South Asian International Film Festival

SAIFF Review: Killa (The Fort)

Nov 23 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
Killa (The Fort) Director: Avinash ArunRating: NRCountry: India Chinmay is a seventh grader who has recently left the big city of Pune and headed into a new rural-ish area with his mother. It's a culture shock, to be sure, but clearly this has happened before and will happen again. Moving is just part of their life, even though it's hard on them both. But it's particularly difficult on a growing kid, who has to leave all of his friends behind and start anew in seventh grade. And though I don't know if middle school children in India are as needlessly cruel as they are in the US (the constant attempts to put a gasoline-soaked rag into a dog's butt would suggest they are), being the outcast is never fun. And when the teacher introduces him as an intellectual prodigy, it just further makes him stand out. But despite that, he finds friendship (of sorts) in some troublemaker types who are more interested in picking up crabs and having bike races than studying. It's worth noting that the conflict here does not come from Chinmay's decision to forgo his studies, and whether he's hanging out with them or not he seems to be equally competent in the classroom. Instead, it's a conflict about the friends themselves as well as Chinmay's relationship to his mother. But Killa's fundamental problem is that Chinmay is not a likeable protagonist. He spends most of the film's 110 minute runtime looking slightly forlorn. Sometimes he's happy, other times he's just straight up emotionless, but usually it's just almost-melancholy as he goes through his life being a bland human being. The world around him is so full of intrigue and color and life and he's just got none of it. And considering he's supposed to have an emotional arc (I hate it here! to I hate it less! to I hate it again! etc.), it causes some serious disconnect. I never once cared about Chinmay. Literally never. And while Chinmay the character takes the blame for a lot of that, it's the performance that really kills it. I don't usually like harping on poor child performances, but the film hinges on his ability to emote, and he can't hold up his end of the bargain. That half-pout isn't sympathetic; it's just pathetic. On the other hand, I did care about his mother, which actually made me care about Chinmay even less. His mother, who is constantly shuttled from place to place for work, lost her husband (his father) a year ago. It's something that gets mentioned every so often, but it's not really a cloud hanging over the narrative. It's just a fact. But now Chinmay's mother has to deal with him and her job, and her new job in their new town runs by some different rules, and those rules get her into trouble. That made me sad, because this is a woman who is trying to do what's right but also gets screwed over by the system at large. And once she's done dealing with that, she has to go home and pay attention to her manner-less son? Not cool. Not cool at all. He makes her life harder and doesn't really offer much in return, other than lip. But even when Chinmay was being pouty and annoying, I couldn't deny just how beautiful his surroundings were. I'm convinced that the purpose of the narrative was less to tell a story than to show off scenery. I can't say I really understood the layout of the town, so it may have been that things that seemed very far away were right there, but it did seem like he would travel long distances not because he needed to but because it would result in a gorgeous shot. And to be honest, I'm okay with that. If it was all in service of the shot, I would've rather the film dispensed with some of the less interesting moments (particularly in the school) and been a bit shorter, but I can't deny that it was exciting to see each new location. I would love to go and visit those places. So despite my dislike of Chinmay and my disinterest in everything about him, I still enjoyed Killa on the whole. The other characters were interesting, and even if I wasn't a fan of most of the children, at least they were all different and brought unique perspectives to any given situation. Combined with the amazing backdrops, it makes for a film that by all appearances should really be much better than it is. It's unfortunate, then, that the protagonist is such dead weight.
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Beautiful but bland
I never moved when I was growing up. I knew people who moved once or twice, and then I knew others in military families and the like who would come and go almost annually. In a small town with a small school, that made a diff...

SAIFF Review: Dukhtar

Nov 21 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218626:41996:0[/embed] Dukhtar (Daughter)Director: Afia NathanielRating: NRCountry: Pakistan I'm going to my best to not sound like an ignorant white guy here. I know that's a distinct possibility, and I apologize in advance if I sound that way. But at the same time, it's that otherness that makes the film so compelling for me. These people live lives that are so different from mine, to the point where it really doesn't feel like a film from 2014. I don't mean that with disrespect, nor am I implying that one way is even better than the other, but the inherent difference between my world and the one this film depicts is fascinating. From a narrative perspective, it means I was always playing catchup. The film doesn't stop to explain things to people who don't understand the culture, and while there aren't a lot of true cultural barriers, each new location just got me thinking about things, about life and the world we live in. Because Earth is so, so interesting. Last year, I gushed over The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for showing a unique (and beautiful) location, but that film was more concerned with the places than the people. Dukhtar is more concerned with the people, but I was oftentimes just looking at the backdrops. And certainly the film makes a point of showing some particularly gorgeous vistas, but just seeing a different part of the world excites me. And so I was excited to go from scene to scene regardless of what was taking place onscreen, just because I wanted to see more and know more. But when I wasn't playing tourist, I was still invested in what I was seeing. Zainab (Saleha Aref) is the daughter of a tribe chief whose sons have been murdered at the hands of another tribe. In order to bring peace to their tribes, he promises to give Zainab's hand to the other chief. It's worth noting here that Zainab is young, only 15 years old (and she looks young). And so right off the bat, I was terrified that this film was going to turn into something about child abuse. Fortunately, Zainab's mother, Allah Rakhi, is also terrifed by that thought and decides to run away with Zainab on the night of the "wedding." And from there, the film becomes a chase. And as such there's quite a bit of running through interesting places and then driving through more interesting places. But at the same time, the film does get bogged down a little bit by all of the waiting that's inherent in a chase over a long journey. Once the baddies are tricked into looking elsewhere, there's some room to breathe, but what happens then? And those moments, where the film sticks with them in between significant events, sometimes drag. Not by much, but just a little bit. And it's a shame, because much of the film is brilliantly paced. Even the slower second half, although even though the pacing is fine there it does bring with it some different problems. Because every once in a while, it seems like one of the many plot threads has just entirely disappeared. Allah Rakhi and Zainab find some solace, and suddenly everything else becomes irrelevant. There is some tension still, but no one seems particularly worried about safety. In fact, the only way they bring danger back in is by going to look for it. And as this happens, characters who seemed vital literally disappear without a trace. The word "MacGuffin" springs to mind, as many things that at first appeared important actually have very little impact on the story, but it doesn't feel like an intentional MacGuffin. Plot lines are brought up and closed, but it doesn't benefit the grander narrative so much as convolute it. I was wondering why certain things happened at the time and in retrospect I'm still not really sure. Whenever the film leaves Zainab, it gets caught up in unnecessary moments. But at 93 minutes, those flaws are forgivable. A lot of ground is covered in a short time, and it means that the weird moments are over quickly and you don't have time to dwell on where it fits into the narrative or why. You just go on and on, following the chase or the calm, and just take in the sights and the sounds. The camerawork is excellent and accentuates just how beautiful the world around them is. And the world around us. Because this is a world unlike my own (and probably unlike yours), but it's still a real part of the world we all share. Dukhtar is a chance to embrace a truly different culture and see it through its own eyes. Add in just how well-crafted and interesting the film is and you get something truly special.
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Fascinatingly foreign
Most of the modern foreign films that I watch are from countries that are reasonably similar to the United States. People live in apartments and drive sleek cars. They use smartphones and credit cards. They have the internet....

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SAIFF 2014

Here comes the South Asian International Film Festival


November 18-23 at the SVA theater
Nov 14
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
As is often the case, it's a festival of festivals here in New York. And if you're particularly fond of Indian and/or Pakistani films, this is probably the one you've been waiting for. The South Asian International Film Festi...
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SAIFF 2013

Here is the 2013 South Asian International Film Festival


Dec 02
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
Film festivals, man. There are so many of them. Especially in the wonderful world of New York City. Case in point: the 2013 South Asian International Film Festival, which begins tomorrow, December 3rd, and runs through Sunday...
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SAIFF Closing Night scheduled, proceeds to help Red Cross


50% of ticket sales will go towards victims of Hurricane Sandy
Nov 14
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
Due to Hurricane Sandy, the final few days of the South Asian International Film Festival were put on hold. Now the final screening has been rescheduled, and there's something really cool accompanying it. Fitting with the env...

Reel Asian Review: Valley of Saints

Nov 13 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]213420:39075[/embed] Valley of SaintsDirector: Musa SyeedRating: NRCountry: India  Valley of Saints is set on a lake, specifically Dal Lake in the Indian region of Kashmir. Gulzar (Gulzar Ahmed Bhat) lives in a rather rundown little hut on the lake with his uncle, and he makes all of his money on the lake as a tour guide. With a cute little boat, he picks up white, English-speaking tourists to tour the lake by badgering them with supposedly better prices than all of the other people doing exactly the same thing. That wasn't something that particularly endeared me to Gulzar, because I hate people who do that, but a man's gotta eat, and if people actually do want to see the lake, there are worse ways to do it. Gulzar has aspirations of leaving Dal Lake, though, and when Valley of Saints begins the plans are already in place. He and his friend Afzal (Mohammed Afzal) are going to get on a bus and go off into the world. Gulzar waits for his uncle to leave for a period of time, and then the two get ready to leave.  Unfortunately for them (and everybody, really), a political uprising stops their plans as a travel ban and strict curfew are put into effect. Even though Gulzar and Afzal become smugglers, hoping to have a bit more cash when the time comes for them to leave, the nightly riots act as little more than background noise in Valley of Saints. The violence shows up periodically, and one scene hints at some repercussions, but nothing ever comes of it. Some cursory Google-ing tells me that there is some civil unrest in the area (caused by the "Kashmir Conflict," which is not entirely unlike the Israel-Palestine issue), but that doesn't really mean much here. To an outsider, it just seems like a narrative reason to keep people on the lake. And even if it is inspired by real fighting, that's all it really is. Valley of Saints is very much an environmentalist's film. During the curfew, Gulzar and Afzal find themselves in the presence of Asifa (Neelofar Hamid), a student who is studying Dal Lake. She was staying in a hotel-boat on the lake when the curfew was put into effect, and Gulzar is asked by the hotel-boat's owner (who is not allowed back into the area) to help her out with food and the like. Gulzar and Asifa develop something of a relationship, and that obviously plays a big part in the narrative, but I can't help feeling that Asifa is just an environmental mouthpiece. Dal Lake is in trouble, and I know that because Asifa wouldn't shut up about how much trouble Dal Lake is in. Everything in it is dying and everybody is destroying it. She takes samples of the water in a number of different areas, and Gulzar helps her get to them. I understand that this whole lake thing is a problem and Valley of Saints wants to call attention to it, but I don't appreciate films that beat me over the head with their message. I understood what the film was after the film time it showed junk being poured into the lake. Harping on that image just takes away from any interesting drama that could be taking place between the characters. The characters are in service of this grand message, and when the film decides to become about the environment, everything stops. There are ways to better combine the message with the narrative, and those steps simply aren't taken here. It feels as though director Musa Syeed was hoping to draw people in with the environmentalist idea on its own, and didn't really care if there was a narrative benefit to it. It doesn't work.  But when the message takes a break for a little white, Valley of Saints is a relatively compelling character drama. Seeing a girl break up a relationship can be a terribly generic way of creating conflict, and to some extent that's the case with this film, but the actual interactions are more interesting than that might suggest. Gulzar and Afzal are a good pair, and there are some really nice scenes between the two of them. I like buddy movies. Seeing two good friends face the world makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I'm not sure what that says about me, but it means that a good friendship in a film can be enough to keep me interested midst some things that really aren't worth watching. Some of my favorite moments from the film came from their interactions with each other before Asifa showed up, and then in the times where she was out of the picture. She didn't ruin things so much as complicate them in a way that the film really didn't seem to able to handle so well. Perhaps my ignorance is shining through in this review. I wouldn't be surprised. But if I did miss some massive revelation that makes all of Valley of Saints somehow better, I'm not the only person who won't see it. That's an inherent issue with foreign films, especially ones with cultures as different as India and America. But there are environmentalists everywhere, and even if I didn't get a lot of what was being done, I could latch onto that. It certainly gave me a look into some things that I don't understand, and for that I'm happy to have seen it. Valley of Saints is a decent film. It won't blow your mind, but you'll probably get something worthwhile from it. 
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I guess there are environmentalists everywhere.
Full disclosure: Valley of Saints is the first India-made movie I have ever seen. I am almost entirely ignorant of broader Indian customs, and I certainly don’t know anything about region-specific cultures. It’s c...

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SAIFF on hiatus for the next two days thanks to Sandy


Not even film festivals are immune to hurricanes
Oct 29
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
Since we've been bringing you all kinds of awesome reviews from the South Asian International Film Festival, we figure it's only fair to let you know that, like everything else in New York City, it is taking a break for the n...

SAIFF Review: The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar

Oct 26 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213144:39024[/embed] The Great Indian Marriage BazaarDirectors: Ruchika Muchhala and Faiza Ahmad KhanRating: NRCountry: India There's an odd tension that underlies The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar, and I think it's bound up in a poster of Rosie the Riveter on the wall. Rosie -- with that defiant and determined look, the sleeve rolled through a bicep curl, the fist held tight -- is one of those enduring images of female empowerment and self-realization. "We can do it," she says emphatically. Before that "we can do it" is an implicit "If men can do it, then..."; after the "we can do it," there's an implicit "...and do it just as good" or "...and always could." Meanwhile, in the documentary, marriage seems to be the only route toward a woman's self-actualization. A steady career, financial independence, it's nothing without a man. In one wedding ceremony, the bride doesn't just take the groom's last name but also changes her own first name. Her whole identity is symbolically changed in order to assert male dominance over her. There's also an odd generational tension within families, and a larger social tension given the multiple Western influences in a globalized world. There's shaadi.com, for one, a sort of Indian eHarmony, and there's also a discussion of desirability gauged through the values of Bollywood. Co-director Ruchika Muchhala was educated at the University of Michigan and while in India she's under pressure from her parents to get married. They want her wed and with children by age 30. It's so tense a subject that at one point her mother gets extremely upset. She seethes and says that she can't rest easy until her daughter finally ties the knot. She glares into the camera with Ruchika just behind it and then wonders aloud where she went wrong as a mother. The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar takes a personal approach to this hubbub over weddings. It's a bit like a memoir -- My Year of Trying to Get Married to Appease My Parents. We do get a look at the broader wedding culture of Indian through other women in the film. There's a remarkable statistic toward the beginning of the movie: 40% of the world's marriages are performed in India, and of those marriages, 90% of them are arranged marriages. We learn about a few arranged marriages, and how the practice has changed over the years. Ruchika's own parents had an arranged marriage, so there's some expectation of her daughter possibly doing it the same way. On that note, there seems to be a tension of classification when it comes to marriage in the film. It goes along with the other tensions mentioned above. A distinction is made between arranged marriage and "love marriage," which to my obviously biased Western sensibilities fills my head with a lot of interesting ideas about the difference between various kinds of unions between people. One of my best friend's parents had an arranged marriage, and they made it work. There's a genuine affection they share, though they haven't placed the same pressure on their children to get married that way. Arranged marriages have adapted to the 21st century, and we get to see Ruchika go to a matrimonial event. It's a mix of speed dating and mass casting call. Men and women make their introductions and then chat each other up afterwards. Their parents are present with them, there's lots of talk about seeing each other's biodata. This sort of thing isn't really peculiar, though it's odd to hear one interview subject say she's been to a few other matrimonial events without luck. Another woman discusses the slim pickings when it comes to quality men in the country and how most of the available women are too good for them -- they're better educated, more independent, more self-reliant. As The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar was winding down, I couldn't help but feel a little underwhelmed. There's mention of a skin cream in India whose whole ad campaign is built around making women look fairer skinned. This makes them more likely to receive a wedding proposal. That's where mention of Bollywood comes in, but I also wondered more about the culture of beauty in India. How much have these notions changed over time, and is the West responsible for some changes? Is there a culture of male beauty as well -- metrosexualism, male grooming products, etc. -- or is that pressure never felt by men given the country's gender roles and gender expectations? After we're given the statistic about the percentage of marriages in India, we also hear a report about traffic being backed up because there are 50,000 weddings being performed in the city that day. Was it facetious, was it real? And I'm curious about the average number per day now and if there's a similarly ridiculous wedding industry in India that overcharges people on one of the happiest days of their lives. There's also an issue with a lack of polish in the documentary. A lot of it plays as a home movie almost, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing, I've been rethinking the look of documentaries and the sort of veneer I prefer in the docs I usually like. This mix of run time and look made me a bit lukewarm on the film as a whole even though I think those various tensions mentioned above are ripe with ideas. If Ruchika and her co-director Faiza Ahmad Khan revisit the subject of marriage in India, they've got a solid foundation here to build on. They can explore those personal, sociological, economic, and even geopolitical facets of marriage with greater depth. There's a passing reference to religious preferences with spouses which I'm interested in hearing, and I'd also be interested to hear if there are any views of same-sex couples and marriage in India. (The fact I wonder this reveals my absolute ignorance of sexual politics in the non-western world.) If anything, the film has made me wonder what Rosie the Riveter would look like with henna on her fist. I wonder about her biodata. [The Great Indian Marriage Bazaar will screen at Chelsea Clearview Cinemas on Sunday, October 28th.]
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The matrimonial tension of Rosie the Riveter
[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for revie...

SAIFF Review: Paanch Adhyay (Afterglow)

Oct 25 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213142:39023[/embed] Paanch Adhyay (Afterglow)Director: Pratim D. GuptaRating: NRCountry: India Paanch Adhyay opens with a lines from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's an exchange between Joel and Clementine about their relationship. Even though the source isn't identified, it works in the way epigraphs should work -- it doesn't matter if you know the reference because the lines have meaning independent of the original context. The lines also work on different levels in the context of this film. There's some connective tissue between the both movies that has to do with time, relationships, and romance. It's one sort of subtle wink. (If I had to compare the two movies, Eternal Sunshine is far superior, but that's not really fair since it's one of the best movies of the 2000s. The two films, while thematically similar, are nothing alike in terms of plot and content.) We open with a chance meeting and a seduction that's suave yet a little clumsy. Two strangers at a party: Arindam (Priyanshu Chatterjee) who modifies his drink order once he notices Ishita (Diya Mirza). There are little references to James Bond and reincarnation, but Arindam is pulled away just when he's getting somewhere. Ishita keeps popping up in his life, and he follows her as if in some trance. Arindam is a director and knows how to mold situations and people to his will, and Ishita is a teacher who seems lonelier than she ought to be. Their story unfolds with a few songs, playing out like a charming, lushly saturated romantic comedy. The two seem destined to be together, and there's a genuine sense of attraction every time Ishita and Arindam are together. I probably would have been content had the movie remained a story about these two would-be lovers and their Begali fairy tale. But Paanch Adhyay twists the narrative in an interesting way without tearing the melodramatic membrane. A new chapter of the story begins, and we don't know quite where we are in the story. There's Arindam again, clean shaven this time. He's working on a feature film rather than a commercial. He looks lonely and there's no sign of Ishita in his life. It's hard to tell if it's the past or the present or the future, but the charm of the film is still there. Arindam casts Ranjabati (Sampurna Lahiri) as the lead in his latest film. She's an undiscovered ingenue who doesn't have any life experience or acting experience. It's a perfect chance at love for an older man, though it sounds callow and a bit creepy -- predatory, wolfish. He's a director, though, and he gets what he wants. One of Arindam's assistants says they're trying to cast their own black swan for the role, which explains the Natalie Portman eye make-up. The movie they're making is more like a low-rent Twilight riff, and their immortal vampire is sort of an anti-Pattinson in a funny way. There are other little movies references that creep in, like a V for Vendetta print in Arindam's home, ditto a print for In the Mood for Love. Bela Tarr gets name checked, and there's a reference to other Indian films of the past. I wish I knew more about Indian films because there's a wonderful recreation of and immersion in some older Indian movie. It's romantic and heartbreaking. The remainder of Paanch Adhyay is about whatever happened to Arindam and Ishita and what that means when Arindam has to deal with his feelings for Ranjabati. It becomes less of a rom-com at this point and more a relationship drama mostly from Arindam's point of view. People fall in and out of love for their own complicated or selfish reasons, and we watch them try to rationalize it. There are moments of observation in the film about the nature of relationships. One character asks if relationships can age, isn't it possible for emotions to age as well? And so we get to see what time can do to emotions. There's also a little advice about love in the film which starts poetic but then becomes a limerick thanks to the last line. There are some very broad gestures and plot shifts in Paanch Adhyay which though contrived didn't undermine the film for me. I was probably won over with its winks, and also by the fact that some characters are downright awful and unapologetically so. If love turns us into fools, falling out of love or being involved in difficult loves turns us into wretched jerks. It's only human, really. But even those big, super-melodramatic reveals are bolstered by subtler moments, like how a song playing in a scene can change the meaning of a digital picture frame in the background. The slideshow may be in focus or out of focus, but the tone gives insight into the internal life of the character. There's a Gustav Klimt painting hanging on the wall of Arindam's apartment. I've always found a lot of Klimt's paintings melodramatic, but I sort of like them. Those little shining sections, the geometric color, the impossible curve and arc of the bodies. These are people reshaped by the trappings of melodrama in order to express that dazzling beauty, sensuality, and romance of a given moment. It's these sorts of gestures in Paanch Adhyay that make potential schmaltz seems earnest. There -- whether it's floating lights or a bridge or a picture frame -- is where the essential light shows through. It's stretchy rather than sappy; that's when moments are illuminated and magnified. [Paanch Adhyay (Afterglow) will screen at Chelsea Clearview Cinemas on Saturday, October 27th.]
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Love's great, at least until it isn't anymore
[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for revie...

SAIFF Review: Akam (Palas in Bloom)

Oct 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213141:39021[/embed] Akam (Palas in Bloom)Director: Shalini Usha NairRating: NRCountry: India Akam is based on the novel Yakshi by Malayattoor Ramakrishnan. After the opening shot and a flash of the title, we see that Srinivas is horribly disfigured along half of his face. Picture a mix of mulberry birthmark, keloid scars, and grape bubblegum. He limps on the same side of his ruined face. The film flashes back from the beach and shows the car accident that left Srinivas deformed. At the time, he was dating a co-worker named Tara who was in the car during the accident. When we hop out of this flashback and return to the beach, director Shalini Usha Nair introduces a moment of vertigo in the form of a spiraling stairwell and an ascent to the top of a lighthouse. Waiting at the top is a woman in black. The imagery is the stuff of dreams (or at least the film equivalent of dreams). When the narrative reorients itself, Srinivas is in bed with his new wife, Ragini (Anumol K). She loves him despite his disfigurement. It looks like real love and real acceptance after enduring such hardship. The marriage and the identity of this woman wasn't immediately apparent to me, though. Time hops around at the beginning, so we see some of Ragini's courtship with Srinivas, or at least I think that's the case. We also don't really find out what happened to Tara for a good portion of the film, so there's this odd sense of being unanchored from the plot. I drifted along with the film until I finally found some solid ground, but it took some time. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but I felt so thrown, which made the eventual certainties in the film seem welcome. There's one thing that Srinivas feels absolutely sure about: his wife Ragini is really a demon known as a yakshi, a kind of vampire who appears in the form of a voluptuous temptress. He's also sure that she wants him dead. The only way to kill a yakshi, we're told, is to drive a nail through her head. Akam sort of explores the roots of this psychosis, or it might be the roots of this supernatural threat. One of Srinivas's co-workers suggests his paranoia might be the result of PTSD after the accident. PTSD would also explain the odd chronological lapses in the film. Srinivas doesn't seem to register how much time has passed, and the audience similarly remains unmoored. The co-worker also suggests that sexual frustration may be the cause of these psychotic episodes. It's a strange observation but also telling. Ragini loves Srinivas and thinks he's handsome despite his facial scars, and yet it seems like they've never consummated their marriage. Much later in the film, when Srinivas is overcome by a major bout of depression, he tries to relieve some of that sexual tension in an unsavory way. There's a lot of suspicion about Ragini, as if she has no past or any kind of history as a reference point for her identity. For some reason, Srinivas knows very little about her. It made me wonder why it never came up while they were dating. Since so much of the film is filtered through Srinivas's POV, some of this information could be intentionally concealed, like a kind of forgetting. We're not quite sure if these are just delusions or if there's any truth to them. Those images of spiral stairwells appear on the walls in Srinivas's house as decoration, and one of his dreams winds up having repercussions in the real world. Coincidence or craziness, they guy's just hedging his bets. Yet even though so much of Akam is built on the way suspicion and paranoia are based in ambiguities, the approach left me at a distance. The point of view isn't like an unreliable narrator (someone consciously misleading the reader or consciously withholding information) but more of an uncertain narrative mind. Information is being received, but I never sensed Srinivas's thought process. That distinction might be a little vague, but I think it's an important one. Maybe that's where a little extra nudging in a direction is necessary for me to feel close to a story. For instance, if the film steered in the direction of a PTSD character study, it might have the depth of feeling or unique human observation to move me at the gut level. Or if this veered toward a character study of schizophrenia, it's emotional stakes and personal stakes might have engaged me like, say, Take Shelter even though I couldn't fully latch into that movie. Thinking of Take Shelter, we always get a sense of the potential danger Michael Shannon's character feels from his apocalyptic visions. The Jessica Chastain character feels an equal but opposite sense of danger about these visions as a response. With Akam, there's Srinivas's suspicion, but never a visceral moment that communicates Srinivas being in peril. He buys a hammer and nails, but that's it. His visions are cryptic rather than ominous with one exception, and none of them involve him in any direct kind of way. The again, maybe the fact that he reads personal/mortal significance into those visions shows just how wrecked his mind really is. (Or is it?) I think it's admirable for Nair to tackle this kind of story in this warped and untethered perspective, and I wonder if Ramakrishnan's novel approached the story in the same way. I can tell that there's something on the shore worth investigating. In fact, I can still follow the little depressions in the sand. The problem with the ambiguities, though: it feels like the tide got there before I did. [Akam (Palas in Bloom) will screen at the SVA Theater on Friday, October 26th.]
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She loves me, but I think she might be a monster -- I could be wrong
[For the next week and half, we will be covering the 2012 South Asian International Film Festival, the biggest film premiere destination for South Asian and Indian films in the United States. Check back with Flixist for revie...

SAIFF Review: Blood Relative

Oct 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]213140:39020[/embed] Blood RelativeDirector: Nimisha MukerjiRating: NRCountry: Canada/India Vinay is the vice president of the Think Foundation, a charity that assists those who have thalassemia. The group is small, and it doesn't even have a president. Why Vinay doesn't just assume the role of president is never answered, but it's just one of the many odd details in the film that couldn't possibly be made up. Vinay's a workaholic wholly given to the cause. He spends most of his time visiting patients at hospitals and their homes to make sure they're getting their medication and other medical treatments. There's a sense that as long as Vinay's capable, the Think Foundation will survive, but it will always be a struggle. While Divya and Imran must deal with the disease, Vinay has to deal with limited funding. His main goal is to convince the Indian government to provide iron chelation drugs at no cost. The government is predictably slow to respond and the process is arduous. The head of the ministry of health seems like a character pulled straight out of a satire. He's aloof bordering on oblivious, and he has different political ambitions than addressing health care needs. It's remarkable that that the health minister is so blissfully unaware of the camera to act like an unqualified, shameless politico, but it's more remarkable that this sort of (inadvertent?) candor could be captured on film. Meanwhile, families in India, particularly those below the poverty line, can barely afford the transfusions. For them, iron chelation is completely out of the question. An issue-driven doc like Blood Relative works best if it can successfully merge art, information, and advocacy. It's a unique space. Think of a blend of documentary filmmaking and documentary journalism; an in-depth magazine feature with the flair of good creative non-fiction. Since the focus is on just three people, we're able to extrapolate each of their experiences and consider the larger scope of the thalassemia problem. What Vinay's going through is part of what Divya and Imran are going through. There's no division between between the political and personal. If all politics is local, it's also the case that each of these personal struggles is universal. One of the shared problems between Divya and Imran is how to pay for medical treatment. Divya is still in school, but her parents are considering pulling her out of classes. By doing this, Divya would be able to clean up around the house while her mother can get a day job. Divya's mother has hit a point of both resignation and superstition. She's vowed never to wear sandals until her daughter is cured, and has also gone to a spiritual medium in hopes of divine intervention. It would be easy to scoff if the desperation wasn't so heartbreaking, so instead all I could do was sympathize and wonder what, if I were raising a child in similar circumstances, I would do. Also heartbreaking is Divya's social circle. Since she looks half her age, her peers at school make fun of her. She's technically a teen, but her only friends are much younger. Imran's situation is may be more difficult. His father left the family years ago because of Imran's thalassemia. With his mother's flagging health and his sister's own needs, Imran's been forced into being the family's sole breadwinner, paying for rent and utilities as well as his own medical treatment. He still aspires to meet Eminem and learn how to flow like he does, but that's not in the cards; he still wants to date and get married, but his condition makes it beyond difficult to meet anyone his age. We see him hanging out with a friend who's a year younger and at least a foot taller. We see the bruising on his stomach from his regular injections. It's painful to think about people who are teenagers in children's bodies or adults in adolescent bodies. The talk about marriage and dating seems especially painful given how short their lives might be and the complications associated with treatment. It's not just a matter of paying for the iron chelations and transfusions, but dealing with the repercussions of lifelong injections and the potential complications associated with treatment. Life gets more difficult the older you get, but for Divya and Imran it's more so. They know it, but they carry on. Even when Divya's mother discusses the possibility of her daughter dying, Divya laughs and smiles because she has no choice but to live despite it all. That might be why Vinay persists. He's given his life to prolong the lives of others, even if it's just for a few more precious years. As the situation for the Think Foundation becomes more difficult, he keeps trying to make things work. He keeps visiting thalassemia wards, and also meets with Divya and Imran when he can. Seeing him and Imran together, even when it's brief, is especially affecting. There's a kinship there that's so genuine, a humanity that cannot be denied. These lives are all inspirational in their own ways -- they make us fortunate to be alive (which sounds selfish, I know) and fortunate that people like them are alive. Blood Relative is a brisk 72 minutes, and yet every minute counts. The film has found its shape comfortably, needing no more and no less to explore the different facets of the issue. More importantly, Blood Relative never tries to force its emotions because everything is laid so bare. None of the subjects are guarded. Whether we're following Vinay or Divya or Imran, we get a good sense of their inner turmoil but also their aspirations. They still dream, and that's just as important as being alive. There is hope for some sort of future. There's a palpable urgency in Mukerji's direction, another essential component of good art as advocacy, and it comes through in the film's final appeal -- to learn more more about the condition, to help somehow. Blood Relative is lean, but it lingers long after. It's hard to ignore the film's call to action because it'll be hard to forget these people. [Blood Relative will screen at the SVA Theater on Thursday, October 25th. To learn more about thalassemia and what you can do, visit bloodrelative.net and thinkfoundation.org.]
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A moving documentary on how thalassemia affects lives in Mumbai
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