Wednesday, November 3, 2010

3rd i San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival

The Bay Area's indefatigable fall film festival marathon continues this week with 3rd i's San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival – we'll just call it 3rd i. Now in its eighth year, the festival is the oldest of its kind in the U.S. The 2010 line-up is comprised of 15 programs (14 features and one collection of shorts), representing the latest in South Asian independent cinema from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the UK and USA. For preview trailers of nearly the entire program, take a look at 3rd i's YouTube channel.

Last year's event was such a success, it inspired the organization to expand the fest from four days to five. Therefore, 2010's Opening Night happens on a Wednesday (Nov. 3), at everyone's new favorite Bay Area cinema, Japantown's The Viz. The opening film is Journey From Zanskar, a documentary directed by Frederick Marx (producer of 1994's Hoop Dreams) and narrated by Richard Gere. Journey From Zanskar traces an arduous trek undertaken by 17 Tibetan children en route to a Buddhist school in Manali, India. Director Marx is expected to be in attendance. Following the screening, the festivities continue with Bollyhood Bash!, 3rd i's opening night party at the Bollyhood Café on 19th Street in the Mission.

3rd i remains in the Mission for Days Two and Three, with screenings at the Brava Theater on 24th Street. Thursday's program starts off with Rappers, Readers and Robots: Local Shorts, and is followed by Love, Sex aur Dhoka. This feature by Dibakar Bannerjee consists of three interlocking tales which completely unfold through video camera or security cam lenses. The first story was my favorite. This goofy look at a film student attempting to make a Bollywood-type feature plays irreverently with the genre's clichés. The highlight is an unexpectedly raunchy wedding song in which the female singer exhorts, "I can't hold it any longer. Churn my love juices or fuck off!" The second story has a debt-ridden man trying to make a clandestine porno with a shopgirl. And in the third section, a scorned showgirl is persuaded to take revenge on a conceited superstar.

Friday night at the Brava begins with what is arguably the highest profile film in the festival, Christopher Morris' Four Lions. This UK satire about four idiotic Islamic jihadists gained plenty of notoriety following its Sundance world premiere and will open in Bay Area theaters one week after its 3rd i debut. Next up on Friday is Hammad Khan's Slackistan, which follows a group of privileged and aimless post-college grads in Islamabad as they half-heartedly chart their next moves. I previewed this on screener and found it somewhat derivative, but worthy nonetheless for its energetic direction, attractive non-pro cast and soundtrack of indie-rock from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Friday's line-up at the Brava caps off with an 11:30 p.m., 18-and-over only screening of Gandu (Asshole), whose main character is described in the program capsule as "a shiftless young man who spends his days getting high, masturbating and writing eviscerating Bengali rap." Adam Cuttler reviews the film for Filmbalaya and also posts its (briefly) X-rated trailer which isn't found on 3rd i's YouTube channel.

For Saturday and Sunday, the festival makes its traditional shift over to the Castro Theater. Saturday's roster kicks off with Mostofa Sarwar Farooki's Third Person Singular Number, which is Bangladesh's official 2010 Ocsar ® submission for Best Foreign Language Film. This was the standout of the four films I previewed on screener. The protagonist here is Ruba, a young professional woman whose common-law husband has been jailed for murder. Evicted by her in-laws and refusing to return to her own family, she fruitlessly searches for accommodation – an impossibility for a single woman in the nation's capital of Dhaka. While the film starts off as yet another cinematic diatribe about the horrors of being a woman in an Islamic society, it eventually heads off in some surprising directions. The most charming of these is Ruba's quasi-platonic relationship with a childhood friend who's now Bangladesh's top pop star (an impishly engaging turn by real life singer Topu).

Next on 3rd i's agenda for Saturday are two documentaries, beginning with Nishtha Jain's At My Doorstep. Jain's Lakshmi and Me was a portrait of her pregnant maid and screened to acclaim at 3rd i in 2008. Her follow-up film is a natural extension, profiling the security guard, trash collector, maintenance workers, maids and clothes ironers who serve her suburban Mumbai apartment building. It's a standard, but worthwhile observational doc, enlivened by a security guard who recounts his story in the form of a Bollywood screenplay. The next documentary is The Truth That Wasn't There, which examines press freedom in Sri Lanka during the closing days of that country's lengthy civil war. The film's three directors are student filmmakers who were given unprecedented access to the warzone, resulting in a number of startling discoveries.

Following these two documentaries, 3rd i presents its 2010 Centerpiece Film, Smita Bhide's The Blue Tower. Set in London's "Little India," this low-budget romantic thriller is about a depressed young man with no job, a sexless marriage, menacing in-laws and most importantly, an infirm aunt with shoeboxes full of cash and an attractive Caucasian nurse. This is Bhide's debut feature and she's expected to attend the screening. Finally, 3rd i's late-night Saturday slot at the Castro has always meant a recent Bollywood hit and this year is no exception. Punit Malhotra's I Hate Luv Storys is – surprise, surprise – a love story, this one between a skeptical assistant director and a sentimental production designer who are both working on the same film. The respective roles are played by Bollywood royalty-of-sorts: Imraan Khan (nephew of Aamir Khan) and Sonam Kapoor (daughter of Anil Kapoor). The reviews I'm reading are decidedly mixed, but I trust 3rd i's programmers and will give it a go. (I had similar doubts about last year's Bollywood film, Dil Bole Hadippa!, which turned out to be a blast.)

Many who see I Hate Luv Storys will exit the Castro Theater around midnight (the film is a brisk-for-Bollywood 135 minutes) and return at noon on Sunday for Madhumati. This is one of those increasingly rare animals – a Bollywood classic that's being screened in a glorious 35mm print. No one should miss it. This 1958 "gothic romance with reincarnated damsels and revengeful ghosts" is said to have inspired many films that succeeded it, including the 2008 blockbuster hit Om Shanti Om. The film will be introduced by Manoj Shailendra, son of the renowned song lyricist Shailendra (who penned the tunes for Madhumati and approximately 60 other films.)

Following this three-hour epic, 3rd i will present Umesh Kulkarni's The Well, described as a "sensitive, visually evocative and ebullient film about a family gathered at the ancestral home for a summer wedding, which turns into a soulful meditation on life and death seen through the eyes of a young boy." Sunday's third film will be In Camera, which represents the directorial debut of acclaimed documentary cinematographer Ranjan Palit. Here Palit ponders the legacy and import of his images of Indian's downtrodden, as captured in the dozen films he's made over 25 years. Closing out 3rd i's 2010 festival is Dev Benegal's Road, Movie, which had its world premiere at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival. It's the story of a restless young man who drives his father's mobile cinema across the Rajasthan desert, experiencing adventures aplenty en route. After the movie, you'll want to buy a ticket for 3rd i's Closing Night Reception up in the Castro Theater's mezzanine – always one of most fabulous parties of the film festival year.

For two additional perspectives on this year's 3rd i, I strongly recommend reading Frako Loden's preview at The Evening Class and Sandip Roy's over at SF Gate. Also of interest is a recent NY Times profile on that city's South Asian film festival, which is one year younger than 3rd i and shares many of the same titles. It's also worth mentioning that 3rd i does some fantastic year-round programming – so sign up for the mailing list. Back in June they presented 3rd i Queer Eye, an evening of LGBT South Asian shorts, followed by a special, extended director's cut of Freddie Mercury, the Untold Story. Later in the summer came the Battle of the Bollywood Masters, a fantastic lecture/clips presentation pitting composer R.D. Burman against A.R. Rahman – complete with a "special appearance" by camp Bollywood icon, Helen.

Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.