In 2001, two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, when the city’s then “mayor Rudy Giuliani had called upon arts organisations to hold events so people would come out instead of sitting locked up inside their homes”, the arts organisation Indo-American Arts Council birthed a film festival, the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF). Two decades later, when the world was locked indoors, this time by a virus, festivals around the globe went digital. Third-year in a row, the NYIFF will be virtual, from May 7-14 (screening via Shift72; some films will be geo-blocked outside of the US). However, there will be an in-person event to screen the closing-night film, the documentary The Beatles and India (directed by Ajoy Bose and Peter Compton), followed by the awards ceremony.
Speaking about the “oldest Indian film festival in the US”, Aseem Chhabra, who’s been a long-time programmer at NYIFF and has been the festival’s director since 2011, says, “a large percentage of our audience consists of New Yorkers of different shades and ethnicities. New York City is home to immigrants. Throughout the year, the city hosts a range of diverse film festivals — Jewish, Irish, African, German, Italian, and many more. There’s even a Sikh film festival.”
In the past, the festival premieres included Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, Slumdog Millionaire, Iti Mrinalini, Gangs of Wasseypur, Ugly, Goynar Baksho, Shahid, Fandry, Aligarh, Mukti Bhawan, A Death in the Gunj, Nude, Sir, Aani Maani, Mothoon, Cat Sticks, Aamis, Gamak Ghar, Nasir, and Fire in the Mountains. And filmmakers such as Mira Nair and Hansal Mehta, Chhabra says, have cast actors in their films after they first met them at NYIFF events.
This year, NYIFF will have films in 13 Indian languages, including Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali, Urdu, and, for the first time at the festival, Sanskrit. Of more than the 210 submissions it received this year, NYIFF’s six-member film-programming team has selected 60 films. There are some regulars on the list, too, like Bengali directors Aditya Vikram Sengupta (Asha Jaoar Majhe/Labour of Love) who brings Once Upon a Time in Calcutta, and Ranjan Ghosh (Ahaa Re) who will showcase Mahishasur Marddini, a meditation on womanhood and rape, where he repeats his muse, Bengali actor Rituparna Sengupta, who is helming the project.
Four key screenings include the opening film Godavari (Marathi), two centerpieces: Taangh/Longing (a documentary in Punjabi and English) and Shoebox (Hindi), and the closing film The Beatles and India (a documentary in English). The programming also includes two children-focused family films Gandhi & Co. (Gujarati) and Boomba Ride (Assamese), two documentaries celebrating film personalities — Kaifinama (Kafi Azmi) and If Memory Serves Me Right (film critic Rashid Irani), and 37 shorts, including a package of seven films (Rahul Roye’s Man & Wife, Arun Fulara’s My Mother’s Girlfriend, Nemil Shah’s Dal Bhat, etc.) which focus on LGBTQIA+ themes.
“We want our audience to connect with the films we programme, we also like to challenge and surprise them, by bringing films that represent new themes, actors, and voices. Out of 18 narrative feature films this year, 10 are by debut filmmakers. And, this year, we have instituted an award for a debut filmmaker. The jury is selected by the Film Critics Circle of India,” says Chhabra.
Among the 10 debuts, which include Waiting for Dawn/Bhor er Oppekha (Bengali), Deid (Marathi), Powai (Hindi), Three-Legged Horse (Marathi), and the Sanskrit Bhagavadajjukam — directed by Yadu Vijayakrishnan, that translates to the hermit and the courtesan, is based on the seventh-century Sanskrit satirical play that sees a one-upmanship between two faiths — the following five have been grabbing eyeballs in the festival circuit:
Produced by Rishab Shetty Films, Natesh Hegde’s critically acclaimed and a festival-favourite film, which premiered at Busan last year but was dropped by the Bengaluru International Film Festival this year, is the story of an ordinary man and his extraordinary circumstances in a lush, rain-soaked Karnataka village, where one miscalculated act costs him everything; he is only representative of the fate of the kind of those who can never escape the trappings of an oppressive system. Hegde’s father Gopal Hegde who plays the titular role is nominated for the Best Actor award and Hegde is nominated for the Best Director award at NYIFF.
Faraz Ali’s Shoebox is set in a spatiotemporal reality when the city of Allahabad was becoming Prayagraj, Ali’s Shoebox is a gentle elegy for his city, before the old world gave in to the new. Sentimentality doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad word. It is a holding on to a past, to a way of life, to a single-screen cinema theatre, to a daughter’s memories of a father, as new forces bulldoze the physicality of a city, one stuck in a flux of its own internal violence. But can memories be erased, or are they sealed in a shoebox and thrown on the back-burner? Can violence — the weapon that the morally weak resorts to — ever avenge one’s loss or help one heal? The film, its main actor (Amrita Bagchi), and the director are nominated for awards at the festival.
Jhini Bini Chadariya/The Brittle Thread (Hindi)
In his Tokyo-premiered film, Ritesh Sharma’s lens navigates the dark by-lanes of Varanasi, that hallowed city, one of the oldest on Earth, where people go to rest in ashrams when the end comes knocking, where bodies are taken to its burning ghats for a quick ticket to salvation, where sadhus smoke chillums in a trance, where dips in holy Ganga washes away sins — or so we believe. Through two minority lives, a weaver (by his faith) and a street dancer (by her gender), both risking their all to earn their bread. The film lays bare aspects of the city that politics would rather render to the shadows. Muzaffar Khan, who plays the weaver, is nominated in the Best Actor category.
Nishiddho/Forbidden (Malayalam, Bengali)
The film will be a definitive, compelling watch for its leads. Tanmay Dhanania in his previous works (Cat Sticks, Nazarband, The Rapist) has established that he is an actor to watch out for and Kani Kusruti (Biriyaani, Counterfeit Kunkoo, Pada) is a force of nature. Backed by Kerala State Film Development Corporation, Tara Ramanujan trains her lens onto the lives of migrant workers in an urban Kochi, through a telling of forbidden desires and unrequited dreams between an idol worker from Bengal, whose uncle needs to be cremated, and a Tamil midwife who moonlights as a funeral priest. What connects them is being outlanders in the space they co-exist in, but this coming closer, on fragile terrain, could it provide closure to their story? Both Dhanania and Kusruti are nominated for awards at NYIFF.
The Road to Kuthriyar (Tamil, English)
Bengaluru boy Bharat Mirle’s Busan-premiered road movie — in which fiction and non-fiction segue into each other — explores a bond between a young, urban, wildlife researcher, tasked with a “mammal survey”, and his older, rural/tribal, “assistant” guide who knows the forests and its beings at the back of his hand. And that exploration reveals the myriad complexities of Indian life and the real differentiator of lived experiences: privilege.