Bollywood Inspirations - The influence of India's film industry spreads to America

The Indian Diaspora Film Festival '03

and Reviews

Bollywood Inspirations
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 for it."

"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 18.

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 universal."

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.

Telling Stories 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

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