It was a weekend of talented filmmakers, gorgeous actors, Indian American movers and shakers and world-class independent cinema, at the third edition of the New York City South Asian Film Festival (NYC SAFF). It was also a weekend of love, laughter, hope and inspiration, a theme common in most of the 22 shorts, documentaries and feature films screened at the three-day festival presented by Toyota, and produced by Texas, New York and India-based media conglomerate, JINGO Ventures. The films also shed light on important issues like communal tensions and women’s plight and struggles, as well as highlighted topics often considered taboo in South Asian society and are rarely discussed – LGBTQA issues, male chauvinism, patriarchy, women’s rights and societal oppression.
There was Ajitesh Sharma’s heart wrenching and heartwarming documentary feature “WOMB” (Women Of My Billion), narrating the plight and struggles of women in India; Faraz Arif Ansari’s “Sheer Qorma,” about love and acceptance; Geeta Malik’s Indian American coming-of-age story “India Sweet and Spices”; Rajaram Rajendran’s sci-fi thriller “Rani Rani Rani,” starring independent cinema queen Tannishtha Chatterjee in the titular, triple roles; and Gaurav Madan’s “Barah by Barah,” on Sooraj, the last remaining death photographer at the burning banks of Manikarnika.
“For our first physical festival post-pandemic, we were especially selective about finding stories that would lift spirits and provide inspiration,” says festival founder and director Jitin Hingorani. “For a year and a half now, festival-goers have been consuming cinema-worthy content on their laptops and cell phones. We needed to program the kind of films that would give them a reason to leave their homes and join us in the theaters again.”
The joy of being able to attend an in-person film festival was evident among attendees on all three days as they mingled with the celebrities and caught up with friends after almost 18 months. Festival organizers were particular with the following all covid protocols, including requiring vaccination cards and face masks.
Cinephiles also had the opportunity to know more about the films through the question and answer sessions that followed the screenings as well as in less formal settings at the various networking events and parties that followed.
The festival opened with a glittering red carpet at the Helen Mills Event Space in New York City, Oct. 22. Stars and filmmakers mingled with attendees and guests at cocktail events before the screening of “WOMB” (Women Of My Billion). On the red carpet, talent from India that could get into the U.S. among covid restrictions mingled with a host of young Indian American filmmakers and actors.
Walking the red carpet were Divya Dutta, who played the role of a non-binary person in “Sheer Qorma,” director Faraz Arif Ansari, cinematographer Sunny Lahiri, filmmaker Rajaram Rajendran and his wife Jyolsna Panicker, who both quarantined in Serbia for 14 days before heading to the U.S. Director Geeta Malik of “India Sweets and Spices” was joined by a few of her cast members – Richa Chandra, Priya Deva and Deepti Gupta. There were other talents as well — Apoorva Bakshi and Juliet Blake, co-producers of “WOMB”; Sachin Bhatt of “Saving Chintu,” along with co-producer Ritika Jayaswal; Pritesh Shah of “Invisible Brown Man,” Vijaykumar Mirchandani, producer of “The Last Jam Jar,” “Ritesh Rajan of “Definition Please,” and a host of young actors and social media influencers.
The opening night film, Sharma’s “WOMB” (Women Of My Billion), was in a way a contrast to the opening night cocktails and red carpet, but was a much-needed wake-up call. It also marked a first for SAFF, as it was the first time that the festival was opening with a documentary.
Not only does “WOMB” spotlight Srishti Bakshi’s interactions with over 85,000 women, and the workshops that she conducted in schools, villages and institutions, over the course of her monumental journey, we also get to see her personal journey, her transformation. During her sessions, Shisthi Bakshi stressed the message of equality, that men and women are born equal.
Adding a different dimension to the documentary are the stories of three inspiring and brave women – Pragya Prasun Singh, Sangeeta Tiwari, and Neha Rai – who share their stories of abuse and how they overcame it to stand on their own feet and help others like them. The film is indeed a testimony to how one person has the ability to begin a movement.
“Our aim is to share this bold, unusual and compelling film with the widest audiences possible,” producer Apoorva Bakshi told American Kahani. She is heartened by the response the documentary has been receiving, and hopes it will help “increase awareness on this heartbreaking and very real issue that is faced by millions of women not only in India but the world over.” The message resonated through the audience, many of whom were emotional, but also hopeful for women across the globe.
Hope, inspiration and second chances were themes that were tackled in two films screened on the second day of the festival – Vikas Khanna’s “Barefoot Empress” and Sandeep Kumar’s “Mehrunisa.” While “Barefoot Empress” follows 96-year-old Kartiyani Amma in a village in Kerala, who pursues her dreams of going to school, thereby inspiring girls and women in her neighborhood, state and country, “Mehrunisa” tells the story of an 80-year-old actress who takes on the male-dominated Indian film industry, and unwillingly becomes a leading advocate for women’s rights.
The other two films screened on the second day dealt with separate issues. Sujata Day’s directorial debut “Definition Please,” tackled the ‘model minority’ myth. It centers around a national spelling bee champ who hasn’t really accomplished much in life as she deals with a sick mom and mentally ill brother. “Barah by Barah” offers a fresh perspective on the holy city of Kashi, while telling the story of Sooraj (Gyanendar Tripathi), the last remaining death photographer at the burning banks of Manikarnika. Sooraj finds himself out of work, thanks to technology and cell phones. Showing his struggles and how it affects him, the film questions how one needs to let go of the past to embrace progress and modernity.
The festival closed on Oct. 24, with “India Sweet and Spices,’ a heartwarming and unique coming-of-age film, starring Sophia Ali, Manisha Koirala, Adil Hussain, Rish Shah, Deepti Gupta, and Ved Sapru. The film is based on Geeta Malik’s script “Dinner With Friends” that won the 2016 Academy Nicholl Fellowships in screenwriting. The film offers a look into affluent Indian Americans and the future and an ideological clash between the parents and their children. There is a social image one has to maintain, often keeping the deep, dark secrets buried deep inside. And god forbid, the cat is out of the bag, all hell breaks loose, as the mask falls off and the true colors are seen.
Some of the other films in the stellar lineup included Tushar Tyagi’s “Saving Chintu,” about an American-Indian gay couple who travels to India to adopt a child living with HIV in an orphanage; Abhiroop Basu’s “LAALI,” starring the versatile Pankaj Tripathi, a laundryman who becomes obsessed with a dress that a customer leaves for ironing; “Khisa,” a Marathi short film directed by Raj Pritam, telling the story of a young boy who lives in a remote village in Maharashtra; Tathagata Ghosh’s “Miss Man,” a hauntingly beautiful depiction of gender and identity politics, about the struggles of a Manob, a transgender, who’s shunned by his father and his lover.
Below is the list of winners at NYC SAFF:
Best Feature – “Mehrunisa” by Sandeep Kumar
Best Actor – Ritesh Rajan for “Definition Please”
Best Actress – Late Farrukh Jaffar for “Mehrunisa”
Best Director – Geeta Malik for “India Sweets and Spices”
Best Short – “Barefoot Empress” by Vikas Khanna
Best Long Form Short – “LAALI” by Abhiroop Das
Best of Fest:
Director – Faraz Arif Ansari for “Sheer Qorma”
Actor – Divya Datta for “Sheer Qorma”
Social Impact Award – “WOMB” by Ajitesh Sharma and
produced by Apoorva Bakshi & Juliet Blake
Lifetime Achievement Award – Asha Puthli
for her contributions to music & film
Esteemed Jury: Katy Drake Bettner, Dylan Mohan Gray, Aroon Shivdasani, Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla, Anjul Nigam and Cynthia Kane
Photos by Sachyn Mital