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Desis Trending: Eight Films With South Asian American Cast and Crew Being Screened at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival

Desis Trending: Eight Films With South Asian American Cast and Crew Being Screened at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival

  • The feature films, documentaries, and short films with ensemble casts are evidence that subcontinental stories and content have a global appeal as well as a global audience and market.

At least eight films with a predominantly South Asian American cast and crew or a subject line exploring the various issues of the community, are being screened at the ongoing Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Whether it’s the heist film “Four Samosas,” which had its world premiere at the prestigious festival; or “Land of Gold,” a story of hope and finding family in the most unexpected places; or the short film “Coming Out With The Help Of A Time Machine,” or Pakistani-American filmmaker Nausheen Dadabhoy’s documentary “Acts of Worship,” the wide range of films that made it to the festival show that South Asian American stories and content have a global appeal as well as a global audience and market. 

Sangeeta Agrawal in “Coming Out With The Help Of A Time Machine.”
Top photo, cast and crew of Ravi Kapoor’s “Four Samosas” at the Tribeca Film Festival red carpet on June 10. (Photo credit: Sachin Mital Photography).

“With writers, producers, and directors from the diaspora, it is easier for actors to get roles that are not restricted to the stereotypical roles they once had to limit themselves to, as doctors, cab drivers and terrorists,” said Pulkit Datta, co-producer of “Coming Out With the Help of a Time Machine,” in a conversation with American Kahani. Many of these films are not restricted to a theatrical release only, thanks to the several streaming platforms and channels. That means there’s work for everyone, with diverse roles and subject matters to explore as is evident from the Tribeca lineup. 

Actor Karan Soni, who stars in “Coming Out” and Four Samosas,” agrees. Having two of his films screened at the festival is “really exciting.” he tells American Kahani. “It’ll be great to see more and more of it.” Working with South Asian American actors has its advantages, he says. “You can relate to each other, you can make inside jokes that you can’t otherwise,” and most importantly, “you can work with each other,” instead of competing with each other.”

According to Variety, “there are 32 directors returning to Tribeca with their latest projects, along with 50 first-time directors.” This year’s festival has also made “notable strides toward parity and representation,” the report added. “More than 64 percent (81) of the feature films are directed by female, BIPOC and LGBT filmmakers.”

A scene from Ravi Kapoor’s “Four Samosas.”

Leading the South Asian contingent is Ravi Kapoor’s “Four Samosas,” with an ensemble Indian American cast. It revolves around the “happy-go-lucky, underachieving, wanna-be rapper Vinny (Venk Potula), who is dismayed to learn that his favorite ex-girlfriend Rina (Summer Bishil) is planning to marry his smarmy arch-nemesis. Determined to disrupt the wedding as well as fund the dreams of his family and friends, he and his band of neighborhood pals concoct a plan to steal Rina’s dowry jewels from her father’s supermarket safe. Tribeca describes it as a “lighthearted and engaging film, which is “a feel-good love letter to Indian American culture and norms in this tale of putting it all on the line in the name of love.”

Another film to have its world premiere is “Land of Gold,” about a first-generation Punjabi truck driver Kiran (Nardeep Khurmi) “who is about to become a father, but his irresponsibility is alienating everyone close to him,” according to the film’s synopsis. “When he discovers an undocumented girl named Elena (Caroline Valencia) inside, everything changes as he sets out on a cross-country road trip in search of her family,” the synopsis adds. “Over the arduous journey, the pair evade the police while feuding and bonding over music, paint swatches, and what it means to be seen as ‘other’ in white America.”

Pakistani American filmmaker Nausheen Dadabhoy’s documentary “Acts of Worship” also had its world premiere on June 10. Through a collection of personal stories, archival footage, and home movies, it aims to open a window into the world of Muslim Americans. “The film follows three women activists who have come of age since 9/11 and who are part of a new generation of Muslims in America,” says the synopsis. One is a community organizer of a sanctuary city initiative in New York, another is a young hijab-wearing activist in Michigan learning how to overcome society’s expectations of her, and the third is a California lawyer advocating for her community while balancing motherhood. “Due to their first-hand knowledge and intimate access to the Muslim community, the filmmaking team is able to take charge of the account, which has previously been shaped by outsiders.”

Two projects chosen in the shorts film category had their New York premieres. Naman Gupta’s “Coming Out With The Help Of A Time Machine,” is about acceptance and love. It tells the story of Sid, (Karan Soni), who, when coming out to his traditional Indian parents, uses his time machine to reset the day in an attempt to make sure everything goes perfectly. Gupta, who co-wrote the film with his writing partner Janki Parekh, told American Kahani that when Parekh suggested that they do a coming-out story, he didn’t just want to do a film on that. So they sat on it. 

“Then one day, as I was scribbling a time loop scene set in a diner, it hit me. Having a passion for sci-fi and blending fiction with contemporary issues, why not tell the coming-out story in a new and fresh way… the sci-fi way. Something bold, exciting, and genre-bending. Thus, the idea of ‘Coming Out With The Help Of A Time Machine’ was born.” The film stars Soni, Sangeeta Agrawal, Raghuram Shetty, and Trella Meribeth. The film has been screened at various film festivals and the response has been overwhelming, Gupta says. “People are connecting with the film, for different reasons,” whether personal or for “the drama and the human connection.” 

A scene from “Land of Gold.”

Along with Dadabhoy’s documentary “Acts of Worship,” the short film “Alhamdu I Muslim Futurism,” also sheds light on the community. Tribeca describes Abbas Rattani’s film as “an experimental vision of resistance and liberation through the lens of Muslim joy, flourishing, and imagination.” Rattani, an award-winning process artist, ethicist, physician, and filmmaker, is the founding director of MIPSTERZ—a Muslim arts and culture collective. 

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Also having its premiere in the international narrative competition section is Shlok Sharma’s Hindi film “Two Sisters and a Husband.” It tells the story of the carefree Amrita (Manya Grover) who wants a life together with Rajat (Dinker Sharma), with whom she’s in a secret relationship. Even after Rajat is steered into marrying Amrita’s introspective older sister, Tara (Avani Rai), the younger sibling’s love remains undimmed. But when Amrita becomes pregnant by her now brother-in-law, the trio is forced to flee to a mountain town, where Rajat becomes manager of a hotel owned by the last heir of a royal family, Bhed Singh (Himanshu Kohli). Tara slips into melancholy, while Amrita passes her due date yet shows no readiness to give birth. Tribeca calls it a “classic ménage à trois” which “receives a uniquely Indian twist in this riveting and restrained drama, set in the 1990s against the majestic backdrop of the Himalayas.”

On June 12, the festival screened the Oscar-winning documentary feature “Summer of Soul,” co-produced by Indian American Joseph Patel. The documentary directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and co-produced by David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent, examines the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was held at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem and lasted for six weeks. Despite having a large attendance and performers such as Stevie Wonder, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, among others, the festival was seen as obscure in pop culture, something that the documentarians investigate.

Festival-goers will also get a chance to see Indian American Danny Pudi in “Corner Office,” along with Jon Hamm, which premiered on June 9. The office satire, helmed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Joachim Back, sees Hamm play Orson, a compulsive bureaucrat who discovers a secret room his co-workers deny exists. “Community” star Pudi is the messy office colleague Rakesh. 

The 21st edition of the festival opened on June 8 with the world premiere of “Halftime,” a new Netflix documentary film by director Amanda Micheli that follows global superstar Jennifer Lopez, as she reflects on her milestones and evolution as an artist, and navigates the second half of her career. 

The 12-day festival includes 88 world premieres across its 10 categories, showcasing 109 feature films and 16 online premieres from 150 filmmakers across 40 countries. The Tribeca At Home platform will allow U.S. audiences to watch a selection of films online from June 9 to 26.

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