Another year of incredible films from the South Asian diaspora. The 2018 installment of the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (or IFFLA as it is commonly known), provided a wide range of stories, much like its 2017 slate. From a deep-dive into the mind and psyche of a notorious terrorist to a beautiful story of childhood innocence set in a small village town of India, IFFLA truly showcased quality character-portraits with each of its films.
These four films were some of our favorites from the impressive slate.
The always brilliant pair of director Hansal Mehta and actor Rajkummar Rao come together again for another complex character study with “Omerta.” IFFLA 2018’s opening night film follows the story of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British-born terrorist who is most notoriously known for the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. The film looks at the man behind the reputation — from his upbringing in England, to the start of his radical thinking, to the most horrific crimes he committed.
Rao is undeniably one of the best actors working in India today. His performances, even the most difficult to swallow, are always filled with distinct and evolved layers. His portrayal of Sheikh is no different. But make no mistake, this film does not seek to humanize a terrorist. Instead, it delves into Sheikh’s psyche and does not shy away from his radicalism or his evil acts.
We at Brown Girl Magazine did not see this film coming. Directed by Devashish Makhija (who assisted on Bollywood films “Black Friday” and “Bunty Aur Babli”), “Ajji” is the story of vigilantism, but in the least expected way possible. The story follows a grandmother who seeks revenge on the man who brutally rapes her 10-year-old granddaughter. While the film smartly does not show what happens to the young girl, it does show every aspect of the aftermath of the attack. “Ajji” is gritty and real, and shows a side of Mumbai not usually depicted onscreen in its most realistic fashion.
The star of “Ajji” is absolutely its ajji, played brilliantly by playwright and actress, Sushama Deshpande. She simultaneously shows the heartache and anger of her granddaughter’s situation. The steps she takes to get vengeance are beyond belief, but even in the most shocking moments, “Ajji” shows us that this grandmother’s love is more important than everything else.
A fascinating documentary ultimately about the human condition and finding love, “Lovesick” was easily one of the best non-fiction entries in IFFLA 2018. After discovering some of the earliest cases of HIV in India in the 1980s, Dr. Sunita Solomon left academia to start her own clinic dedicated to treating HIV/AIDS patients, even during the height of stigma and taboo attached to the diseases in the 1980s. After many decades, Solomon’s patients continued getting better and/or became more able to manage living with their diagnosis. But more and more of them were alone and then subjected to further scrutiny in the South Asian communities for being sick and unmarried.
Solomon’s idea to combat this issue? Creating a matchmaking service for HIV/AIDS patients looking to get married. “Lovesick” is shot over eight year and follows Manu and Karthik, two patients determined to find love. The documentary is shot with care and love and is ultimately both an informative and touching story of those living with a tough diagnosis, but finding the silver lining through care from their doctor and finding love with one another.
What can be said about “Village Rockstars” that can accurately explain how beautiful this film really is? The film follows kids from a small-town in Assam, India, as they attempt to put together a fake rock group, make their own toy instruments out of foam, and entertain the villagers with their joy and showmanship, even without playing the actual music. The film also follows Dhunu, (played by Bhanita Das), as her and her friends — both boys and girls — put together their sweet music group. But she must also deal with the monsoons in their village, and her first period, which starts her coming-of-age tale.
It may seem like a simple premise, but sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful. Director Rima Das expertly shows so much in her film without very much dialogue. In fact, there is one scene in the film where Dhunu and her brother just travel on a boat to look at the aftermath of a rainstorm that gives audiences more than any words could ever say. All we can say is “Village Rockstars” is just beautiful.
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
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.
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!