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Showcasing Indian talent in New York

Last updated on: November 12, 2009 15:36 IST

Showcasing Indian talent in New York

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Aseem Chhabra in New York

On November 11, it seemed as if all the stars from the Indian film industry -- the unique faces of the India's independent cinema, had descended upon New York City and the Paris Theatre. 

It was the opening night of the Ninth Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival with one of the biggest gathering of filmmakers and actors from India as well as the US.


Image: Sanjay Suri, Manisha Koirala and Rahul Bose
Photographs: Gunjesh Desai
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Topping the list was the doyen on Indian art cinema Shyam Bengal -- who has two films showing at the festival that runs from November 11 to 15. 

Along with Benegal was the actress who he introduced to the world in his first film -- Shabana Azmi, her husband writer Javed Akhtar, and a number of other young filmmakers and actors -- Sudhir Mishra, Anurag Kashyap, Onir, Raja Menon, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Deepti Naval, Rajit Kapoor, Manisha Koirala, Rahul Bose, Tanishtha Chatterjee and Sanjay Suri. 

And then there was the local Indian American talent -- Mira Nair, Joseph Mathew -- Varghese, Madhur Jaffrey, Aasif Mandvi, Sarita Choudhury and Samrat Chakrabarti.


Image: Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar

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But the festival opened on a serious note. Aroon Shivdasani, the executive director of the Indo-American Arts Council came on stage and made a brief speech, saying: "We are passionate, passionate, passionate for the arts." 

But she added that this past year had been "unbelievably difficult" for her organisation, given the state of the American economy and the drop in funding for cultural institutions.


Image: Aroon Shivdasani

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Last year MIAAC hosted the New York premiere of Slumdog Millionaire -- long before the film became the darling of critics and audience, and the festival also announced that Deepa Mehta was planning to direct a film version of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

But despite such high powered events the future of IAAC looked bleak. "We didn't know if we would survive," Shivdasani said. 


Image: Anurag Kashyap and daughter Aaliya

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But the generous support of donors and friends -- including Indian industrialist Anand Mahindra, Continental Airlines, Paramount Hotel, and host of other organisations kept IAAC afloat and assured a solid year of programming -- focusing on dance, art, book events, theatre and now the film festival.

"This year's festival is the biggest and best we have ever put together," Shivdasani said, giving nod to her director of programming L Somi Roy.


Image: Joseph Mathew Varghese, Tanishtha Chatterjee and Samrat Chakrabarti

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The opening night film -- Today's Special, a story about a young Indian American man who reconnects with his roots as circumstances lead him to run his father's restaurant in the Jackson Heights, NY, highlighted IAAC's commitment to celebrating emerging talents and independent cinema. 

The film originated from Mandvi's critically acclaimed one-man show -- Sakina's Restaurant.  Mandvi plays the lead role in the film and he wrote the script, along with writer Jonathan Bines. 

And eight years ago IAAC hosted one of the first readings of Mandvi's script. Shivdasani called the film a home grown project.


Image: David Kaplan

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Later during the Q&A session Jaffrey -- who plays Mandvi's mother in the film, said that she was impressed with the actor's ability to play so many different roles in Sakina's Restaurant.

Often referred to as the leading lady of the Indian American cinema, Jaffrey added that she was also impressed with Mandvi's persistence in raising finance for the film. "It takes a long time and a lot of dedication to make an independent film," she said.


Image: Rajit Kapoor and Meera Gandhi

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Today's Special also got a shout out from Nair -- whose Oscar nominated Salaam Bombay will have a special 21st anniversary screening at the festival. 

Speaking at the gala dinner at the Metropolitan Club, Nair raised "a virtual glass" to the Today's Special team, including Mandvi and the director David Kaplan.

And as she looked at the invited guests and those who had paid $500 for the dinner and the film, Nair added:  "There are many people in this room who set me up on the path to make films, but most important is Shyam Benegal. I was 16 years old in 1973 when I saw Shyam Babu's Ankur with the radiant Shabana Azmi. I was kind of hooked on to films without knowing that I was hooked."


Image: Mira Nair and Shyam Benegal

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The five day festival features over 50 films -- full length narratives, shorts and documentaries along with panels, a side-bar on works focusing on Kashmir and a set of screenings in collaboration with the New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. 


Image: Sona Jain and Sarita Choudhury

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Screenings are scheduled in different parts of Manhattan -- the Quad Cinema, Tribeca Cinemas, the Cantor Film Center and the National Museum of the American Indian -- all located downtown, and the Museum of Art and Design and the Walter Reade Theater -- both on the Upper West Side.


Image: Sudhir Mishra, Onir and Vijay Amritraj

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