The influence of India's film
industry spreads to America
By Lavina Melwani
Lavina Melwani is a freelance writer
December 28, 2003
You probably never had a dream in which
you and your sweetheart sang and danced in the middle of 74th
Street in Jackson Heights, cavorting around the Eagle Theater
and among the sari-clad bejeweled mannequins in the dozens of
stores in Little India.
This dream scene really happened as a
tongue-in-cheek tribute to Bollywood, India's thriving film
industry, by the Indian-American filmmaker Nisha Ganatra in
her new film, "Cosmopolitan"
Ganatra, who established a reputation
for zaniness with her first film, "Chutney Popcorn",
said she loved shooting in Jackson Heights. "We checked
out several Little Indias for this dream scene, but Jackson
Heights was just so much more colorful and cinematic; the streets
look like you could be in India!
"I had been intrigued with the mannequins
in the store windows; they always have these white mannequins
with blond hair wearing Indian clothes. I thought wouldn't it
be fun if they came alive during the dance sequence? I was trying
to do as whacked-out a Bollywood dance scene as possible,"
she said. "We got these great dancers to stand in the windows
and imitate the mannequins and come to life when the song calls
"Cosmopolitan" is a wry
romantic comedy about an Indian immigrant lost in suburbia.
Abandoned by his wife and daughter, he tries to romance his
neighbor, using tips from Cosmopolitan magazine. The 53-minute
film, adapted from a short story by Akhil Sharma in The New
Yorker, stars internationally noted actors Roshan Seth, Carol
Kane and Madhur Jaffrey and is scheduled to be shown as part
of the PBS "Independent Lens" series on May
Co-producer Jennifer Small of Gigantic
Pictures said "Cosmopolitan" got positive audience
responses at two film festivals, one in New York and another
in Mumbai, India, this past fall, and she hopes to enter it
at more events in 2004. She said that if interest in the film
grows, producers would consider lengthening the film for wider
release in theaters.
Indeed, Hollywood and Bollywood merge
in the work of Ganatra, who herself is a product of two worlds:
brought up in America but forever attached by an invisible umbilical
cord to India, the land of her parents. She is one of the many
independent filmmakers from the United States, India and many
parts of the Indian diaspora who are telling their own stories
- stories of migration, cultural conflict and assimilation.
As the children of Indian immigrants have
come of age, scores of them are making or acting in independent
films. These different voices could be heard in November in
Manhattan at the Third Annual Indo-American Arts Council film
festival, The Indian Diaspora, which was founded by the council,
a nonprofit organization based in Manhattan dedicated to promoting
the arts of India and the diaspora.
Council director Aroon Shivdasani recalled
that when she started the festival three years ago, she received
just 25 entries. This year the number was 60 - a group that
included "Cosmopolitan" - and many screenings were
sold out. The festival also has graduated to prestigious locations
such as Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater for the opening-night
screening and to Anthology Film Archives, which is noted for
film festivals, for the other screenings.
Mira Nair, the director of the Oscar-nominated
"Salaam Bombay!" (1989), and the 2001 hit "Monsoon
Wedding", was the keynote speaker.
"Someone was asking me what are the
attributes that define independent filmmaking and I said for
a person to be an independent filmmaker you have to have bravery,
loneliness and stamina," she said.
The festival showed an intriguing mix
of films from India and the United States, proving that the
Indian film scene is a complex one, encompassing everything
from song and dance extravaganzas to offbeat art films, from
suspense films to comedies.
"We wanted to show the broad range
of films made by the filmmakers of the diaspora," Shivdasani
said. "So we had films all the way from close to Bollywood,
like 'Mumbai Se Aya Mera Dost' to the angst of the new immigrant
in the film, 'Indian Fish in American Waters.' We had 'Genius,'
which did not have even one South Asian in its cast. It was
simply a film about life in America.'
She said she has had queries from major
film companies such as Miramax and First Run Films.
The films attracted a diverse audience
of film buffs who are increasingly familiar with Indian movies
through various festivals, such as the recent Cinema India at
the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.
The success of high profile Bollywood
films like "Lagaan", nominated for an Oscar
in 2002, also has whetted the appetite of the mainstream for
Indian cinema, along with the work of noted filmmakers of Indian
origin such as Ismail Merchant, M. Night Shyamalan, Shekhar
Kapur, Deepa Mehta, Nair and Gurinder Chadha.
"I think 'Monsoon Wedding'
and 'Bend It Like Beckham' suddenly showed non-South
Asians that, hey, there's something interesting out there,"
Shivdasani said. "And they can relate to it too because
many, many immigrant communities have similar lives, similar
values. Just change the names, change the clothes - and there
you are. It's very universal but they don't realize this until
it's shown to them."
Indeed, Nair, who directed a gaggle of
children from the slums in "Salaam Bombay!," as well
as the HBO movie "Hysterical Blindness," does not
believe in crossover films. She believes that all films are
meant to be seen by as wide a public as possible.
"The main question, the only question,
is that it be a good film," she says. "A film that
uses the enormously encompassing dimension of all sorts of expression
... to create a world that is truly alive and truthful and hopefully
compelling; to create a world that is unafraid to be specifically
local because in that lies the power and possibility to become
Inspired by directors such as Nair, many
aspiring filmmakers are trying to do that just. Sonny Jhamb
of Flushing came to New York from New Delhi to study filmmaking
eight years ago. He graduated from New York Film Academy and
has just completed his first feature film, "Just Indian,"
in which he also acts.
He shot extensively in Flushing - on Main
Street, Kissena Boulevard and at the Hindu Temple on Bowne Street
- as well as Manhattan and Long Island during the summer.
Jhamb plans to send the film on the festival
circuit. "I'm very excited about this," he said. "We
are planning to start a focus group of Indian film students
at various schools, so we can train more people, talk more about
films and share our ideas."
Many of Jhamb's cast and crew are from
Queens, including Amneek Sandhu, who plays one of the leads
and is from Little Neck. Other Queens natives include Braham
Parsad of Flushing, Sangeet Sharma of Kew Gardens Hills and
Rakesh Sonker of Astoria.
Looks like a lot of Bollywood / Hollywood
dreams are brewing in Queens.
From a Different Perspective
These filmmakers are telling diverse stories:
Nagesh Kukunoor of Atlanta, already established as a cutting-edge
director, narrates an offbeat prison tale in "Teen Deewarein,"
starring some of Bollywood's top actors; Satish Menon of Chicago
based his film "Bhavum" entirely in India and in the
Malayalam language, with English subtitles; Tanuja Chandra,
who lives in Philadelphia, is already a player in Bollywood
and wrote the script for "Sur," a musical about a
singing icon's fall from grace.
Many of the young filmmakers - some are
Indian, some Indian- American - told stories of cultural angst
and assimilation in their works, such as Vikram Yashpal's "Trade
Offs," Manish Malhotra's "Indian Fish in American
Waters" and Vishal Shah's "American Addiction."
Each put a different spin on being Indian in America.
Some of the most satisfying films at the
festival were the shorts that packed a lot into a tight time
frame. Sabrina Dhawan, a student at Columbia University who
shot to fame with her screenplay for "Monsoon Wedding,"
has not only written the screenplay for "Cosmopolitan"
but also directed "Saanjh," a disturbing social commentary
on the middle-class in India.
A short film that explored the definition
of who is American in a post 9/11 world is Sharat Raju's "American
Made," created as his thesis film at the American Film
Institute in Los Angeles. Amisha Upadhyaya's lyrical "Imperfections"
and Keshni Kashyap's winsome "Hole," whetted the appetite
to see more from these emerging filmmakers, who are currently
studying cinema at Columbia University and UCLA, respectively.
- Lavina Melwani