It’s no secret Indian cinema is now proficient at sugar coating the nation’s struggle for independence. Films such as “Bhagat Singh” and “Mangal Pandey” paint idealistic heroes and almost cartoonish villains that played out these turbulent years in history. However, Chandan Roy Sanyal’s “Azaad” picks up in the vein of “Rang De Basanti,” a film that focuses not on good and evil, but on the pain of sacrifice.
As a short film, “Azaad” strips away the subplots and preachy monologues that weigh down conventional Bollywood versions of these events, and though it still spoon-feeds an audience lesson, it’s more moral than political.
The film opens on Azaad Khan (Sanyal), whose grandfather was a Rajasthani freedom fighter. Azaad returns to India after spending time abroad, bringing his girlfriend—an ambiguously foreign girl with an accent that sounds fake no matter where the script claims she’s from (in fact, the script does not even bother to make a claim). On the dirt road back to his village, Azaad begins to have flashbacks to his grandfather Agha (Adil Hussain) and the three friends with whom he fought for India’s independence.
In dual flashbacks, Azaad remembers his grandfather recounting these experience to him as a child. During their journey across Rajasthan, the four friends are shot at by unseen figures, an almost nameless faceless evil whose root is only suggested but not seen. The immediacy of the independence struggle is in the deaths Agha Khan witnesses, the friends he loses in just a few short days and the grief that engulfs him afterward. A song in the film’s middle points explicitly to the price of freedom: life and blood.
“Azaad” is limited slightly by its run time, particularly in that, it doesn’t quite explain why Azaad feels so deeply connected to his grandfather or the three friends he never met. At one point, we get a voiceover that underlines the film’s thesis in red pen like a high school English teacher: Freedom is a difficult responsibility and a communal one. We’ve all made sacrifices and must shoulder the burden. In conclusion, a shadow of Agha appears to impart this missive to his grandson, along with the xenophobic fear that “You’d also lose yourself among them”—them being foreigners, who cannot possibly understand this experience.
Ultimately, though, Sanyal’s short film is strong. More Indian filmmakers could stand to follow his example.
Proma Khosla is a writer, dancer and proud resident of New York City. She graduated from the University of Michigan, where between cultural shows and dance competitions she somehow earned a B.A. in Communication Studies. Her degree and her work with the Michigan Daily gave her an unshakeable desire to work in editorial and entertainment–basically to talk about TV and movies all day in the hopes that someone will care to listen. She also writes for GeekyNews, Fantastic Fandoms, and has an impressive collection of personal journals that live in shoe boxes under her bed.
As a South Indian American, I am aware of how non-brown Americans view the Indian film industry. One word: Bollywood. Bollywood and the South Indian film industry has always been lumped into the same category as Bollywood, despite the diversity. For Indians, South India is obviously different from North India, but non-brown people assume it would all be the same. This extends beyond Indian cinema; feeding into assumptions regarding other aspects of culture like language, food, and so on. People tend to assume all Indians speak Hindi or eat tikka masala at home rather than trying to understand the diversity of Indian culture. With time, especially with the help of social media, there was more accessibility to understanding the differences among these cultures, yet nothing truly spread across the globe. Then came “RRR.”
“RRR” is a Telugu film from Tollywood. This South Indian film has become a worldwide sensation with its incredible visual effects, captivating plot, and catchy music. I was blown away by the reception this film got in the United States, especially from American film critics who were all praise. What impressed me the most was how more Americans clarified it was not a Bollywood film, and differentiated it as a Tollywood film. The number of people taking the time to learn the difference between Tollywood and Bollywood might seem simple, yet meaningful, nonetheless. South Indian films are incredibly underrated and are finally getting the attention they deserved. It is incredible to see the celebration surrounding the film and what it represents and means to this community and how we get to share it with the world. The hype was real, and then the awards season began.
The Golden Globes top the list of some of the major awards for television and film and it was amazing to hear that “RRR” had been nominated in two categories for this award. Funnily enough in my own world, it aired on my birthday. Then came the moment when Jenna Ortega said “Naatu Naatu, RRR” and the song played as M.M. Keeravani approached the stage to accept his award. This song became the first Asian, not only Indian, song to win the Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The 80th Golden Globes saw many wins for the Asian community with films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “RRR.” There is something beautiful about being South Indian in America and watching a South Indian song win an award in America on one’s birthday. There is a joy in getting to tell my friends, both brown and non-brown, about it and share the song, “Naatu Naatu,” with them. Sure it is Indian, but it is just a bit closer to home, and that closeness stands with a beautiful meaning. When it came to the Critics’ Choice Awards, it was touching to hear about how S.S. Rajamouli grew up with the encouragement of creativity and storytelling. It honestly inspired me to continue my own projects; I hope to see them prosper as well.
After the win at the Golden Globes, the Oscars became highly anticipated for the Indian community, especially when the nominations for Best Original Song were announced. Of course, when the familiar title appeared once again, a victory felt within grasp. “Naatu Naatu” had a couple of big moments at the Academy Awards ceremony: the performance and the win itself. The performance was introduced by the absolutely phenomenal actress, Deepika Padukone, who, too, is s South Indian. Her introduction of the song brought forward the context in which the tune takes place, that is during 1920 under the British colonization of India. She reminded all of us of how significant the song was along with its catchy beat. When it came to the announcement of who won Best Original Song, it was a first-of-its-kind victory given that it was the first time an Indian film won in this category. The speech made by M. M. Keeravani was beautiful as he sang to the tune of “Top of the World” with his own lyrics to take in the moment. It was certainly an extremely proud day to be Indian anywhere in the world, and especially to be a South Indian.
Seeing non-brown folks acknowledging the diversity of Indian culture has been beautiful to witness. The cultural pride of saying an Indian film, specifically a South Indian film, won the Oscar, a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and two Critics’ Choice Awards so far is an absolute joy. Seeing South Indian representation, especially during the awards season, is inspiring for brown creatives. This has been a time of great cultural pride in the South Indian community, and as a South Indian creative myself, I am honored to see it.
Photo Courtesy: Netflix
September 19, 2023September 19, 2023 3min readBy Nida Hasan
There’s often an element of dysfunctionality that exists within South Asian families. Especially immigrant families, who are carrying with them the burden of intergenerational trauma, shame and guilt; holding onto the last straw of cultural traditions that they have forever known to be the convention, in order to avoid the obliteration of these said values to “Western” ideologies. But what the older generation tends to forget is that they, too, may have been the rebels of their time; misplaced, misfits for the standards of their predecessors. They, too, with their big, ‘American’ dreams (Canadian, in this case) quite possibly left their elders grappling with the loss of their legacy to the unknown. Fawzia Mirza’s “The Queen of My Dreams,” which premiered at the 48th annual Toronto International Film Festival, probes into this disparity, drawing on the complexities of a strained mother-daughter relationship in what is an endearing and emotional tale of loss, love, and nostalgia.
Azra (Amrit Kaur) — a Muslim Canadian teenager — is met with the sudden news of her father’s untimely demise. Her father (Hamza Haq) was the only mediator and one of the two shared loves (the other being the ’60s iconic Bollywood song, “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani”) between Azra and her devout mother, Mariam (Nimra Bucha), who rarely see eye-to-eye otherwise. A grieving Azra hops on a plane to Pakistan to attend her father’s funeral and from here on, through fragmented images, viewers are taken on a dramatic yet poignant journey across generations, cultures, and continents, all contrasting each other, but very much in tandem in the telling of the story.
For those who’ve seen Bucha’s talent unfold on Pakistani television can probably vouch for her versatility as an actor. She may have “not fit into the industry” that loves itself a damsel in distress, but seldom has she failed to prove her acting prowess. She is now living this title of a ‘Rising International Star’ to watch out for and deservingly so. She adds a welcome eccentricity and flamboyance to the role of an aspirational, immigrant wife trying to add to the household income by selling Tupperware to white folks. And, at the same time, lends this relatable humanism, fragility, and desperation to her character of an immigrant mother reconnecting with her faith at the sight of losing control over her life and her daughter’s. She allows viewers to recognize what her character cannot see in herself.
Bucha is matched, if not completely outshone, by Kaur, who seamlessly switches between the roles of an adventurous and ambitious young Mariam and a grieving Azra. The latter is frustrated with the cultural and religious norms set out to restrict women around her; she’s also a queer Muslim teen struggling to gain her mother’s acceptance after she abandoned their once-thriving bond at the time of her coming-of-age awakening. Kaur portrays the many layers of her character with sheer nuance, depth, and sincerity. Her dexterity as an actor is evident in how tightly she grips onto the idiosyncracies of each character as if it’s not the same, but two different individuals enacting them.
It is delightful to see Gul-e-Rana play something other than a loud, overbearing, or vengeful matriarch, while still very much being in the same category. The particular scene where Rana whispers to her daughter Mariam on her wedding stage, commending her for truly being the great actor she hopes to become by hiding her groom’s plans of migration all the while, almost makes you sympathize with her character. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to do for the talented Haq who plays the father and the husband, but he sure exudes the perfect charm of a romantic Bollywood hero if he ever chooses to pursue that path.
Mirza weaves and explores a multitude of challenging social issues such as immigration, identity, and sexuality around the intricacies of an intense mother-daughter relationship, without leaving any loose threads. What you are left with is the possibility of Mariam and Azra showing each other some grace, having dived into their past that boils down to the fact that even though they stand at odds with each other — estranged and unforgiving — they have more in common than they’d admit. Queer or not, “The Queen of My Dreams” will offer some relatability to every immigrant mother and her multi-hyphenated daughter. It is like gazing at a self-portrait that persuades you to reflect on the past and its impact on your present, and to rethink the trajectory of your future. It also reminds you that all battles — be they of epic proportions or marked by petty grievances — should and must come to an end because life is just too short.
For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.