I thought I’d share my experiences and tips for people who’d like to attend the Sundance Film Festival but don’t know much about how to.
I had no idea what to expect going into the Festival, but I was prepared to make the best of it. Needless to say, I was a little concerned about the amount of South Asian representation but after looking up some of the titles and directors headed to the Sundance screens this year I became eager to touch down in Park City, Utah.
History of Sundance
A little backstory before I talk about my journey: The Sundance Film Festival was founded by actor Robert Redford. He became inspired following a cross-country motorcycle journey and in 1961 he purchased a few acres in the Provo Canyon. A few years later, he bought 5,000 additional acres and named the land Sundance, inspired by his role in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In 1980, Redford founded the Sundance Institute following a meeting with colleagues about the art of storytelling and making films and the rest, as they say, is history.
Accessing the Festival
For starters, anyone is able to attend the festival. Tickets are $20 each and go on sale in advance. The added benefit is that many of the films are followed by Q&A sessions with the directors and actors—you might even run into them around town! If you aren’t able to snag a ticket to a showing on your first try, the Sundance mobile app has an E-waitlist you can sign up for. In my experience, you will likely get into the screening (and if that doesn’t work there are scalpers on Craigslist – ha!).
If features aren’t your thing, there are documentary shorts as well as the “New Frontier,” which is a virtual reality immersive experience. In addition to viewing experiences, there are a plethora of panels on various topics from new camera technology to editing to storytelling—you name it. If you’re just tagging along and accompanying someone attending Sundance, there are ski resorts, restaurants and bars in the area to keep you entertained and immersed in the festival culture.
Traveling to and Around Park City
Now let’s get into the logistics of traveling to Park City. You’ll likely fly into the airport in Salt Lake City, which is about a 30-minute drive to Park City. I took a cab but some folks get rentals, and to be honest, the drive isn’t that bad. However, parking is a nightmare around the town. The town sits far above sea level so be prepared for altitude sickness. I popped a couple of painkillers while my flight was preparing to land in an effort to avoid any headaches. Hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate during your entire time there!
In terms of wardrobe, there is no point in packing any heels or dresses. The area is very cold, mountainous and snowy. The main items I suggest bringing would be snow boots, long jackets, gloves, hats, long johns and maybe even hand warmers if you get really cold because there is a good chance you’ll be standing in line for the screenings. Even though you have tickets, audiences are asked to wait outside. Don’t worry—there are tents, but sometimes those fill up and waiting outside can be brutal, especially at night. Main Street is where the Egyptian Theater, as well as the majority of the restaurants and nightlife, is located. The street is one big hill so snagging a pair of cute, comfortable Sorel wedges would be the way to go if you really want to spruce up your outfits.
Finally, there are some screenings that take place in Salt Lake City so that is something to keep in mind when you’re setting up your itinerary. There are free shuttle buses that can take you around town and drop you off near the theaters; however, they fill up quickly and there will be people coughing and sneezing in close proximity to you. To give you some context, think of a New York City bus during rush hour. This year’s rideshare sponsor was Lyft so I would suggest that, or any ridesharing app, as an alternative to the shuttles. It’s much quicker.
What I Watched
I went to the festival thanks to my faculty and school, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which sponsored me to attend Sundance on a full ride. I can’t thank them enough. That being said, I was able to select the screenings that I wanted to see and they did their best to secure tickets for me. The titles at the top of my list were “Blinded By the Light,” “Late Night,” “Hala,” “We Are Little Zombies,” and “Honey Boy.” This year’s Festival had a strong emphasis on female directors, storytellers and visionaries with messages that I felt were important to me. Unfortunately, many of the shows that I did want to see were sold out; however, I did catch “Hala,” “We Are Little Zombies,” “Honey Boy” and a few other films.
I was very excited to learn before I even made it to Park City that “Late Night” was the first big acquisition made during the festival — Amazon bought domestic rights for the film for a record $13 million dollars. The comedy was directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Mindy Kaling, who also stars in the movie alongside Emma Thompson. I’m looking forward to checking it out when it’s available on streaming and I’d like to add that Nisha Ganatra also landed her next directing gig with the upcoming film called “Covers.”
Another huge deal at the Festival this year was “Blinded By the Light,” which was acquired by New Line Cinema for a whopping $15 million. The dramedy is directed by Gurinder Chadha, who is known for “Bend It Like Beckham,” and based on a memoir by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor about his obsession with Bruce Springsteen as a Muslim teenager who faced adversity from his traditional parents. From the looks of it, it’s a feel-good film that’s a tribute to a musical legend while highlighting the cultural divide between the Pakistani protagonist and his family.
Lastly, one of the films I did get to see, “Hala,” is a coming-of-age drama directed by Minhal Baig. It’s about a Muslim teenager who’s coping with the unraveling of her family’s secrets, discovering sexuality and gearing up for college while writing some kickass poetry. The film started off as a short that Baig had been working on for a few years. Jada Pinkett Smith is the executive producer of the feature!
The film did an amazing job of separating what it means to be Muslim and cultural expectations; two topics that often get convoluted and associated with one another when they shouldn’t be. The main actress, Geraldine Viswanathan (she is gorgeous, people), whimsically depicted the rollercoaster of her character’s emotions. One scene that shined through involved an arranged marriage, but I won’t spoil it for you since you, too, will soon be able to see the film. “Hala” was Apple’s first deal during the Festival, with the company picking up the global rights to the film. Here’s an excerpt from Baig’s Q&A session where she talks about the film’s journey.
One more thing I’d like to discuss that not many people know about is Slamdance. Slamdance is also a film festival that runs concurrently with Sundance and is informally known as the anti-Sundance — but not in a bad way. As the creators put it, it’s “a showcase for raw and innovative filmmaking self-governed – by filmmakers, for filmmakers.” Christopher Nolan got his start here!
The venue for Slamdance sits at the top of the Main Street hill at the Treasure Mountain Inn. You’ll run out of breath getting there, but it’s so worth it. While there, I saw a film called “A Great Lamp” by Pakistani director Saad Qureshi, who also happens to be an alumnus of my school. The film is about some friends who roam around their community in North Carolina as they explore their innermost pain during a supposed rocket launch. It’s raw, visually juicy and the sound design is phenomenal. These guys created a true work of art while challenging the power structures of the film industry.
My final takeaway from the Sundance Film Festival is that I was very pleased to see how progressive the Festival was this year—not only with women but also with diversity. I was even more ecstatic and grateful to witness how many brown girls and boys were literally making history right before my eyes. I’m hoping that one day, this brown girl can do the same.
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Being a teenager is scary. Hormones, high school, trying to fit in — add to it a flesh-hungry demon from the Indian subcontinent and it becomes downright terrifying. At least, that’s what award-wining director Bishal Dutta’s debut feature “It Lives Inside” will have audiences thinking when it hits theaters on Sept. 22.
From the producers of several blockbusters including “Get Out” and “Us,” “It Lives Inside” stars Megan Suri as Samidha. Samidha is an Indian American teenager growing up in a quintessential small town, where she’s one of only a handful of South Asian faces at her school. She has a sweet, hardworking dad (Vik Sahay) and a caring, but stern mother (Neeru Bajwa). Both of them like their daughter home early to make prasad for prayers and insist no one whistles in the house, fearing it’ll attract evil spirits.
Much to her traditional mother’s dismay, when Samidha enters high school, she begins to resist her Indian culture. She prefers to be called “Sam,” and speak English, leaving her homemade lunch tiffins on the counter on her way out the door. Most significantly, she distances herself from her former best friend and fellow Indian, Tamira (Mohana Krishnan)
Tamira has become the center of school gossip carrying around an ominous black mason jar, dwelling beneath the gym bleachers. One day, she corners Sam in the locker room, begging her for help from the “monster” trapped in the jar, but Sam is rigid. Her desire to fit overcomes her emotions. Tamira storms out — and then mysteriously goes missing.
Little does Sam know, her childhood friend’s behavior and disappearance were brought on by the Piscacha — a flesh-eating Hindu demon drawn to negative energy — and Sam’s disbelief has just unleashed its terror back on her.
“It Lives Inside” is a breath of fresh air. It has the nostalgic backdrop of a 1980s teen movie (think “Sixteen Candles” or even “Halloween”) but adds the thrill of an exciting new monster for horror fans, and looks for the final girl.
Audiences have spent decades watching and screaming at faith-based horror stories like “The Exorcist,” “The Conjuring,” and “Carrie,” but “It Lives Inside” is the first of its kind for Hollywood, drawing from Hinduism for its frights.
Now, I can’t lie…when I first learned the story would be rooted in Hinduism, I was nervous. I worried that religion and culture may be used as a gimmick, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Dutta’s approach is reminiscent of Bisha K. Ali’s with “Ms. Marvel” on Disney+. Characters speak Hindi and we see South Asian religious practices, foods, and clothing displayed prominently, in a natural and authentic way that other groups can easily learn and understand. The culture merely rounds out the story, it’s not the main character or conflict.
The Piscacha, feeding on the despondence of its prey, may remind some of Vecna from season 4 of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” but Dutta offers a fresh angle, alluding to the characters’ negative feelings toward their culture being the source of its power.
He offers South Asian American audiences relatable family dialogues and dynamics, but also steers clear of cliches like showing popular kids as mean or Sam’s American crush unlikeable.
“It Lives Inside” isn’t a horror movie you’ll lose sleep over, but that doesn’t mean it’s without palpable moments of fear.
Thanks to Dutta’s creative shots, smart pacing and sensory visuals, in addition to the emotion-packed acting of its cast, the film successfully makes your skin crawl and your jaw drop on several occasions.
The characters are smartly cast with several standouts. Suri is a welcome new face for the horror genre’s final girl and she delivers her role with the right amount of escalating fear and desperation. Meanwhile, Bajwa leans into hers with the passion you’d expect from a protective brown mom, though, at times, some of her Hindi dramatells come through.
“Get Out’s” Betty Gabriel is also noteworthy as Sam’s teacher Joyce and an early confidant. Her support of Sam was a refreshing break from the “this person must be crazy” trope we see so frequently in demonic films.
All that said, “It Lives Inside” does border on being formulaic. It follows a template and scares we have seen numerous times and ones that have done well historically.
But in its familiarity, it also manages to feel fresh. With its South Asian twist, the film proves that even formulaic horror films can find new life through diversity and inclusivity. It raises the idea that they have the potential to scare wider audiences and tell more spooky stories by exploring new cultures and casts.
While “It Lives Inside” is not perfect — the climax may leave you with a few lingering questions — it is a stylish and well-made film and a welcome piece of mainstream South Asian representation.
Recent past has seen South Asian stars delve into many different genres on television and the big screen, but horror has remained largely untouched. Thankfully, “It Lives Inside” has set the table for some brilliant South Asian-based horror films in Hollywood for years to come.
“It Lives Inside” made its world premiere at SXSW and has made its way through the film festival circuit. It will be released theatrically by Neon on September 22.
Weddings, huh? Talk about a stress fest. And for the bride, it’s like a 24/7 walk on eggshells. However, add in a paranoid and overprotective sister, and you’ve got a recipe for a completely different degree of drama. In “Polite Society,” Ria Khan (Priya Kansara) and her gang of clumsy pals take the phrase “till death do us part” to a whole new level as they plot to “steal” the bride — aka Ria’s own sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), during her shaadi reception. But with a wedding hall packed with guests, a mother-in-law from hell, and a groom with more shades of fraud than a rainbow, this heist is anything but smooth sailing.
It goes without saying but “Polite Society” comes with a cast of wacky characters, gut-busting one-liners, and an action-packed heist sequence, making it a must-watch for anyone who loves a good comedy. I mean who hasn’t dealt with some serious wedding drama, am I right?
Lead actress Kansara agrees wholeheartedly. “I definitely have!” she chuckles, as I catch up with her at Soho Hotel in London. Despite the rubbish weather outside, Kansara is a ray of sunshine with her infectious enthusiasm.
The minute I read the script, I thought to myself…wow, playing Ria is going to be one wild ride!
And wild is definitely the right word to describe her character. Ria is a British-Pakistani martial artist-in-training from London, determined to become a professional stuntwoman. Her sister, Lena, who dropped out of uni, often ends up being the guinea pig for filming Ria’s stunts for YouTube, including one lovingly dubbed “the fury.” She reveals
I’d never done martial arts before this film. The stunt training started from the day I got the role, and it was three to four times a week all the way until we finished filming. It was a seven-week period in total, and boy, was it physically demanding. Oh my God, I think I can add a whole new skills section to my CV! But on a serious note, it was so much fun and we had an amazing stunt team. They, including my stunt double, taught me so much. It was important to me to do my own stunts as much as possible, but also strike a healthy balance.
For South Asian women, who are often expected to be quiet and agreeable, all that punching and kicking on set must have been cathartic, right?
Honestly, it was like anger management at work! I got to kick and throw things around — it was the perfect balance.
What sets Kansara apart from other actors starting out in the industry is her ability to draw from her own life experiences to bring authenticity to her characters on screen. Her career began with a degree from UCL and a communications job at a pharmaceutical company. But today, her versatile range and unwavering commitment to her craft have propelled her to the forefront of British comedy, portraying defiant South Asian women we’d love to see in real life.
From my own experience as a South Asian woman, I’ve always been told to do what’s ‘proper’ and think twice before speaking up. Playing a character like Ria and putting myself in her shoes, I felt like I was doing and saying things that I wish I had done at her age. It was almost like living through her and speaking my mind about things I never did.
Without a doubt, every South Asian woman on this planet wishes she cared more about herself and less about what other people think.
Ria totally inspired me. If only I had her mindset when I was younger, my career path would have taken off way sooner instead of worrying about other people’s opinions.
The chemistry between the cast members on and off-screen is so apparent, especially the sisterhood between Ria and Lena. The wild adventures of a bride, and her paranoid maid of honour navigating through family drama, are bound to create some unforgettable moments on set.
We both confess our love and admiration for Nimra Bucha’s portrayal of Raheela, Lena’s evil mother-in-law and share a teenage fangirling moment:
I’m obsessed with that woman. There’s something terrifying yet ultra sexy about her character in “Polite Society” that’s mesmerising. I absolutely loved the dance sequence. As South Asians, we’ve all grown up watching Bollywood films and idolising Madhuri Dixit’s iconic dance moves. “Polite Society” gave me my Bollywood heroine moment, and it was a dream come true with the costumes and jewellery.
It’s definitely a unique experience for Kansara, considering her former career was worlds apart from entertainment. So, what advice does she have for aspiring actors who may secretly wish to pursue the same path, but are unsure of the next steps? Kansara advises, drawing from her character’s heist-planning skills.
I believe starting small and honing your craft is an underrated superpower. If you’re passionate about acting, make short-form videos, and build your portfolio. You never know who might be watching.
So, grab your popcorn and your sense of humour, and get ready for “Polite Society” — the film that proves that sometimes, the most polite thing to do is kick some butt and save the day. It released in cinemas on April 28th, and I highly recommend it.
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.