the filmmaking, some of the camera angles were very interesting — Karan clearly had motorcycle mounts for the camera, so there were images of him as he was driving and some cool angles from the wheel-level of the bikes. In addition, the sound quality was exceptional although I didn’t see any mikes. If someone knows more details about this film was shot (equipment used etc.) or how to get in touch with Karan, I’d love to talk to him.

I then saw a couple of short films. I love reviewing shorts. I feel that shorts are overlooked in the world. Yes, of course a feature takes more money and effort, but shorts are real films. In fact, you have to tell a great story in a smaller amount of time.

THE APPLICANT by Faisal Qureshi is a 5-minute short. I like the director’s blurb best:

‘Eddie’ Ahmed goes in for a job interview for a job he never applied for. Having been out of work for two years, and needing to support two young children, he is desperate and willing to do whatever it takes to get this job. His interviewer tells him he has to take an exam in order to get the job. Eddie is not prepared, but agrees to take the exam anyway. But the exam is not what he expected and what he has to do to get the job takes him to the edge of his humanity. What’s an applicant to do?

The director had excellent shot selection — one of the shoes as a woman walks down a long corridor, shots that emphasize the sterile office location, close ups to emphasize the stress levels. That just heightens the shock when we find out what the test really is. And there is another stunner in store when we realize how Eddie will approach the test.

ORANGE by Giri Mohan Coneti, 17 minutes long, at the core, is a cool idea. Hamid and his girlfriend Katie live in NY and it is right after 9-11. They’ve been in a relationship for three years. Katie happens to watch TV as Hamid showers and she hears that the NYPD is looking for a terrorist called Hamid. She starts to worry — the news that the terrorist was recently in Europe heightens her concern as she realized that Hamid was in Europe and he refuses to talk about it. This leads to more stress and the final confrontation. The major issue with this short was the acting by the woman who played Katie (of course there is the issue that having dated Hamid for three years, she still doesn’t know it is as common a name as Adam, but we can overlook that). A different actress (and fewer words) would have made this short more powerful.

Question — when you read a review of a short, do you want the spoiler or not? In many ways, a short is all about the ending, the twist the director can come up with, and so I am loath to give it away. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.

FROM DUST by Dhruv Dhawan is a documentary about the post-Tsunami situation in Sri Lanka. After the Tsunami, the Sri Lankan government put in place a rule that there would be no building whatsoever within a 100-meter distance from the ocean. That meant that a lot of people who had lived there before the Tsunami, had to relocate. This doc outlines how poorly the Sri Lankan government handled the whole situation — families living in tents for months, promises of a plot of land in another location that never happened because those plots couldn’t be built on and very sadly, the decision to relocated fisherman far away from the ocean where they wouldn’t be able to engage in their livelihood. While all this is sad, one can say, well, maybe the government is doing it for the good of the people, for their safety.

But then, we see the real deception. The Sri Lankan government makes a stunning decision to allow hotels to be constructed within the 100-meter zone. So, all that prime land, for sale to developers. So, if the main reason to ban building was because of safety, then what about tourists’ safety? Ah, well, there was no good answer by the government officials. Was the 100-meter zone enforced with this deception in mind? Only the Sri Lankan government really knows.

There were two films scheduled for the evening, both by women directors. Due to a personal commitment, I unfortunately had to miss Nanda Anand’s first feature effort, RETURN TO RAJAPUR. From what I hear, this was a very good film and the grapevine indicates that this film has secured distribution! Congratulations, Nanda, that is a phenomenal accomplishment for a first time feature director!

HOPE AND A LITTLE SUGAR directed by Tanuja Chandra was a very good film from an experienced director. It is a 9-11 story about a Sikh family that loses its son. Colonel Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and his wife (Suhasini Mulay) live in the suburbs of New York with their son Harry (Vikram Chatwal) and his wife, Saloni (Mahima Chaudhry). One day, Saloni bumps into Ali (Amit Sial) and mistakes him for a Sikh friend (who’s shaved his beard off).

Ali is so besotted by Saloni that he plays along. When he arrives at the Oberoi residence, he’s devastated that Saloni is married, but he keeps up the pretense. As Ali spends more time with Harry and Saloni, it becomes obvious that he is not who they thought he was and he’s outed. But they find it amusing and they continue to include him family activities. Colonel Oberoi who fought in the 1971 Indo-Pak war has a less favorable view of Ali’s deception, but goes along.

Ali is a photographer who pays the bills by being a bike messenger and as he falls deeper in love with the married Saloni, he continues to take pictures of her that he plasters on his wall. One morning he gets up to sirens and looks out of his window to see the events of 9-11 unfolding. Harry dies in the attacks.

The movie shares the difficult aftereffects of the event, where the Colonel can’t come to grips with his son’s death and he and his wife get more and more distant. Ali gets closer to Saloni as she struggles to adjust to her life without Harry. The Colonel blames all Muslims for 9-11 and is very disturbed when he sees Ali at Saloni’s shop and he lashes out at Ali when he sees him.

Honestly, Ali’s focus on “winning” Saloni even while she mourns her husband was disturbing. There’s a scene where Ali is talking to Will, his photography mentor who runs a frame shop, discussing how the Colonel blames him for everything and hates him. And Will says, “Do you want to win over the girl or the father” (or words to that effect). Ali’s single-minded focus at a time of such great personal loss just seemed insensitive.

But besides this one disconnect, the rest of the film flows along beautifully. Throughout the film, Ali has flashbacks of the Bombay riots of 1992, when he was a young child. Eventually we see that he and his little brother get stuck outside as Ali is taking photographs of the mob. His focus on his photography gets his little brother killed. This is juxtaposed with the Colonel’s anger towards Ali and raises issues of how religious bigotry can exist in every community.

The acting was excellent across the board. Anupam Kher and Suhasini Mulay are both exceptional. When times are good, they are the jovial Sikh husband and wife, but it is in the second part of the film, when the stress and angst are heightened, that both of them truly do a great job. Mahima Chaudhry is very well cast and Amit Sial, was a little one-note, but for his first feature does a good job. Ranjit Chowdhry as Ghosh, a friend of the family, is an excellent choice.

This was a very good film and on Friday evening, there were about 200 people in the audience. If the producers had decided to screen it as planned on the opening day, they would have had about three times as many people to see film.

SAIFF Day 2, Thursday (cont)

Here’s my take on QUARTER LIFE CRISIS by director Kiran Merchant, which I was too tired to post last night.

The theater was packed. Fifty of the seats were reserved for the cast and crew and I was sitting right next to them, so it was amusing to see them laugh at inside jokes (when crew members were in the film etc.) Besides their energy and passion and laughter, there wasn’t much to this film, really. It was a corny and predictable love story of a desi frat boy.

*Warning spoilers*

Neil Desai (Maulik Pancholy) gets dumped by his girlfriend and college sweetheart Angel (Lisa Ray). He gets into a towncar driven by Dilip Kumar (famous comedian, Russell Peters) and lo and behold, he happens to be the 100th customer to ask for a receipt and so ends up free limo service for a week. Neil and his frat-boy buddies, including Johnathan (Manu Narayan from Bombay Dreams) decide to make the most of the week and party it up in the New York single scene. Except this is not really New York’s single scene. Anyone who lives in NY knows that you don’t spend all your time hanging out at Time Square. In fact you spend *zero* time hanging out in Times Square. And speed dating? Sure it exists, but real New Yorkers hang out in bars and clubs downtown. Anyway, all that aside, Neil has various adventures through the week, hooking up with numerous women in the back seat. Through all these episodes, he keeps thinking of Angel and then has a heart to heart with Dilip wondering if he’s lost her for good.

When he finally figures out that she is indeed the one, the TV series “Love in the Back Seat” come on TV with a preview of the show for the next day. Neil is prominently displayed and his antics for the past week are captured by a hidden camera for the world to see. Neil rushes to Dilip and discovers that Dilip is actually a producer who’s been taping all his escapades.

With no chance to kill the show, Neil buys Angel a ring and a house to prove his love. Dilip offers to drive Neil to Angel and of course Neil gets there right as she is watching the show. He gets booted.

Dilip then has the station play the segment of Neil professing his love for Angel, as he keeps Neil in the back seat, downstairs. Angel is touched, moved, picks up the lease and ring and bounds into the car where Dilip tapes their happy reunion.

Ahh… warm and fuzzy feelings… NOT!

The cast was packed with known names — Manu Narayan, Russell Peters and Jackson Loo (as frat buddy Mo) played their roles well. But Lisa Ray, while a very good actress (especially in Water), is in her mid-thirties and did not pass for mid-twenties. To be honest, I am not sure why she did this film — after Water, she had the chance to establish herself as a serious actress and this definitely puts her back in the Bollywood-esque romantic comedy track.

But the biggest issue was with the story itself. Yes, the “Love in the Back Seat” angle was funny and was a little twist, but besides that, it was very predictable and the story was disappointing. The movie was also too “cute” with little pop-ups and bubbles and starbursts appearing on screen to show us what the character was thinking.

On the positive side, the production values were excellent. It was well shot, slick and well packaged. The director and his producer wife, Genevieve Castalino, seem like amazingly nice and friendly people. At the press conference, Kiran was honest enough to admit that there is nothing unique about the story itself. But, it is a huge step to make your first feature and for that, I congratulate him. With the experience of making a feature under his belt, I am sure Kiran will go to onto topics that are closer to his heart.

SAIFF Day 2, Thursday

AADUM KOOTHU, by director T V Chandran started the first full day of SAIFF . This is the Malayalam director’s first Tamil film. At the core, the film has an interesting premise — a director is making a movie about an injustice that occurred in his village when he was a child. A landlord tortured and tonsured a lower-class woman publicly since she refused his advances. As the director is making the film, the actual landlord’s son shows up with his goondas and beats up the crew and stops production of the film. Ok, we have something to work with. Then it gets melodramatic – the actress of the film is so depressed that she actually tonsured her head for the scene and the production was stopped that she hangs herself. Isn’t that a little extreme, dear? This then leads to a crazy sequence of events where the director becomes an activist and then reemerges to avenge her suicide by killing the landlord.

But there’s the best part — that was only the second half of the film!! The director found a very, very odd need to encase this story in some fantastical wrapping that took the entire first half of the film. Manimekhala is a college student. Her cousin (and later fiancé) buys her a bangle/bracelet from the fair that has some black and white film embedded in it (yes, a bangle with a film inside it). As Mani is doing random tasks like washing clothes, reading or getting married, the bangle shoots beams at her, projecting out a film. The film is about two gypsy performers and how a landlord lusts after the woman and tries to forcibly have his way with her. Everyone is convinced that Mani has lost her marbles until her fiancé discovers that the film she is seeing was actually made. Aha – yes… that film that we talked about in part two! Mani and her fiancé trudge off to discover what happened and then we get to part two. Anyway, the film concludes with Mani finishing the unfinished film as a documentary and shaving her head. Err… okay then. Enough said.

ANURANAN: THE RESONANCE didn’t resonate at all. In fact, it was cancelled. Yikes. Snafu number two. Apparently (yes, the famous apparently re-emerges), the filmmakers had trouble getting censor board approval and had to pull the film. So, instead they showed Omkara. Good film, but having seeing it already, I passed.

PLAYING THE NEWS by director Jigar Mehta was an excellent documentary short. Jigar seems to have made this in his journalism program at UC Berkeley and it was a well-constructed doc that asked some very interesting questions. It covers a game called Kuma War that is an online massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that simulates the latest wars that are happening. Three weeks after the battle for Fallujah in Iraq, gamers were fighting the same missions in the game. Kuma War scans all military updates and gets feeds from all the news organizations to design the most realistic locations and scenarios. As soon as an attack is publicly described, Kuma builds it into the game. They even have a news channel within the game to update the players on the situation and their missions. The short raised the question of what’s considered news and what’s considered a game and where the line is drawn. It also highlighted how civilians safely ensconced in their homes played games that are so similar to reality, but so far from reality at the same time. By juxtaposing a real killing of an Iraqi militant with a game killing, he brought home the fact that despite Kuma’s best efforts, the reality is far, far worse. Very thought provoking.

MY CULTURAL DIVIDE by director Faisal Lutchmedial was a first person account of his visit to Bangladesh. He explores the economics of global trade and visits sweatshops with appalling conditions on his journey of discovery. He weaves the story in with personal accounts and a good dose of humor to make it a compelling and touching effort.

The last film of the night was QUARTERLIFE CRISIS. Since it is so late, I’ll post the review tomorrow.

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine Official PosterI had the fortune of seeing Little Miss Sunshine before it opened wide and this movie has stayed with me for months! Written by Michael Arndt and directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the movie starts off seeming like it may be a standard road trip flick. But before they even get on the road, it does an excellent job of introducing us to the quirky cast of characters that make up the Hoover family.

Sheryl (Toni Collette) is married to Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) and you are immediately exposed to the friction between them. Richard, an unsuccessful motivational speaker, tries to get his book published while Sheryl tires of waiting for his ship to come home as she carries the load of providing for the family and holding it all together. Sheryl’s son from her prior marriage, Dwayne (Paul Dano) is rebelling against the family by taking a vow of silence. He quotes Nietzsche on his little notepad as he prepares to achieve his life’s ambition of flying fighter jets. Richard’s father, the drug snorting, over-sexed, quirky grandfather (Alan Arkin) lives with the family and his sole role seems to be training Olive (Abigail Breslin) to dance in her quest to become Little Miss Sunshine. Throw in Sheryl’s suicidal, gay, Number-One-Proust-Scholar-In-The-World brother Frank (played brilliantly by Steve Carell) and you have all the elements to make a really great movie.

Or not. They key to making a movie like this successful is a light touch and here the directors excel. The movie rolls along at the perfect pace. Character flaws are dealt with without apology. The small confines of the road trip VW van (a character in itself) provide the perfect location for lots of stress and lots of humor. As the movie progresses, your feelings for the characters evolve. You think of Grandpa’s drug snorting as funny while in the beginning you feared for little Olive’s safety. You sympathize with Frank’s attempted suicide when you see the beautiful young man who jilted him for the Number Two Proust Scholar In The World. And you even start to feel warm and fuzzy towards the annoying Frank who won’t let Olive believe failure is an option, despite never having succeeded himself.

Directing can be a singularly lonely job. In addition to figuring out the shots and angles, every department (lighting, sound, etc.) needs the director’s input on key decisions. Often the director can’t do much thinking on the set. Co-directing is a great solution. You can brainstorm with your partner, share the stress and burden and the little victories. Working with your spouse, which can be a challenge for many couples, provides the most trust worthy co-director you could pick! Dayton and Faris have had a long and successful career working together, primarily in music videos and advertisements. In the Hollywood world of going after the brightest new shiny object, their first feature will guarantee them several offers.

Credit also goes to the producers for pulling together such a wonderful ensemble cast – something that is very hard to do. In addition to each of them being excellent individually, they combine really well to make even the very few forced, over-the-top, kooky scenes amusing. Greg Kinnear has the same quirky, earnest, but somehow-not-all-together characteristics of his roles from As Good As It Gets and Sabrina. His transition from the always positive to the more realistic and down to earth is endearing. Steve Carell, after his super-hot run in the TV series The Office, plays the dry and cynical Frank to perfection. While Toni Collette and Alan Arkin live up to their reputations, Paul Dano was a pleasant surprise for me — I had never seen his work before and despite being completely silent for 90% of the film, he did an incredible job conveying Dwayne’s teenage angst. And Abigail Breslin? She’s such an adorable tyke – standing next to the super-made up little beauty contestants, she embodied the normal child we all hope to have.

The film is a tale of a family that, by accepting their limitations and recognizing life is not just about success, draws closer together through their misadventures. This brilliant flick premiered at the 2006 Sundance festival and sold for $10 million to Fox Searchlight – the highest price tag ever at Sundance. It was well worth it. The film has already recouped $60 million in the box office. This movie left me feeling happy and hopeful. It is a rare movie that does that any more.

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