People often underestimate short films. They think it’s easy to make, easy to write, cheap, frivolous, and unable to tell a real story – but that is far from the truth. The art of making a short film is challenging. It requires careful story telling in a finite amount of time and the skill to leave a long lasting impression that cannot usually be reinforced by billboards and Instagram stories.
The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles — aka IFFLA — proved this year that Bollywood films like “Student of The Year” (which, don’t get me wrong, that movie is straight fire) are not the pinnacle of Indian storytelling. Here are some breakout short films that left a lasting impression with me because of how well they tackled perspective.
Written and directed by debut filmmaker Shazia Iqbal, “Bebaak” is a stellar portrayal of the constant battle we face in the war of tradition vs. self. When unable to rely on her cash-strapped family to further her education, an ambitious and fiercely independent young Muslim woman seeks out a scholarship from a conservative Muslim trust. When she discovers that the money comes with strings attached, her liberal Muslim values are put to the test.
As first-generation children, we often forget that we are not the only ones who struggle with how we let tradition dictate our modern lifestyles; youngsters in India also struggle with identity, whilst immersed in the very repression they are trying to fight. It was truly eye opening to see this conflict depicted from a different angle. Shazia comes from the production design world, and works closely with Anurag Kashyap (who is also a producer on “Bebaak”).
Directed by Rishi Chandna, “Tungrus” is the perfect mocu-short and the best pallet cleanser after a lineup of somber short films. When Mr. Bharde brought home a baby chick thinking it would make a fun toy for his cats, he could never imagine that the bird would grow into an obstinate and entitled rooster, wreaking havoc on the family’s cramped Mumbai apartment and spreading terror to cats and humans alike. Six months later, the eccentric patriarch struggles to reclaim his household from the reins of this formidable pet bird which his wife and sons have come to consider a beloved, albeit annoying, family member.
While I laughed my ass off for the entirety of this film, I didn’t ignore the truly incredible storytelling. I really admire the way Rishi was able to use humor as a companion to the underlying themes of family and unconditional love. I never thought I’d write a positive review for a movie about a rooster.
Written and directed by Ashish Pandey, “Nooreh” is an endearing portrait of border life told through the eyes of a naïve young girl. Set in Kashmir, the film introduces us to young Nooreh whose life in a small village on the Indian-Pakistani border is disrupted by daily crossfire. One night, Nooreh discovers that she can control the gun battle by keeping her eyes open and vows to constantly stay awake.
Using Nooreh as the forefront of this film was not only clever but extremely effective. In a time where we are bombarded with visceral images of war and violence and forced by the media to “take sides,” Nooreh provided a perspective that I forgot even existed — a naïve girl who only knows that she likes to study. The film ends with the whole town of children deciding they shouldn’t sleep all under the impression that it will stop the gun fire.
IFFLA continues its grand tradition of showcasing great short films that should not be ignored, even amongst their flashier feature-length narrative and documentary selections. The directors of these short films deserve a spotlight and more opportunities for their work to be displayed to the world.
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.
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh is known for creating a mix of stylish (read: Channing Tatum-starring “Magic Mike”) and influential films (like “Traffic”).
It’s no surprise to see his name attached to stars like Claire Danes, Dennis Quaid, Timothy Olyphant, Jim Gaffigan and writer Ed Solomon (of “Men in Black” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” fame). But a story about the Guyanese community in Queens, New York was quite unexpected.
“Full Circle” is a whirlwind thriller that released in July on the streaming platform Max.
The six-part mini-series centers around the foiled kidnapping of Jared Browne (played by Ethan Stoddard), the son of Samantha and Derek Browne (Danes and Olyphant) and grandson of celebrity “Chef Jeff” McCusker (Quaid).
The scheme is devised by Savitri Mahabir (played by CCH Pounder of “Avatar” and “NCIS: New Orleans”), a wealthy Guyanese businesswoman with a host of nefarious ventures, and her right-hand man, Garmen Harry (Phaldut “Paul” Sharma). Mahabir is seeking revenge for the recent murder of her brother-in-law by rival Edward Chung, but what does this have to do with the Brownes?
The answer to this question and the unraveling of other dark secrets is what “Full Circle” is all about.
Now, if this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The show is fast-paced and makes good use of cliffhangers to keep you watching, but, frankly, the episodes are shaky — quite literally in terms of camera work and figuratively.
Early on, Soderbergh darts between stylish, abstract shots of objects in the shadows and minute details that may create an air of mystery, but ultimately just confuses viewers, raising questions that never get answered.
Most of the acting also leans toward melodrama, but many of the supporting cast members — particularly Sharma and Zazie Beetz (as Detective Mel Harmony) — are commendable, delivering natural performances with the right doses of intimidation and snark.
On paper, the plot of “Full Circle” has all the pieces for suspense, but writer Ed Solomon seems to lack confidence in the viewer to figure it all out, opting against compelling revelations in favor of long-winded monologues summarizing everything for the viewer. This is needed, unfortunately, as most other dialogues are unproductive; consisting solely of characters responding to questions with more questions.
Another major point of contention is the portrayal of Guyana and the Guyanese community.
While The Hollywood Reporter suggests the team had several creative consultants, those with knowledge of the country could say the series actually offers a convoluted image.
The attention of Guyanese viewers like myself may pique hearing familiar words like pickney (children) and bad eye (evil eye) and catching glimpses of Georgetown. Those in Queens may smirk at the mention of real-life venue, Gemini’s Lounge, but other elements arguably come off as reductive and a bit unflattering.
The Guyanese characters are the antagonists. Mahabir is shown lying, cheating, stealing and plotting murders with a smile on her face. She doesn’t use facts or strategy to guide her actions, but Obeah practices and fear of curses.
The casting of these roles is also up for debate considering several staging choices were made by the creators.
For example, an early scene shows a Hindu funeral with a pandit reciting prayers and a chowtal (North Indian classical music) group sitting by in white kurtas and shalwars. This is a familiar sight for many Indo Caribbeans but, as the camera pans, audiences are introduced to several Afro-identifying actors playing the mourning family including Pounder and Jharrel Jerome (as Mahabir’s nephew, Aked).
Guyana is a diverse nation where cultures and racial identities often intermingle and, of course, there very well can be Afro-Guyanese Hindus with Indian names, but one could argue the series missed a huge opportunity to offer rare Indo Guyanese representation in these roles.
While Pounder (born in Guyana) and Jerome are talents with impressive resumes, it begs the question if they were the right talents for the roles. To some viewers, the answer is no.
“Guyana is trending right now. There’s the oil, the booming tourism, chefs on TV and Instagram,” shared Sonia, a young Indo Guyanese woman from Queens, reflecting on the show with me. “In that way, I’m happy [the country is] on people’s radar, but [it seems like] nobody looked into the characteristics of the people before casting. Some things are just not culturally correct. The Obeah is dubious and the Guyanese accents will leave you scratching your head.”
This reaction is not surprising. Aside from Pounder and Sharma, none of the cast is Guyanese, let alone Caribbean. In fact, Pounder shared in an interview that pages of the script were rewritten several times to play with Guyanese elements.
To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators had difficulty finding actors for the characters, especially Indo Caribbean actors. But for those familiar with the country, “Full Circle” could appear to have haphazardly mixed the actors as well as bits and pieces from a variety of Guyanese cultures in an attempt to create a catch-all portrayal, rather than a necessarily accurate one.
Today, there are talks of not one, but two Jim Jones biopics starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon Levitt, respectively, but Guyana is more than the dark history of Jonestown or shady acts like those orchestrated by Mahabir.
Guyana is a country with a rich history, diverse culture and proud people. As one of the first high-profile Hollywood productions to highlight Guyana, it’s disappointing to see “Full Circle” fall into Jonestownian tropes of using it simply as a poverty-stricken place to be exploited, where people will do anything for money and personal gain.
While it’s exciting to see Guyana and the Queens community in a mainstream series and to hear Hollywood bigwigs utter names like Essequibo, “Full Circle” also exemplifies just how much room for growth there is in Indo Guyanese representation.
Hopefully “Full Circle” is just the first of many productions to explore Guyanese culture and, in the near future, we can escape the negative stereotypes that remain so prevalent. For the time being, the series is one that leaves a lot to be desired on many fronts.
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.