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First Chicago South Asian Film Festival Launches

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Chicago is already a city chock full of film festivals. But starting tonight, one more will be added to the roster. This weekend marks the first Chicago South Asian Film Festival. And though it started as a small community development project by a few cinephiles, it has grown into a three-day-long, 16-film extravaganza.

We may think we know South Asian films: singing, dancing, wet sari scenes. But that’s not what will be shown at this festival. “Ashes,” by actor and first-time director Ajay Naidu, depicts a gritty tale of two brothers in New York. One is a drug dealer; the other is mentally ill. It’s a good example of how edgy some of the films at the festival will be.

Festival Director Amit Rana says the films are also unafraid of topics that may be taboo in places like India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. It’s like a “South Asian Sundance,” he says.

“It’s not the same singing and dancing as in Bollywood films,” says Rana. “It’s very realistic kind of hard-hitting movies about the perspectives of South Asians, and what are they actually experiencing in terms of their life and opinions and everything.”

Rana first conceived the idea of the festival about four months ago for a community development program he was in. His full-time job is software consulting. “But I guess my hobby and new full-time job is film festival planning and organizing, I guess,” Rana says with a laugh.

Rana says the project came together quickly because he met several others who’ve been stewing over Chicago’s lack of a South Asian film festival. One of them is Ketki Parikh, who promotes Indian theater acts in the U.S.

“I have been attending International Film Festival of Chicago, and maybe they’re not getting enough submission from South Asian filmmakers,” says Parikh, “so I hardly see any good South Asian films.”

For years, Parikh has attended South Asian film festivals in New York and Los Angeles. Why didn’t Chicago have one of its own, she wondered? Chicago and the greater Midwest region have a lot of South Asians, who hail from a rich tradition of filmmaking. Bollywood, the film industry based in Mumbai, produces three times as many films per year as Hollywood.

Parikh says she’s been thinking of organizing a festival herself these last six years, but the right people didn’t come together until now.

“If we don’t do it this year, it would never happen,” says Parikh. “As soon as saw an excellent team put together to do this project, we were all ready to plunge into it.”

Because of her line of work, Parikh is well-connected in the Indian arts community, and was able to snag several big Bollywood stars to come for the opening night gala. The team also found that it wasn’t hard finding sponsors for the festival. In fact, businesses were so eager to help that the problem became how to handle everyone’s request to be an exclusive sponsor.

The most challenging aspect of the effort, says Rana, was marketing. “Especially being limited budget. We can’t afford to put up a billboard on I-94,” he says. To tackle that, the organizers spread word of the festival through South Asian online media and blogs.

They also started showing up to events that feature South Asian acts, like a recent one at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. After the performance, they got onstage to make a brief announcement to notify the audience of the upcoming festival, and handed out flyers as guests streamed out of the auditorium.

The festival selections cut across so many genres, it’s tough to put them into any neat category. Some are feature flicks by South Asian filmmakers, but there’s also a documentary by a non-South Asian, on water pressures in an Indian desert.

“They’re saying ‘hey look, this is a general theme that we’re working on with South Asian,’” says filmmaker Sandeep Sharma. “‘We don’t really care whether you’re South Asian or not.’”

Sharma is an adjunct film professor at Columbia College in Chicago, and he says that’s what appeals to him about this festival. His short film, “Wild Things,” is an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s popular children’s book, “Where The Wild Things Are.” It was filmed at Children’s Memorial Hospital with a young patient in the key role of Max. Other children created puppet monsters that star as the wild things that Max encounters on her fanciful journey.

Sharma says his film doesn’t really have anything to do with South Asia. That’s because he declines to identify himself as a “South Asian filmmaker.” He prefers simply to identify as “a filmmaker.”

But still, Sharma says having a South Asian Film Festival in Chicago is hugely important because it provides a sort of platform.

“If this film festival wasn’t happening, I wouldn’t get an opportunity to be telling a story about ‘The Wild Things,’ which just happens to be an opportunity for me, as a South Asian, to be telling a story about Maurice Sendak’s (book),” says Sharma.

This will be the first time Sharma will ever actually have one of his films on a big screen, in front of a large audience. And he says, who knows? Maybe some big-time Hollywood or Bollywood producer will be scouring the festival and happen to catch it. Sharma says just getting all these South Asian film-types in one place can lead to great opportunities down the road, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s in his hometown.

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