NYIFF: Connecting to India through films

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Aseem Chhabra and Aroon Shivdasani on the red carpet at NYIFF 2012. (Courtesy: Aroon Shivdasani, IAAC)

NEW YORK – The New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) is the oldest and most prestigious film festival in the city that is run by the Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC), a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization which has been helping to spread awareness of Indian culture for the last 20 years.

“It’s a coming of age,” said Aroon Shivdasani, the executive and artistic director of IAAC, who puts on various other diaspora related festivals throughout the year, including dance, music, art and literature.

But the NYIFF has arguably the most impact, as it exposes the rich culture of India to an American audience through films which explore different cultures from the different parts of the country.

“We started the NYIFF 18 years ago right after 9/11 to promote the diversity of Indian Americans and their homeland,” Shivdasani told News India Times in a phone interview.

The film festival features many different types of films, including features, documentaries and short films that are not only made in India, but are also from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan and Bhutan, as well as the UK, U.S. and Canada.

“While we scout through submissions and other films, we watch over 250 films each year before deciding on the line-up of films to screen,” said Aseem Chhabra, the director of the film festival, who has connected with Indian filmmakers all over the world, in a phone interview to News India Times.

This year the NYIFF is screening 78 films in 11 different languages, including English, Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Tulu, Konkani, Bengali and Assamese, most of which will have a New York, U.S. or North American premiere.

Poster of the Marathi film “Nude” (Courtesy: IAAC)

The NYIFF is a week-long extravaganza that consists of film screenings as well as post-screening discussions, industry panels, an awards ceremony, nightly networking parties, red carpet gala and special events like tributes to and celebrations of Indian filmmakers and artists.

The special event set for the 18th NYIFF is a tribute to the late Shashi Kapoor and Sridevi, whose sudden demise in February shook the world of Indian cinema.

Each year Shivdasani and Chhabra, along with Satish Kolluri and Giri Mohan Conneti, select the film line-up and choose the opening, closing and centerpiece films carefully.

“We always look for a film that will appeal to the widest audience,” said Shivdasani. “There was no Indian presence when we started the film festival 18 years ago. Today, people are actually taking notice of Indian artists. In fact, the New York Times compares the NYIFF to the Sundance Film Festival.”

Introducing the best of the best and the latest films out there, the NYIFF will be opening their 18th year with a Marathi film called “Nude” which is about a woman who decides to pose as a nude model for an art school in Mumbai to support herself and her son, after her husband leaves them for another woman.

The Konkani film “Juze,” about a slum landlord in Goa, has been selected as the centerpiece film this year and the festival will end with the New York premiere of veteran director Hansal Metha’s “Omerta,” a film about Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh who will be played by actor Rajkumar Rao.

Although Chhabra told News India Times “Bollywood is like Broadway” and that is why they don’t show many films of that genre because “independent films touch upon the real issues,” the NYIFF has screened quite a few Bollywood films in the past that have sent out a good message among the audience.

These include “Do Dooni Chaar,” “Yeh Saali Zindagi,” “Zubeida,” “Gangs of Wasseypur,” “Aatma,” “Ugly,” “Dum Laga Ke Haisha” and “Lipstick Under My Burkha” among others. There has also been a tribute given to the late Dev Anand in 2012, and a celebration of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy in 2015, with “Maqbool,” “Omkara” and “Haider.”

A still from the film “Juze” (Courtesy: IAAC)

Both Shivdasani and Chhabra told News India Times that they “love showing these (independent) films and surprise the audience.” Chhabra added, “If I see a film and like it then I make sure someone else in the committee sees it too so we can show it to a large audience.”

“We are showing better films at the NYIFF each year and not only is that helping to build an awareness of the Indian diaspora in New York City but has also been a wonderful way for people to connect to India. People are more aware of the reality of the country now; its rich, its poor and its middle-class,” Shivdasani said.

Along with being the executive and artistic director of IAAC, Shivdasani is a founding member of the organization who has lived in India, the UK, U.S. and Canada while she travelled around the world embracing different cultures and religions.

Shivdasani also has Masters in English literature and drama as well as a diploma in marketing and advertising. She has done a lot of charitable work for India, while promoting the country, culture and diaspora through IAAC, all for which she has been honored with numerous awards.

Chhabra is a freelance writer and journalist, whose pieces on arts, entertainment, social and political issues have been published in several top newspapers of the U.S., including The New York Times, and has been interviewed by many major American broadcast media outlets.

He also has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University as well as an MBA from Boston University and now writes for the Indian editions of American magazines such as People and Cosmopolitan, apart from Mumbai Mirror, a magazine based in Mumbai, India.

The 18th New York Indian Film Festival will take place from May 7 to 12 and will feature many Indian filmmakers and celebrities, along with a grand gala for both the NYIFF and IAAC.

A still from the film “Omerta” starring Rajkumar Rao. (Courtesy: IAAC)