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Listen Amaya

Farooq Sheikh and Youth

Farooq Sheikh’s last film, Youngistaan, releases this Friday. Appropriately for a man who always embraced youth, the title itself lays claim to the younger generation. Even in his older character roles of recent years, Sheikh spoke to the struggles of the young, the spirit of play and joy. Sheikh has always been at his best when questioning wisdom of the old.

In his very first film, Sheikh dealt with this quandary. His character is in many ways secondary, but ultimately it is his argument for youth and the future which the film supports. Garam Hawa (1974) is one of the few films in Indian history to deal directly with the issues of partition (Khushwant Singh, who died earlier this week, wrote one of the few others, Train to Pakistan (1998)). It’s focus is purportedly on the older generation, on Salim, the brother who chooses to stay in India. In the younger generation, the most important characters are the nephew who goes to Pakistan and the girl he loves. As their tragic love story unfolds, they unable to overcome their family and the state to be together, the girl is then rejected by her second choice suitor and finally commits suicide. And yet, there is also Farooq Sheikh’s Sikander, traveling the outskirts of the plot, never falling in love, never searching for meaning, always clear on his purpose. Sikander wants to save this new India, to live in the here and now and fight for the future. In the end, it is his vision that wins out as his father Salim is convinced to join him in protest and, therefore, in hope for a better life.

Family portrait style picture of the cast of Garam Hawa

The central family of Garam Hawa (1973). Sheikh’s character holds the diploma

In Sheikh’s recent films, he has been playing the older generation convinced to follow the youth. His most recent films, Listen…Amaya (2013), Club 60 (2013), and Yeh Jewaani Hai Deewani (2013) all struggle with how the younger generation should act and interact with the older. In Listen…Amaya, he is reunited with his frequent co-star Deepti Naval in a middle-aged love story. Significantly, however, they are not the title character. The title is given to Deepti Naval’s character’s daughter. But it is phrased as a command, she is being told to “Listen.” Listen to what?–to her mother, to her mentor, to the older and wiser people around her. The story is about her, about the youth, but it is also a command for the youth to continue to listen to and work with their elders.

Club 60, as the title implies, is about a community of those around 60 years of age. However, this is not a group that has smoothly and easily entered into Vanaprastha stage. They dress young, they talk young, they refuse to leave the world either literally or metaphorically. Sheikh’s character, when he first meets them, is trapped in the past, unable to consider that their way of life may be anything more than a fruitless fight against time. However, through the course of the film, he comes to embrace their petty rebellion against the structures of age and find in it a freedom and purity. In a way, his journey parallels that of Salim in Garam Hawa. He begins trapped in a tragic loss and ends embracing rebellion and its hope for the future.

Poster for Club 60

Poster of Club 60

And then there is Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, one of the most successful films of 2013, in which Sheikh plays a small but significant part. The title itself calls out to youth. Yeh Jawaani is partly a romance, but mostly a Bildungsroman, the coming of age story of Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) and, to a lesser degree, Naina (Deepika Padukone). Farooq Sheikh’s character, in two short scenes, defines this struggle.

Bunny is the kind of character Farooq played in Katha (1983), a feckless youth enjoying himself and not worrying about tomorrow or the devastation he leaves behind him. It may be hard to see his growth, because Bunny is a charming character who is always in control and confident of his place in the world. However, Sheikh’s two scenes at the beginning show that Bunny is still flawed and fearful, when he is forced to be in a place he does not choose. Sheikh, as Bunny’s father, simply asks him why he was late to come home, requests that he respect his stepmother, and offers him food. This causes Bunny to react with all the grace of a three year old throwing a tantrum, finally forcing him to flee to his bedroom. Sheikh’s character follows him and, in this second scene, expresses simple concern and love for his son, which Bunny is completely incapable of reciprocating or processing.

Sheikh’s character disappears after this, but his gentle understanding and concern cast a long shadow of the rest of the film. Bunny’s inability to relate to his love and support presage the inevitable incomplete ending of his romance with the gentle Naina. His desire to run away from the complicated emotions and situation of his father and stepmother foreshadow his failure to support his troubled friends. Bunny only truly grows up when he returns home and confronts the death of his father, finally able to take responsibility for people and relationships, not just move through life.

Sheikh’s career tells India to embrace youthful rebellion against the status quo, to take responsibility for change, to never retreat into the past. Now that he is here no more, we should honor him by appreciating his contributions to film, but more importantly, striving to bring film forward, to look to the future and ask “how could things be better?”

 

Margaret Redlich is a Masters student in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University with a focus on Indian film.  She has been published on the website Racialicious.com and is the Midwest Popular Culture Association’s Area Chair for Indian film.

jean_arthur_easy_living_by_ajax1946-d4zzm9l

Somewhere and Nowhere: Hotels on Film

Hotels are a natural location for a film, they offer the opportunity to throw together a variety of people for a limited amount of time in an artificially beautiful background. Heck, the same thing could be said of working on a film, only working on a movie there is a much more artificial background and much more beautiful people! There have been many famous hotels in film, from Grand Hotel to Best Exotic Marigold to, as of this week, Grand Budapest. There are so many hotel films that there is no objective way to pick between them (Oscar winners? Most popular? Oldest? Most exotic?), so I went ahead and picked the two that are my favorites.

Easy Living (1937)

Hotel Louis (run by Louis Louis) is the location, the motivation, the solution and the problem in this fluffy screwball classic. From a script by Preston Sturges and Vera Caspary (author of Laura, the novel and the screenplay, but not the song), it was directed by Mitchell Leisen who never met a luxury travel script he didn’t love, from an airplane to Mexico (Masquarade in Mexico (1945)) to a “radio powered” ocean liner (The Big Broadcast of 1938, which introduced the Oscar winning song “Thanks For the Memories”) to another grand hotel in Budapest, the Ritz (Midnight (1939)).  Easy Living may now be best known for the jazz standard originally written as its leitmotif, but it was one of the most successful film of its year and is a lifelong favorite of mine.

Poster of Easy Living

Easy Living (1937)

Travel is about the spaces between destinations, the gaps that allow for amazing experiences. In Easy Living, the only travel is the bus ride that opens it, but that bus ride gives Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) the one chance she has to change her life. When a fur coat thrown by plutocrat J. B. Ball (Edward Arnold) lands on her head, she is thrown into the middle of the tug of war going on between Ball and everyone else in his life, from his wife to his son to the hotel owner who he is threatening to destroy, Louis Louis (Louis Alberni).

Louis Louis and his hotel are the first to claim her, offering her a free luxury suite in return for her (supposed) ability to sway J.B. Ball. The connection is obvious, as an (presumed) unacknowledged mistress of J.B. Ball she exists in an impermanent but comfortable position, the very definition of hotel living. Next to move in is John Ball, Jr. (Ray Milland), the rich man’s son thrown out on his own with nothing but the sophistication and charm of, well, a Ray Milland-but without the skills necessary even to work as a waiter at an automat. No wonder Mary Smith takes pity on him and brings him back to her new home to help her figure out the taps in the bathtub.

Jean Arthur and Ray Milland study a bathtub in Easy Living

Jean Arthur and Ray Milland study a bathtub in Easy Living (1937)

In one way, Easy Living is classic fluff, a slamming door farce that ends with a humorous marriage proposal and an embrace. But in another, it uses the hotel setting to highlight the impermanence and fragility of everything that appears secure, from the roof over your head to the money in your pocket. Mary Smith goes from a put upon office worker to a fur coat wearing hotel dweller in the space of a few hours, but she still has to steal from an automate to get a square meal. John Ball, Jr. goes from storming out of a Park Avenue mansion to working at an automat to being a kept man in a hotel, to taking over his father’s business in the space to two days. Even Jenny Ball (Mary Nash) goes from a shrill harpy spending her husband’s money to a crushed wife begging to scrub floors to support him within two days and barely 90 minutes of screen time.

In this way, Easy Living was perfect for its audience, crushed by years of economic depression. To see how the mighty could fall, the weak could triumph, and your whole situation could change as simply as checking into a hotel was a perfect encapsulation of the time.

Chupke Chupke (1975)

Hrishikish Mukherjee’s classic mistaken identity comedy Chupke Chupke begins at a remote Hill Station, a place so far off the beaten track that, once there, you can become anything and anyone you want and, at the same time, become more yourself than you ever will be. The whole film is an exercise in humanism, showing how, ultimately, we are all the same whether we are a botany professor, a driver, a English professor, or merely a pompous older brother pretending to be the most intelligent person in the room.

Mukherjee’s films are tales of the middle-class, but not because this class is better, worthier, or more important than any other; just because he knows them best in all their insecurities, inanities, and kindness. The first charade of Chupke Chupke is a gesture of kindness. Professor Tripathi (Dharmendra) offers to pretend to be the caretaker for the guest house out of kindness, so an old man can go visit his sick relative. Tripathi has no embarrassment over changing personalities from a respected professor to a humble caretaker, just as he later has no compunction about pretending to be a lowly driver (and allowing his wife to pretend to the lover of a lowly driver). More than that, Mukherjee makes sure the audience is in on the joke. The funny one isn’t the professor pretending to be a driver, or the middle-class wife pretending to have an affair, it is the uppity older brother who buys into these class divides.

Poster of Chupke Chupke

Chupke Chupke (1975)

But to return to the hotel that sets it all in motion: Professor Tripathi is at a remote Hill Station enjoying his annual vacation when the caretaker is called away and he offers to replace him. Schoolgirl Sulekha Chaturvedi (Sharmila Tagore) along with a bus full of her classmates arrives to stay at the station. Sulekha enjoys a charade as well, that of a clever femme fatale, as she sees through Tripathi’s facade and punctures it, using her knowledge of his disguise to bring them closer. Chaturvedi is enjoying something of a vacation as well, becoming the kind of forward girl who flirts with caretakers and leaves her address in a tip instead of the obedient and worshiping sister we see later. While the rest of the film, with its commentaries on gossip, knowledge, society, and language, is firmly placed within Indian communities, the first 15 minutes are set apart, as removed from the everyday as the mountain peak on which the Hill Station is located is removed from the plain.

I haven’t seen The Grand Budapest Hotel yet, but I suspect it will contain some of these same themes, the hotel as a place of transition, as a place where you can be whoever you want to be, as a place removed from all the petty rules and judgements of society. No wonder there have been so many films set at hotels- isn’t that what we want from the movies? A chance to live in a fantasy world where we can pretend to be someone else, somewhere else, and somewhere anything can happen.

 

Margaret Redlich is a Masters student in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University with a focus on Indian film.  She has been published on the website Racialicious.com and is the Midwest Popular Culture Association’s Area Chair for Indian film.

MARY-PICKFORD

The First, First-Women of Film

As the Academy Awards this Sunday reminded us, the movie industry is an Old Boys Club with a noticeable glass ceiling. Once again, no female directors were nominated. Which reflects the larger truth that there are only a handful of female directors working. Even fewer female heads of production. How about female studio owners? That is unheard of! Except actually, in the early years of film, some of the first studios were founded and run by women. In honor of International Women’s Day this Saturday, I thought I would highlight some of them

Alice Guy-Blache

After being forgotten for decades, this French film pioneer is finally getting her due thanks to the impressive scholarship of a variety of women who have rescued her from obscurity. I first found out about her at an academic conference I attended recently while on a panel discussing religion and film. My fellow panelist, Dr. Gretchen Bisplinghoff, was talking about Guy-Blache’s film The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ (1906), the first film on this topic to be made and a record-breaking success (for Indian film fans, this is particularly interesting as this version of Life of Christ very well may be the one seen by Dadasaheb Phalke which inspired him to make Raja Harishcandra (1913)).

Photo of Alice Guy-Blache

Guy-Blache was born in France in 1873, but partially raised in Chile, before returning to France for further schooling. In 1894 she was hired as secretary (no visions of Mad Men, in the 1890s being a secretary was highly skilled labor involving using the cutting edge typewriter technology) at a photography company. The company went bankrupt soon after, but one of the partners decided to buy the defunct equipment and turn it into the first film studios in the world, Gaumont Film Company. Guy-Blache was hired as the head of film production, the first ever head of film production, in 1896.

During her time in France, she instituted many of the basic tenants of film production. For instance, she encouraged films with actual plots instead of just a series of novelty sequences, she instructed her actors to “be natural” on camera, she used double-exposures and ran film backwards to create special effects, she even created soundtracks on separate discs to synch up with the images onscreen. She also made The Life of Christ with a massive budget and 300 extras, the first religious epic starting a trend that has continued to this day with the recent television hit The Bible (2013) and Mel Gibson’s record breaking hit The Passion of Christ (2004).

In 1907, Guy-Blache moved to America to head up Gaumont’s new American wing. Three years later, she went out on her own, founding her own studio in New Jersey which rapidly became the largest studio in America, The Solax Company. Solax lasted several years, thriving on serial shorts, often with exotic location shooting, before finally collapsing due to competition from the new Hollywood based super-studios.

Guy-Blache briefly worked for William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service before retiring and moving to back to France in 1922. There are a few monuments to her achievements, Fort Lee, NJ film commission has updated her gravesite to indicate her importance and created an award in her honor, the “Alice”, to be given to groundbreaking female filmmakers. In 1953, France awarded her a Legion d’honor. However, in the annals of film history, her contribution has been erased, replaced by men like French filmmakers the Lumiere Brothers, early directors like DW Griffith, and studio pioneers like Adolph Zukor.

There is a recent effort to recover her influence on film history. If you are interested in learning more, check out the kickstarter project to fund a documentary on Guy-Blache’s career and influence.

Mary Pickford

If you are a fan of old movies, when you think of Mary Pickford, you probably think of America’s Sweetheart, the Girl with the Golden Curls, Douglas Fairbanks’ big romance and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s stepmother. You may even remember that Joan Crawford was briefly her daughter-in-law or that her estate Pickfair hosted the swankiest affairs. You probably don’t know that she owned and ran her own studio for 20 years.

Studio photo of Mary Pickford c. 1914

Mary Pickford and her curls

In 1918, while on tour together selling War Bonds, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin (who worked with Alice Guy-Blache early in his career) and cowboy star William S. Hart, had a wild idea: why couldn’t they break free of the studio system and make the movies they wanted to make? By 1919, Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin were ready to move forward, while Hart had doubts. He was replaced by superstar director D.W. Griffith and a lawyer who also happened to be the President’s son-in-law, Hiram Abrams. Each founding partner owned 20% of the studio outright.

The initial plan was for each of the stars to make 5 films a year, filling out a slate of 20. They presented this deal to a distribution company and signed a contract. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the running time and budget for pictures had gone up, making the managing partners unable to fulfill their commitment. The initial business plan was scrapped, Joseph Schenk was brought in as managing director, and set up a separate deal with Pickford and Chaplin to build their own theaters in the UA name around the world.

By this point, while Chaplin was happy to use UA as a way to fund and distribute his vanity projects, and Griffith and Fairbanks had both entered semi-retirement, Pickford was still actively involved in the day to day running of the studio. She produced several pictures, helped broker partnership deals with Twentieth Century (which later became Twentieth Century Fox) and various independent producers, and generally kept the company going while her male partners pursued their new interests.

At the same time, Pickford helped found the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers which brought suit against Paramount for anti-trust violations. This lawsuit eventually led to the seminal United States vs. Paramount decision by the supreme court which forced movie studios to sell the theater chains and allowed for the massive growth in independent film seen by America in the 1970s.

To put it another way, if it weren’t for Mary Pickford, we wouldn’t have Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, or, really, any of the groundbreaking and innovative directives nominated this year because the studio system she killed would never have let them flourish.

Devika Rani
In 1919, as Mary Pickford was founding United Artists and Alice Guy-Blache was packing up Solax Studios, Devika Rani was still in school in London. Rani was the child of a progressive doctor in India who believed that women should get an education at least as good as a man’s. He sent her to school in Europe and later supported her when she decided to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. She also studied architecture, textile design, and apprenticed with make-up expert Elizabeth Arden.

Also traveling through Europe at this time was young Himanshu Rai, an Indian who dreamed of creating a large professional film studio in India. Rai and Rani met and fell in love, and returned to India to found Bombay Talkies along with their partner, Sashadhar Mukherjee (distant relative of today’s powerful women in film, Rani Mukherjee and Kajol Devgn as well as rising director Ayan Mukherjee). Just like Pickford allying herself with Twentieth Century, Rani and Rai realized they were small fish in a very big pond and the best way to defend themselves was to ally with a bigger fish, therefore another founding partner of Bombay Talkies was the German state film studio, UFA.

Rai and Rani’s alliance with the German’s brought the first true technical training to the Indian film industry. The German’s trained them, and they trained everyone else. Their Bombay Talkies studio believed in everyone working every day, and everyone knowing everything. This is how Raj Kapoor learned how to work a camera, how Dev Anand knew how to pick scripts, how Ashok Kumar understood how to produce.

Still of Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Acchut Kanya

Young Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Acchut Kanya

In the early years, Rai starred in all their productions as well as working behind the scenes. Her extensive education allowed her to act, design sets, manage the actors’ make-up, and help with scripts. Rai also found Bombay Talkies two greatest discoveries, the skinny camera technician Ashok Kumar who she picked to star opposite her in Acchut Kanya, and Muhammad Yusuf Khan who she renamed “Dilip Kumar.” In 1940, Himanshri Rai died, leaving Rai in control of the studio. She ran it alone for several years, before finally selling it to Ashok Kumar, twenty years after she had pulled him out of the editing booth and made him India’s first star.

While Rai is often forgotten, her contribution lives on in the studio she founded. Bombay Talkies was so pivotal to the early years of Indian film that the four director collaboration made to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of film in India was named for it, Bombay Talkies.

Omar Film Still

Omar

Hany Abu-Assad’s newest film, Omar (2013), is a hard-hitting and powerful feature film. His previous films, Paradise Now (feature film nominated for an Academy Award, 2005) and Ford Transit (faux documentary, 2002), are also about the hardships of the Occupation. All three of these films are Palestinian productions. Even though Abu-Assad lives in Holland, the film Omar was almost completely funded by Palestinian businessmen and the major crew members were all Palestinian.

Omar is a love story. It is also the story of the struggles and insanity of life under the Israeli Occupation. According to the filmmaker, Hany Abu-Assad, who spoke at the premiere screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque:

My only focus was to make a movie about the love story, friendship and trust.

He went on to explain that the political reality was meant to be context. The film shows how the political/national reality strongly affects the lives of individuals and the film’s premise is that the terror of the occupation has caused these individuals to live with so much distrust, betrayal and paranoia — but ultimately, the real betrayal is not a political one but rather is connected to the love story.

Omar, Tarek and Amjad are close friends. Omar is in love with Tarek’s sister, Nadia, and he climbs the separation wall, taking great risks, in order to visit her. As a result of the humiliation and degradation of regular life in the West Bank, the three friends decide to commit an act of violent resistance. When the filmmaker was asked whether his film supports the resistance to the occupation, he stated unequivocally that it is the primary message and that “injustice requires resistance.”

Omar is played by Adam Bakri, one of the sons of Mohammed Bakri, and it is clear to see that he is as good looking and as compelling an actor as his father. He plays a baker — someone whose life is devoted to making bread, nurturing and satisfying a basic human need. He is a tragic figure — a moral, sensitive and beautiful human being who makes self-destructive choices in his life.

These are the major threads of the film — Omar’s love story, the senseless act of violence committed by him together with his friends, and the resulting savage beating and harassment that he receives by the Israeli Security Services (Shin Bet).

Many people are comparing this film to the Israeli thriller, Bethlehem (previously reviewed on this blog), which is about the relationship between a Shin Bet handler and his Palestinian collaborator. The major difference is that since Omar is a film made from a Palestinian perspective, the main character, who is also being recruited by the Shin Bet to become a collaborator, never betrays his own sense of morality, never betrays any of his friends, and never collaborates in any way.

The film includes much tension and violence — on the part of the Shin Bet, the Israeli soldiers, and also among the Palestinians themselves — and therefore some might find it troubling. However, the film, which has already won accolades around the world and is on the list for an Academy Award nomination, offers an important reflection of the tragic choices that regular people are being forced to make as part of their lives in the West Bank.

Guest Blog by Amy Kronish

Write to Amy at amykronish@gmail.com. Follow her blog at http://israelfilm.blogspot.com/

Shoeshine

The History of the Foreign Film Oscar: Keep Your Friends Close…

How is Japan different from all other countries in Asia? If you answered, it was the only one to invade the United States, that is correct! And if you answered, it has won more than one Academy Award in the Foreign Picture category, that is also correct!

The Foreign Language Oscar was instituted in 1947, and for the first several years was a non-competitive award, similar to the honorary oscars, given out to whichever film the Academy decided most deserved it. Starting in 1955, it became a competitive category with rules and restrictions. Some of the biggest of these were: the film must be in a language other than English; that language must be a native language of the country from which it came; and only one film per country, selected by a committee of members of the film fraternity of that country, could be part of competition. Some of these rules have changed, any non-English language is now allowed (this is why the Hindi language film Water (2005), for instance, was able to be submitted by Canada).

John Abraham in the film Water

Water (2005) was submitted by to the Academy by Canada despite being a Hindi language film.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to which films the Academy likes most, and those are the ones allowed in competition. And certain countries, the Academy obviously likes more than others. And those countries are still primarily defined as “countries that used to be at war with the United States.”

When the foreign film Oscars started, America was in the throes of a dramatic shift in post-war policy. The previous standard was to punish the losing country as much as they could take. For instance, after WWI Germany was asked to give up all the territories it had gained, and also foot the bill for the war effort. This did not work out very well (that’s why it’s called “World War I” instead of “World War Only”), so post-WWII the United States decided to try the carrot instead of the stick. The idea was, if we assist our former enemies, help them to regain their self-respect, we can train them to be better, more peaceful, countries. Through out the late forties and into the 1950s, thousands of American GIs, civilian contractors, diplomats, and businessmen lived in Italy, Germany, Japan, and other locations we had just finished bombing into oblivion, in order to help rebuild them.

File:US-MarshallPlanAid-Logo.svg

Logo placed on products sold through out Europe during the post-war period.

The “country we just finished invading” trend is still prevalent in film selections today. Of course, there are some other elements that go into this. The most Award heavy countries of all time (Italy, France, Spain, and Japan) are also the ones who have submitted the most. They also (excepting Japan) have languages, people, and locations that sound, look, and feel similar to American languages, people, and locations.

But these elements can’t really be separated, can they? The locations in Japan now look more and more like American locations, because after we destroyed their cities, we rebuilt them in our own image. Italy has submitted the most films and won the most times, and post-WWII it was the only country in the perfect position to be in bad enough shape to deserve assistance, but in good enough shape to be able to pull together a film industry. No coincidence that France and Spain, similarly familiar and yet not catastrophically damaged, were the next most common.

Poster of Shoeshine

Shoeshine (1946) by De Sica was the first Foreign Language Oscar winnter

Looking at more recent times, this year we have a film from Cambodia and another from Palestine. 2011’s winner was Iranian. Bosnia & Herzegovinia won in 2004. Cuba was nominated in 1994, which was also the first year the Cuban government allowed aid from the United States into the country. So perhaps the best strategy for countries like Mexico and India (submitted almost every year, thriving film industries, have never won a Foreign Film Oscar) is to start a war with the United States; apparently it’s a good way to get noticed.

File:Fresa y Chocolate (US cover).jpg

Strawberry and Chocolate (1994) was the first Cuban film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

The “love your enemy” trend may not be the best or most egalitarian tactic for choosing a good international film, but it is one of the best lessons in forgiveness and compassion I have ever seen. The American film industry, and the American audience, responds to hearing about war, violence, and misery by saying “How can I learn more about this country? Let me watch their movies.” And the country of our “enemies” is happy to provide us with their side of the story. Iran has submitted a film almost every year since 1994. China has as well since 1979. The Russians actually submitted more regularly during the Cold War than in the years since. Even Cuba has submitted 17 times.

If you remember, one of the rules from the Academy committee is that a film be selected by a committee of filmmakers. Not diplomats or government officials, but filmmakers. And consistently, the artists of countries which have every reason to hate America, countries we have invaded, bombed, destroyed economically and vilified in the international community, send us as a gift the most heartfelt, the most beautiful, the most touching work they have to offer.

Blog by Margaret Redlich

Margaret Redlich is a Masters student in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University with a focus on Indian films.  She has been published on the website Racialicious.com and is the Midwest Popular Culture Association’s Area Chair for Indian films

Satyajit Ray

The First Films of the Three Greatest Indian Filmmakers

For first blog post for the inaugural year of i2f2, a film festival committed to encouraging first time filmmakers, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the first films of some of the first filmmakers of South Asia, the directors Bimal Roy, B.R. Chopra, and Satyajit Ray.

Bimal Roy

Bimal Roy was the first of these first filmmakers to appear on the Indian film scene, getting his start in 1943. In 1943, India was still a British colony, caught up in WWII and the freedom struggle. But this was not what inspired Bimal Roy to make his first film. Like many other Bengal intellectuals, Roy was horrified by the tragedy of the Bengal famine, caused by a combination of changing water patterns and colonial neglect. The famine served as a rallying cry for the artists, writers, and filmmakers of Bengal to speak for those who could not speak, the peasants dying in the fields with their women and children. Roy’s first film was his one and only documentary, Bengal Famine, as he took a camera into the field and tried to record the tragedy of his state. Roy never returned to documentaries, perhaps the tepid reception of his first effort taught him that he could better effect change and move hearts through fiction.

Still from the film Humrahi

Roy had a second first film with Udayer Pathey (1944), produced by PC Barua’s New Theater film company, where Roy had gotten his start and his training. Udayer Pathey takes the sensitivity and tenderness Roy developed for the oppressed classes and deploys it through a standard film plot, that of a poor boy in love with a rich girl. Roy created a rich mixture of song, story, the tragedy of real life, and national feeling that remained his USP until the end of his career. His remake of Udayer Pathey in Hindi through the Bombay Talkies studio, Hamrahi (1945), was the first Indian film to feature the song “Jana Gana Mana”, India’s national anthem.

Roy’s first film made with his own production company, rather than in partnership with New Theaters or, later, the studio Bombay Talkies, was Do Bigha Zamine. This was the first Indian film to win an international prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and the first film in what would come to be the Indian Neo-realist style. Roy combined the stylized songs and dialogue learned through his experience in the Hindi and Bengali studio systems, with the natural compositions and performances he craved from his documentary past to make a film that, to this day, is still considered one of the greatest Indian films of all time.

One more film first, Roy was the cameraman on the first film version of Devdas, PC Barua’s 1933 version. He went on to make his own version in 1955, which was the first Hindi language film of Suchitra Sen. Although primarily a Bengali actress, on the strength of this performance, Sen’s recent death was mourned nationally. She may not have been the first “Paro” of Indian film, but Roy certainly made her the greatest.

B.R. Chopra

B.R. Chopra was the first director to do a double role mistaken identity film, the first producer to transition to television, and the first of the illustrious Chopra family to come to Bombay. But before all that, he was a journalist. Chopra worked with words before he ever worked with images. Eventually, as the editor for the film journal Cine Herald, he worked with words in order to describe images. Interestingly, he only wrote the script for one of the films he directed, Humraaz (1963). In later years, he returned to his writing, with the scripts for Baghban (2003) and Babul (2006).

B.R. Chopra’s first film as a director was Afsana (1951), based on a script by the writer, director, and actor I.S. Johar. Johar would later give Chopra’s younger brother Yash (who went on to be one of the most loved directors of Indian film) his first job. Afsana combines several classic plot elements of Indian film, the separated brothers, the love triangle, and the mistaken identity. It also includes elements of the classic B.R. Chopra film, with the inclusion of a legal storyline, a sensitive treatment of marital infidelity and “the fallen woman”, and a strong central performance by the evergreen actor Ashok Kumar. Chopra enjoyed this film so much, that he remade it 20 years later as Dastaan, this time starring Dilip Kumar in the lead role.

Poster for Dastaan

Chopra’s first film as a producer is frequently wrongly listed as Naya Daur (1957), which is perhaps his greatest film, telling the story of man versus machine, and the rights of the common man over the rights of the elite. However, in fact, the first film produced by his production house B.R. Films was Ek Hi Rasta (1956). Ek Hi Raasta again stars Ashok Kumar, along with Meena Kumari and Sunil Dutt, again showing Chopra’s taste for actors who combined star power with the ability to successfully perform the role. Ek Hi Raasta again returns to the theme of marital infidelity with the young boy Raja, unaware that his father is dead, hating his mother for marrying his stepfather. Chopra flourished when he focused on simple eternal human desires as they have been perverted by modern society: to have a faithful wife, to make a living through physical labor, to be raised in a stable family group. Unlike Roy, who used the human to show the universal, Chopra used the universal to show the human.

Perhaps this is because, while Roy experienced tragedy through seeing the massive human cost of the Bengal famine, Chopra experienced it on a personal level, losing everything in the Partition.

Satyajit Ray

While the previous two filmmakers made good first films and went on to greater achievements, Satyajit Ray made his best film first. Perhaps this is because he worked on it for so long before it finally became a reality. Ray spent years living with the novel on which it is based, making sketches, planning dialogue, making a perfect picture in his head of what he wanted to create, before he turned on the cameras. Even once filming started, due to lack of funds, he was forced to move slowly. The film took 3 years to complete, allowing him the luxury of revising and refining his vision as he worked.

Poster for Jean Renoir's The River

Like Roy, Ray came from the Bengal artistic tradition. However, while Roy was awakened by the Bengal famine and the problems of his home state, Ray experienced awakening by leaving his home. He worked in London for 3 months, during which time he watched every film he could, learning about European film trends and techniques, and came home inspired. He went on to found the Calcutta Film Society, a group that worked around Indian importation restrictions to bring the great modern films of Europe to India. Before he made Pather Panchali, Ray saw The Bicycle Thief and Battleship Potemkin and had the opportunity to hear John Huston, Jean Renoir, and the Russian actor Nikolay Cherkasov speak. More than that, he assisted Jean Renoir during the Indian portion of the shoot of Renoir’s film The River.

Even this modest amount of experience made Ray the most experienced person on his set. Unlike Roy and Chopra whose first films were supported by a strong studio system, Ray was working with whoever he could afford to hire. Perhaps because of this, Pathar Panchali is primarily a visual film. Ray, a former graphic artist, drew it out as he saw it, with minimal dialogue or even movements for actors. They were all props for his vision.

Just as Ray himself was only able to see the great films of other countries through a film society, so was Pathar Panchali only available internationally through the efforts of societies and festivals. It played in New York at the museum of modern art as part of an exhibit on Indian textiles (without subtitles, emphasising Ray’s non-verbal vision), at Cannes, in Vancouver, and in Japan, traveling from festival to festival for years.

(For more information on Roy and Chopra, check out their sections on Upperstall.com. For more on the film Hamrahi, check out indiavideo.org. Ray’s Pather Panchali is sometimes available on Hulu through the Criterion Collection. Chopra’s Afsana is available in its entirety on you tube.)

Blog by Margaret Redlich

Margaret Redlich is a Masters student in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University with a focus on Indian films.  She has been published on the website Racialicious.com and is the Midwest Popular Culture Association’s Area Chair for Indian films

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

4th Annual Chicago South Asian Film Festival Brings Together the Best of Talent and Filmgoers

The Chicago South Asian Film Festival inspired and entertained hundreds of filmgoers last weekend in its fourth successful event. Artists including Parvesh Cheena, Abhinav Shiv Tiwari, Sanjay Tripathy, Trupti Bhoir, Geeta Malik and Meera Menon were in attendance to support the festival where films including The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Shahid played to packed theaters.

 

An Opening Night Red Carpet and Reception for the U.S. premiere of Oass kicked off the three-day event on September 20th after which film enthusiasts continued to indulge in a weekend of films, acclaimed artists, and upbeat festivities.

 

The festival once again hit its stride as an intimate experience for artists and filmgoers alike, providing a platform for large-scale productions as well as high-quality indie-films. The value of such a respectable mission was not lost on attending artists who praised the warm reception and daring film selection.

 

The twittersphere was buzzing with #CSAFF2013 and @TheCSAFF tweets.

 

Fawzia Mirza, a Chicago-based filmmaker and Actor and CoDirector of Queen of My Dreams, tweeted: “Just watched @farahgoesbang at @TheCSAFF and loved it #femalefilmmakers #southasia #film

 

Outsourced Actor, Parvesh Cheena, tweeted: “Amazing AMAZING short films at @TheCSAFF Wow wow wow. Great programming! “

 

“Cheers for resisting the temptation to water down the festival with too many films; quality definitely trumps quantity,” said Brayden Yoder, who directed Breakdown, in an email to the CSAFF team. Ryan Logan, director of Queen of My Dreams, shared this sentiment, saying that he felt more respected as a filmmaker at CSAFF compared with larger festivals.

 

A diverse selection of short films and features whose themes explored topics from women’s issues to politics and terrorism brought multitudes to Film Row Cinema at Columbia College Chicago and Showplace Icon Theater. Audiences and press engaged in enlightening discussions with artists during Q&A sessions, panels, and a press conference. In one session, Abhinav Shiv Tiwari of Oass described the physical and emotional journey he took while visiting brothels throughout India that allowed him to relay a more realistic picture on screen.

 

The festival honored Indian cinema’s centenary by continuing to provide a stage for the best of Bollywood as well. Sanjay Tripathy’s Club 60, starring Farooq Sheikh and Sarika, was described by viewers as truly inspiring. The director also offered his thoughts on modern Indian film. “This is the most exciting time for Indian cinema where mainstream spicy affairs to experimental contents are coexisting without losing the money or the audience. In coming times this is only going to be better and better,” he said.

 

Shahid, a biographical piece on a slain human rights activist and lawyer directed by Hansal Mehta, was extolled by audiences and received praises from Aamir Khan on his Facebook page over the weekend.

 

The Reluctant Fundamentalist closed out the festival on a superbly strong note. The film, starring Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Riz Ahmed, and Shabana Azmi, played to a sold out theater. Director Mira Nair tweeted her support for the festival and encouraged the community to see her film, which tells the story of a Pakistani man in America post 9/11.

 

“We’re proud of the caliber of films and filmmakers this year and are excited to introduce some innovative programming to the festival in 2014,” said Festival Director Amit Rana.

 

Major sponsors include Xfinity Comcast, Columbia College Chicago, and Saavn.

 

About CSAFF

 

Chicago South Asian Film Festival is dedicated to fostering a diverse cinematic experience through South Asian films. The Festival was founded in 2010 and is organized by the Chicago South Asian Arts Council Inc. The Festival is held in late September in conjunction with Columbia College Chicago and includes a stellar selection of films and guests, panel discussions, opportunities for filmmakers and film lovers to connect, musical performances, tributes to major artists, and galas. The Festival is committed to providing a groundbreaking cinematic experience for filmmakers and moviegoers alike with the warmth and personal touch that is unique to Chicago. For more information, visit http://www.csaff.org/.

 

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Listen Amaya Still

Chicago South Asian Film Festival showcases new era of South Asian films and filmmakers

Chicago film aficionados were treated to an array of stellar films, acclaimed artists, and energetic parties at the 3rd annual Chicago South Asian Film Festival. The four-day festival held its Opening Night on September 20th with a star-studded red carpet reception followed by the North American premiere of the much anticipated Bollywood film “Heroine”. Artists who walked the red carpet include acclaimed actor Farooq Shaikh, Lillete Dubey, and Adil Hussain. Indian Consul General Mukta Dutta Tomar, Field Museum President Richard Lariviere, and Columbia College Vice President Dr. Eric Winston were also present to show their support. In his opening remarks, Dr. Winston said “I feel like a proud father” as he expressed his and Columbia College Chicago’s support for the Festival from its inception back in 2010.

 

Over the next three days, the Festival showcased the best of South Asian independent cinema to packed audiences at Showplace Icon Theater and Film Row Cinema at Columbia College Chicago. Moviegoers especially enjoyed hearing the various artists and filmmakers talk about their films and performances in the post film discussions. “Doggoned” director Arshad Khan described how his lead actress almost got arrested as they filmed without a permit in the streets of Montreal. Actor Adil Hussain got a standing ovation for his performance in “Lessons in Forgetting”, a film based on Anita Nair’s book of the same name.

 

The highlight of the Festival was undoubtedly the world premiere of “Listen Amaya” starring the magical yester-year pairing of Farooq Shaikh and Deepti Naval. Director Avinash Kumar Singh’s debut film played to a sold out theater with numerous people sitting on the aisle floors to watch the tale of a daughter coming to grips with her widow mother’s relationship with a man who is not her father. “I desperately missed having my friend, confidante, editor, writer and wife Geeta sitting beside me as she has done all the way through this film” – said Singh in a touching acknowledgement to his wife.

 

If the Festival began with a glamorous affair, the closing was no less sensational with Bollywood star Raveena Tandon attending the premiere of her film “Shobhna’s 7 Nights”. “We’ve made this film with a lot of love, not money” quipped the charming Tandon before the adoring audience.

 

A special panel on entertainment law was also held during the festival with one of Chicago’s premiere entertainment lawyers Robert Labate explaining the legal aspects of independent filmmaking. “We’ve found our stride as a Festival this year and truly elevated it to a world class event. We’ve got some interesting initiatives in store for 2013 and are looking forward to developing them in the coming year” said Festival Director Amit Rana.

 

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Nila Madhab Panda

Second Successful Year for the Chicago South Asian Film Festival

This weekend was a feast for independent film lovers; 30 films, 2 industry panels, 1 free tabla concert—all packed in three days under the colorful umbrella of the second annual Chicago South Asian Film Festival (CSAFF).

 

The CSAFF 2011 opening night, held on September 30, was a true red carpet affair with stunning celebrities, enthusiastic press and hundreds of admiring fans. Several highly accomplished filmmakers and artists including Nandana Sen, Nila Madhab Panda, Geeta Malik, Pankaj Johar and Sandeep Sharma were in attendance. Chicago Film Office Director Rich Moskal and Alderman Ameya Pawar were also present for the gala to show his support.

 

Kicking off the festival was Ketan Mehta’s ‘Rang Rasiya’. The audiences found a perfect blend of contemporary relevance, universal appeal and cinematic exuberance in the movie. In the Q&A session for the film, actress Nandana Sen spoke of her portrayal of Sugandha, Painter Raja Ravi Varma’s muse and how he created a fascinating world of romanticism through his paintings of Indian women.

 

In a letter to the CSAFF team, Mayor Rahm Emanuel wrote “This Festival creates an innovative cultural and cinematic experience for Chicagoans and visitors alike and I would like to commend the South Asian Film Festival for its dedication to our South Asian community.”

 

Over the next two days, audiences showed up in the hundreds for the rest of the film screenings. The culturally diverse crowd enjoyed film screenings at Columbia College Chicago as well as the Chicago Cultural Center. Moviegoers appreciated how accessible the actors and filmmakers were even after the formal sessions. In his Q&A session, Pankaj Johar, the producer of ‘Shuttlecock Boys’ joked about how couldn’t afford taking city permissions for their tight-on-a-budget film. He then added how their personal struggles with being an independent filmmaker had inspired the script.

 

The centerpiece film, ‘I Am Kalam’ was a true celebration of the human spirit. When asked about the Oscar buzz surrounding the film, Director Nila Madhab Panda expressed how he wanted to make a happy film about a rather serious subject. He wanted to stray from the poverty stricken images of India and showcase the issue through the ignited eyes of a child.

 

For ‘I Am’, the closing night piece, filmmaker Sonali Gulati joined the Q&A session via video-conferencing. The audience was captured by her own story of coming out to the world, and by the stories of many other LGBT individuals and their families, profiled in the documentary.

 

Two industry panel discussions were also held during the festival: one on South Asian Emergence in US Media and the other on Filming in Chicago: Past, Present & Future. This engaging and educative programming got the actors, filmmakers as well as the CSAFF team involved. Another high note of the festival was a free tabla concert by Tālavya. Their high-energy classical tabla acts with a modern twist kept the audience cheering on the edge of their seats.

 

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Opening Night 2010

Chicago South Asian Film Festival Debuts with a Bang

The First Chicago South Asian Film Festival (CSAFF) was inaugurated at the Chicago Cultural Center on October 01, 2010. The evening was a true red carpet affair with stunning celebrities, enthusiastic press and hundreds of admiring fans. Several highly accomplished filmmakers and artists including Deepti Naval, Aparna Sen, Ajay Naidu, Rajeshwari Sachdev, Rajit Kapur, Baljit Sangra, Umakanth Thumrugoti, Ann Feldman, Ravi Kapoor, and Sandeep Sharma were in attendance. Indian Consul General Hon. Mukta Dutta Tomar was also present to show her support. Sen cut the ribbon while Naval along with Sachdev lit the lamp to commence the festival.

 

The festival opened with Deepti Naval’s ‘Do Paise Ki Dhoop Chaar Aane Ki Baarish’ staring Manisha Koirala, Rajit Kapur, and Sanaj Naval. The film follows the relationship between Juhi, an ageing prostitute, and Debu, a gay lyricist, and their budding love for Juhi’s disabled son Kaku. The captivated audience flooded Naval and Kapur with questions on stereotypes and how they were able to break the mold.

 

After the screening, the evening’s festivities moved to the lavish Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall in the north wing of the Cultural Center where artists and guests mingled over divine hors d-oeuvres and toasted to the future of South Asian Cinema.

 

In a letter to the CSAFF team, Mayor Daley wrote “Chicago is home to a respected film community and we are proud to provide resources and support for our film makers. I applaud the Chicago South Asian Film Festival for your important work to promote South Asian films and filmmaking.”

 

Over the next two days, audiences showed up in the hundreds for the 15 other film screenings. The culturally diverse crowd enjoyed film screenings at Columbia College Chicago as well as the Chicago Cultural Center and outside the theaters, Chicago favorite Gaylord replaced traditional popcorn with samosas, pakodas, biryani and other mouth watering South Asian finger food. The moviegoers appreciated how accessible the actors and filmmakers were even after the formal sessions. In her Q&A session, nine-year-old Raspberry Magic actress Keya Shah captured the hearts of the audience with her witty and charismatic personality.

 

Ajay Naidu’s directorial debut ‘Ashes’ made its US premier at the festival as the center piece film. Ashes is a cautionary tale of mental illness, greed, and the definition of family both real and imagined. The story is a meditation on how easy it is to fall through the cracks of today’s health care system and how we ultimately find grace in the face of tragedy. After the sold-out show Naidu, Producer Nina Spensley and Actress Reena Shah had a Q&A with the audience. It was the one of the most personal Q&A interactions of the festival as Naidu spoke emotionally about how he drew inspiration from his life and experiences to make this film over the span of a decade.

 

“Both the film itself and the discussion afterward were very powerful. Ajay’s passion for many things- storytelling, social issues, and those near and dear to him, came through loud and clear on screen. When he talked with the audience, we all came away with an abundance of food for thought, to digest in our minds and in our hearts.” says Mileen Patel, Programming Director of CSAFF.

 

The festival showcased many documentaries, and one that got audiences really talking was Canada’s ‘Warrior Boyz’. The documentary took an unflinching look at the South Asian gang-related killings and violence in suburban Vancouver. It focused on the root causes of gang violence, and offered real solutions and a hard- fought hope for the future. Director Baljit Sangra spoke of her thought process behind her picking such a film at the Q&A.
The three-day festival came to a successful close with Umakanth Thumrugoti’s ‘7 Days in Slow Motion’ starring Rajeshwari Sachdev, Vivek Mushran, Teja, Shiva Varma, Kunal Sharma, and Ayesha Jaleel. The film about a young boy’s tinsel-town dreams in a typical middle class family was one of the most entertaining movies of the festival. In the interaction session, Producer Soumya Sriraman and Thumrugoti spoke of the film and its subtle hints about the business side behind movie making.

 

Also part of the festival was a Canon DSLR Workshop by Snehal Patel. The engaging and educative workshop got the actors, filmmakers as well as the CSAFF team involved.

 

“We are very grateful for the support we have received for this first festival. The event and experience far exceeded anything we could’ve imagined!” says Festival Director Amit Rana.

 

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