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NYC Film Festivals

Nair's Namesake Opens IAAC Fest

Indo-American cinema means something more than romantic films involving interracial couples, but thanks to major US distributors, that is primarily what is offered to mainstream audiences here. Such a generic gateway isn't so bad, though, considering films like Mississippi Masala, Bride & Prejudice and Bollywood/Hollywood have opened doors and theaters for filmmakers like Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha and Deepa Mehta, respectively, and each of these women has been instrumental in influencing a broader interest in South Asian arts and culture.


(L-R) Tabu, Kal Penn and Jacinda Barrett in Mira Nair's The Namesake, premiering Nov. 1 at the IAAC Film Festival (Photo: Abbot Genser / Fox Searchlight)

Interestingly enough, Nair's new film, The Namesake, which just so happens to involve an interracial couple (Kal Penn and Jacinda Barrett), is opening the sixth annual Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival with a gala premiere Nov. 1. "When these really high-level filmmakers give us their support and their generosity, then it gives a really nice platform to younger, emerging filmmakers to get noticed by the press, by the media and by the distributors, who come maybe star-struck for the big names," festival director Pooja Kohli told The Reeler at a press conference last week. "But then they notice something really tiny and small that is absolutely fantastic."

Of course, very few of these smaller films are what the mainstream might expect: The wide assortment of 60 features and shorts includes horror (The Seance), political satire (Toba Tek Singh), an Iraq War documentary (Clear Cut, Simple) and an inner-city coming-of-age drama set in Queens (Punching at the Sun, which previously screened at Sundance and Tribeca). But just in case there are still some curious festival-goers who need more gateways, there is Rajeev Virani's My Bollywood Bride (starring Sex and the City's Jason Lewis), Jag Mundhra's Backwaters (with British character actor Jason Flemyng and Nicholas Irons [Jeremy's son]) and J.P. Dutta's Umrao Jaan, starring Aishwarya Rai, who can certainly woo any man toward an interest in Indian cinema. For me, the most appealing is probably Kabaddi Cops, a comedic doc short about white, Canadian policemen who've taken up the popular Indian sport. In the minute-long trailer shown during the press conference, I was honestly laughing aloud, and I'd never even heard of kabaddi.

And after six years, the festival's exposure of Indo-American cinema has clearly caught on. Kohli told me the audience has not only grown in size, but it has gone from being predominantly South Asian to welcoming a multi-ethnic demographic around 50 percent. "We've been noticed," she said excitedly. "We've arrived."

She added that just between the 2005 and 2006 festivals, submissions increased by 300 percent and now come from all over the world. And most importantly, she claimed the quality of the submissions has increased immensely. "I watched everything and I got goose bumps because I couldn't imagine this was the level of filmmaking that suddenly emerged out of nowhere," Kohli said.

So what does she expect for this year's reach? "I'm hoping the audience, the industry and the distributors can actually come and notice it," Kohli said. "Because if they don't, it's really their loss. You really can't go anywhere else to see these brilliant movies." -- Christopher Campbell

The IAAC Film Festival runs November 1-5 at the AMC Lincoln Square, Anthology Film Archives and the Asia Society.

Posted at October 30, 2006 8:45 AM

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