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NYC Film Festivals

Critic Revisits the Underground

Om Puri in My Son the Fanatic, the opening night film of the South Asian Underground Film Festival (Photo: BBC)

By S.T. VanAirsdale

"To some extent, I don’t know what I'm doing," Sukhdev Sandhu half-joked. The author, New York University professor and film critic for London's Daily Telegraph was less than 24 hours away from welcoming an audience to the inaugural South Asian Underground Film Festival -- the culmination of his crash course in festival organizing. "You know, this is only 11 films, which in the scheme of things is not that many. But it's really just me and a colleague of mine, Alexandra Chang, doing all the publicity, the programming, the scheduling, working out the contracts and the like. So it’s been an education for me, as somebody who mainly deals with the writing side of films, to have deeper engagement with questions of exhibition and distribution."

If it sounds a little more philosophical than the average hype-premiere-party-repeat cycle of New York's oversaturated festival environment, it absolutely is. The festival is perhaps better defined as a carefully curated repertory weekend -- a series devoted less to collecting new work than to reintroducing to theaters a slate of titles whose themes challenge the conventional Western wisdom about South Asian cinema and culture. Titles as diverse as Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo (with subject Ruhal Ahmed participating in a Q&A via iChat) and the New York premiere of director Tony Smith's controversial 2004 drama England Expects share a program with the gallery hit Otolith and the darkly comic 2002 call-center documentary India Calling.

"It's been swimming around in my head for a while, but I really started getting things together last year," Sandhu told The Reeler from his NYU office. "One of the questions for me was; 'Do we make it just work by South Asian filmmakers?' And I really didn’t want to do that, because I think it's a really limited way of looking at these films. One of the most interesting developments over the last few years in the UK has been how filmmakers such as Penny Woolcock, who made Mischief Night, or Dominic Savage, who made Love + Hate, and a number of the ones in this program have felt confident enough artistically and politically -- in terms of racial dynamics and handling material that maybe a few years ago they would have felt tiptoed about."

The festival opens tonight with an especially rare treat: The 1998 culture-clash chronicle My Son the Fanatic, featuring writer Hanif Kureishi in person for a Q&A. "The film, as it happens, died a kind of a death because no one at that time was interested in questions of fundamentalism," said Sandhu, who recalled viewing the film at his first-ever press screening, where its earnest distributor appealed to critics in person to cover the film. "That was seen as kind of marginal or irrelevant. And of course in subsequent years, it's become very prominent. Hanif Kureishi is very keen to come to New York because I think he feels it's finally found an audience, or it's finally found a context in which what the film was trying to do will be better understood and better received."

And as far as the fledgling fest's place in New York (and possibly abroad; a rolling festival may be in the offing), Sandhu is rather aggressively optimistic. "I have a certain kind of reservation about any kind of ethno-specific film series," he told me. "It automatically seems to be delimiting and kind of catering to a idea of community that doesn't necessarily exist, but is kind of invoked by politicians or people who've got some kind of stake in it. ... Too much of South Asian filmmaking in the US up to this point has been rather gummy, rather sentimental and rather patronizing, ultimately, of their audiences. And I think what people who go to this festival will see is that is possible to be more questioning, more bolshy, more feisty, really, and not just do coming-of-age stories or yet another film about arranged marriages or A-B-C-D culture clashes and the like -- that anything is possible."

The South Asian Underground Film Festival runs tonight through April 22 at NYU's Cantor Film Center. Is is free to attend on a first-come, first-served basis. Visit the festival's Web site for program and schedule information.

Posted at April 20, 2007 11:10 AM

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