This year’s collection of films at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival (CSAFF) Sept. 20-22, featured more than 65 films from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, USA, Canada, Australia, and Pakistan, covering a wide swath of societal issues ranging from age, transgender culture, widowhood, and communism, to childhood education, domestic labor, music, food and poetry.
“I hope this past weekend, we were able to connect with you through films, diverse and nuanced perspectives and were able to empower storytellers to showcase their emotions and ideas,” Jigar Shah, CSAFF festival manager, told Desi Talk.
The signature festival which celebrated its 10th Anniversary this year, has emerged as a pre-eminent platform for artists and filmmakers to tell untold stories across a range of social and political issues often overlooked by the mainstream Bollywood and other entertainment industries.
This year’s festival gained recognition from the Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office and was supported by several large sponsors, including US Bank which caters to the South Asian community.
“US Bank is very committed to diversity and inclusion,” Della Ng, vice president of Multicultural Marketing at US Bank, one of the top 2019 CSAFF sponsors, told Desi Talk. “Chicago is a very diverse community. We want to support the community to achieve their financial goals but also show up and support at events like these which enable us to create that bridge to have that dialogue with the South Asian community. We are excited to see that all of our VIP seats are completely booked,” Ng added.
The film, Nagarkirtan, directed by Kaushik Ganguly, won the award for the best Feature-length Fiction Film. The Runner-Up was The Last Color written and directed by Vikas Khanna. Winners in other categories were:
Feature-length Documentary Film
Winner: Rock Disco Tabla, directed by Shakti Hasija.
Runner-up: Kaifinama, directed by Sumantra Ghosal.
Short-length Fiction Film
Winner: Dying Wind in Her Hair (Bebaak), written and directed by Shazia Iqbal.
Runner-up: Forbidden Tikka Masala, directed by Rahul Chaturvedi.
Short-length Documentary Film
Winner: Addicted Innocence, directed by Sonali Devnani.
Runner-up: Blood Buddhas, directed by Nikhil Singh Rajputt.
Nagarkirtan depicts the experiences of members of the transgender community, rarely portrayed in the arena of Indian mainstream cinema. The story is about Porimal a woman trapped in a man’s body played by Riddhi Sen, who runs away from home and joins a ghetto of eunuchs and sings at traffic signals to earn money and falls in love with Madhu played by Ritwick Chakraborty, a delivery boy who moonlights as a flutist in kirtans.
A thought-provoking and insightful panel discussion about LGBTQ issues by National Award Winner Director and Writer Tanuja Chandra, a transgender woman, writer Gazal Dhaliwal and actor Arjun Mathur followed the screening.
Michelin-star chef and host of MasterChef India turned filmmaker Vikas Khanna’s directorial debut, The Last Color served up a delightful display of color, light, symbolic imagery through which he tells the story of four societal outcasts – a widow played by Neega Gupta, a transgender, and 9-year old girl tight-rope walker Chhoti portrayed by Aqsa Siddiqui ,and her childhood friend whose will to survive “against all the odds” is tested among corrupt forces in the holy city of Varanasi.
The film sheds light on issues related to child education, and the treatment of widows and others castes in India who are forced to live in a state of social isolation.
The documentary, Rock Disco Tabla The Karsh Kale Effect, is on the life of Indian-American musician, record producer, songwriter, film composer, and DJ, Karsh Kale. Directed by Shakti Hasija and produced by Anurag Kashyap, Rock Disco Table recounts Kale’s journey as a pioneering figure who redefined the Asian Underground by mixing Indian classical and folk with electronica, hip-hop, rock, pop, into a universal language embraced by fans across the world.
Kale has produced the original score and two songs for Bollywood film Gully Boy, India’s 2019 Oscar submission. He produced “The Train Song” in collaboration with Midival Punditz and Raghu Dixit and ‘Kab Se Kab Tak” sung by actor Ranveer Singh, and lyricists Kam Baari and Ankur Tewari.
Another film that has won critical acclaim and was shown at CSAFF, was Arjun Mathur- co-starer “Made in Heaven,” which won him Award of Artistic Excellency in Cinema for playing a gay character in the Amazon Prime original series.
Veiled beneath the pretext of extravagant and over-the-top, lavish Indian weddings, the series reveals the riven and unfulfilling lives of an openly gay man played by Mathur and an unhappily married woman played by Sobhita Dhulipala who are wedding planners and business partners.
Kaifinama looks at the life and art of the Urdu progressive poet Kaifi Azmi. Azmi was a poet and renowned lyricists in the Hindi film industry. The film uses interviews conducted almost twenty years ago by director Sumantra Ghosal.
Shabana Azmi, who also produced the film, talked about how at his core her father was a worker of the Communist Party.
“My father was an eternal optimist. The shift to the right is taking place all over the world. This happens at times in history. It doesn’t mean we should stand by as passersby. Each one of us can be a catalyst for change. Kaifi would have wanted that,” Azmi is quoted saying.
Dying Wind in Her Hair (Bebaak), written and directed by Shazia Iqbal, tells the story of Fatin, an ambitious architecture student who seeks out a scholarship from a conservative Muslim Trust and discovers that the money comes with strings attached, testing her liberal values.
Forbidden Tikka Masala, a film by Indo-Canadian director Rahul Chaturvedi was a coming-of-old-age story that follows a devoutly religious vegetarian who finds a new lease on life after mistakenly eating chicken at her retirement party.
The short documentary Addicted Innocence, tells the story of children battling drug addiction. Runner-up Blood Buddhas, another short doc winner directed by Nikhil Singh Rajputt, traces the secret labyrinth of the global heritage mafia, the indigenous communities whose “Gods” are stolen, and it’s links to terror- funding in and around India.
Other notable entries included a Pakistani suspense thriller Laal Kabootar, Sir, Bulbul Can Sing, Kaamyaab, and short films Aap Keh Aaja Neh Seh, and Turban and A Beard.