IFFLA 2021: Women Take the Spotlight in Shorts Programs

IFFLA Forever Tonight Still

If there is anything positive that has come out of the pandemic, it has to be greater virtual accessibility – the opportunity of watching and being part of events, even if we are located miles away from the place of origin. And that, too, from the comfort of our homes. IFFLA, the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, is currently hosting it’s 19th edition virtually for both audiences in California and India, giving cinephiles a chance to witness an ensemble of 40 films including features, documentaries and short films reflecting the diversity of cultures within the Indian community.

A notable feature of IFFLA this year is that it is showcasing the works of 16 Indian women filmmakers – both emerging and established. And part of it’s four short-film programs is one dedicated entirely to the female perspective, giving us an early glimpse of the enigma these women are on their way to become. While all other categories also have women contributors, the “Shorts Program 1: A Female Lens” focuses solely on stories of strength, resilience, empowerment and identity in relation to women, from different walks of life, through the lens of another woman. The program includes five films – each of them packed with raw talent, nuanced techniques and powerful depictions of the issues at hand.


IFFLA Anita Still

Directed by Sushma Khadepaun, the short Anita has already had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last year and has garnered rave reviews from audiences and critics alike and with reason. The 17-minute film takes a subtle yet gripping look into the everyday patriarchal pressures of Indian society and how the possibility of complete independence is unfortunately a delusion for the South Asian woman, who may think she has more liberty and agency once she has distanced herself from the environment.

Aditi Vasudev plays the titular character of Anita, a young Gujarati woman from the US who is visiting her hometown for her sister’s wedding. She is excited to share the news of her new job with her rather conservative family and insists her supportive husband (Mitra Ghadvi) stand by her in her quest for financial independence. But her belief of being liberated from the patriarchal system of her hometown, having now moved abroad, is quickly shattered when her husband too seems to have a change of heart amidst mounting pressure from her elders. What follows is the 6-minute long scene of sexual intimacy and shifting power dynamics that changes Anita’s life and outlook completely.

Khadepaun is brilliant in capturing Anita’s rush of emotions and her shock at the world she is deeply connected to. Her depiction of the Gujarati household is authentic and relatable. While Vasudev carries on the weight of Anita’s vulnerabilities and helplessness with the utmost panache. Word is Khadepaun is in the midst of extending this short to a full-length feature – titled Salt – and if this brief insight into her impactful storytelling is anything to go by, Salt already feels like a promising project.


IFFLA the song we sang Still

In “The Song We Sang,” director Aarti Neharsh explores a world full of possibilities – the possibility of two young women walking the streets of Ahmedabad alone at night without the fear of uncomfortable gazes and more looming in their minds. And the possibility of connecting and developing a special bond with the same gender without the existence of flinching eyes and the drama of a homophobic world. It’s a world in rarity but one that Neharsh makes realisable in this heart-warming escape of a film.

The two women, Alia and Krishna, are not necessarily defined as LGBTQ and the film itself may not necessarily fall into the category either. It really is what it is – a sincere and deceptively simple take on an overnight romantic adventure shared between two individuals regardless of gender. The possibility of an outcome from a chance happening if certain opportunities and moments were to be seized in time.

The film doesn’t leave you sympathising for it’s main characters but merely feeling happy for them and warm inside. In an earlier interview, Neharsh said, “Cinema, I believe, is a great medium to forget about the bitter truths of reality and escape into a world where one can dream.” The Song We Sang is that dream where mutuality and just being human is all that matters.


IFFLA Forever Tonight Still

Shweta Regunathan’s 11-minute take on the roller coaster emotions of a South Asian-American teenager will probably hit home for many who have grown up as part of the diaspora. Strong and spirited but an introvert, teenager Lekha escapes her Indian mother’s curfew to live her prom night dreams but what transpires changes her outlook completely making her retaliate in a way she didn’t expect her American teenager self to. It’s as if a quiet storm had always been brewing inside and her coping mechanism just took flight.

In a fairly limited amount of time, Regunathan touches upon a number of crucial themes – the existing racism and stereotyping in American households, the pressures of navigating a mix of cultures as a teenager of colour, the desperate efforts at fitting into the crowd and yet the endless feeling of an outsider in a world you consider your own.

Actor Nivita Chaliki tackles the raw complexity of her muddled character without strain and Regunathan captivates with her crisp storytelling and her depiction of cross-generational and inter-cultural conflict.


IFFLA For Each Other

Ramen, a flirtatious and free-spirited tempo driver, and Malti, a young earnest shop-owner who makes the village’s best sweet snack – Pitha, share a closeness in this quaint Assamese village. They share both time and dreams and hope for a future amidst an almost child-like romance. But a sudden, unexpected change from the mundane puts their commitment to test. Will they hold onto each other is what the movie sets out to discover.

Rima Das’ short is a breath of fresh air with it’s gentle interpretation of community living and interpersonal relationships. It’s not a tired and sharp critique of a budding village romance and nor does it rely heavily on melodramatic reactions of those surrounding the protagonists. Instead, it weaves in humour and celebrates both the close connections that villagers share and the differences that set them apart.

Dorothie Bharadwaj is innocent and gullible as Malti and Lakshaya Sharma is the flamboyant Romeo and the only source of connection for the villagers with the outside world. Both leads own their struggles and life stories with an almost enviable contentedness. There is just something so warm, intimate and kind about the way the film has been shot. While essentially the film is about it’s two lead artists, it showcases a wide range of characters, each with their own set of intricacies. In short, what Das really is portraying is that there is beauty in the simple life – as monotonous as it may be.

These four films are only part of the extensive, incredible line-up from IFFLA this year. The festival boasts of some engrossing and award-winning films and will also feature Akshay Indikar’s “Sthalpuran” (Chronicle of Space) on it’s closing night, with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap moderating a Q&A session with the director.

By Nida Hasan

Managing Editor at Brown Girl Magazine, Nida has worked and written for several publications in a journalism career spanning almost … Read more ›

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History — A Review of Sundance’s ‘Polite Society’

Polite Society

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. 

[Read Related: Poorna Jagannathan and Richa Moorjani of Netflix’s ‘Never Have I Ever’ on Womanhood, Racism, and Issues Generations of Desi Women Still Struggle With]

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. 

Polite Society
Director Nida Manzoor, cinematographer Ashley Connor and actor Priya Kansara on the set of their film “Polite Society.”

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.

[Read Related: Ms. Marvel’s Iman Vellani and Mohan Kapur Talk Cultural Pride, Hollywood and Brown Representation]

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. 

Photo Credits: Focus Features LLC

By Nimarta Narang

Born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, Nimarta grew up devouring Hindi movies, coming-of-age novels and one too many psychology textbooks. … Read more ›

‘It Lives Inside’: Of Late Night Terrors and South Asian Representation

Photo Courtesy: NEON © 2023

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. 

[Read Related: Megan Suri Talks ‘Never Have I Ever’ Season 2 & Decolonizing South Asian Mindsets]

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. 

It Lives Inside
The character Tamira is seen carrying an ominous black jar in the early stages of the film. Photo Credit: NEON © 2023

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.

It Lives Inside
Mohana Krishnan plays the distraught Tamira in “It Lives Inside.” Photo Credit: NEON © 2023

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 drama tells 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.

[Read Related: Kamala Khan As ‘Ms Marvel’ Is The Greatest Thing To Happen To Pakistani-Muslim-Americans]

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. 

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By Ramona Sukhraj

With a B.S. in Marketing from the UCONN School of Business, Ramona has made a name for herself publishing over … Read more ›

The Poetry Film Breaking Genres and National Borders

“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.

This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.

[Read Related: Poetry That Reflects the Fire Inside]

[Read Related: A Bengali Muslim Boy’s Poetic Journey Through Himself]

After So Long (English Translation)

Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long

Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
Kya karu?
(What should I do?)
Kaha jau?
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
Barso baad.
(After so long)

I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long

Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
Wahi dil,
(The same heart)
Baarso baad.
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)

[Read Related: How to Follow Your Heart, Even When it’s Hard]


Poem by Simha & Jae
Produced by Star Hopper Studios
Directed by Varsha Panikar
Cinematography and grading by Tanmay Chowdhary
Editing by Asawari Jagushte
Featuring Vaishakh Sudhakaran
Music Production by Simha
Hindi editing by Rama Garimella
Recited by Simha, Rama Garimella, Annaji Garimella
English Translation by Nhylar

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By Varsha Panikar

Varsha Panikar (they/he) is a filmmaker, writer and multi-disciplinary artist from India. They are the co-founder of Star Hopper, a … Read more ›