South Asian Film Fest Continues Legacy of Amplifying Underrepresented Voices

Photo Submitted by The Chicago South Asian Film FestivalFestival

Photo Submitted by The Chicago South Asian Film FestivalFestival

alt text By Tessine Murji, Reporter, The Real Chi

The Chicago South Asian Film Festival’s historic 10th edition took place this past weekend.

This year’s festival showcased 60 films screened at Showplace ICON Theatre, Depaul University and Venue SIX10. The directors and actors involved come from all over the South Asian subcontinent and its North American diaspora. The features and shorts screened explore multiple factions of South Asian identity and aim to provide audience members with a  holistic perspective on South Asian culture.

Amit Rana, president and co-founder of CSAFF, said the organization is a pioneering force in championing independent South Asian voices; that over the course of ten years the festival successfully cultivated a space for South Asian artists to exist beyond the bollywood paradigm.

“The first festival was our first hurrah,” said Rana. “It’s our 10th anniversary, we run a well-oiled machine now. We have sponsors, a community, it’s evolved into something really great.”

“South Asian history is exceptionally queer.”

According to Rana, the first festival screened 16 films. It’s evolved over time to include more filmmakers as South Asian independent cinema as an industry has grown. 

To the western world, South Asian cinema is synonymous with Bollywood- choreographed love stories brought to life with color and extravagance. These films are escapist in nature; whimsical and indulgent. While they’re integral to South Asian culture, Bollywood as a genre doesn’t highlight everyday life, it doesn’t tell stories specific to the South Asian experience. 

“We wanted to explore the modern Asian American experience,” said Nirav Bhakta, co-director of Halwa, a short film about a mother who rekindles a fractured relationship from her childhood. Bkhata and co-director Gayatri Bajpai won HBO’s 2019 Asian Pacific American Visionaries competition, a competition that aims to provide viewers with a “unique lens into the challenges and victories of overcoming obstacles from the perspective of an Asian Pacific American cinematic storyteller.” 

“Our inspiration came from truth,” said Bhakta, who was referencing the way South Asians are often portrayed as caricatures through the uninformed western lens. “We initially had a conversation about authentic representation with our lead actress, who gave us insight into what it’s like to be an Indian mother.” 

"Indian women in the media are either portrayed as a doctor, an engineer or as someone exotic. In reality, we're all different and I just want to tell our story."

Omar Rahim, director of Agency, a short film that follows a gay couple who asks their best friend to be a surrogate for them, echoed Bhakta’s sentiments entirely and stressed the importance of giving LGBTQ South Asian voices a platform in the West. 

“South Asian history is exceptionally queer,” said Rahim. “British colonialism brought ideas of homophobia to the region.”

Rahim said Agency is important because it portrays South Asians as complex individuals who belong to several intersecting identities instead of as static caricatures depicted from a euro-centric point of view.

Similarly, Gayatri Patel Bahl, writer, director, producer and actor of Tina, a pre-feature-short psychological thriller that follows a woman who is haunted by Indian classical dancers, said there really isn’t a defined career path for South Asian women to exercise artistic autonomy in the West. She hopes her film contributes to a growing repertoire of South Asian women in media who will be able to shift narratives and open the door to more representation in the future.

"Indian women in the media are either portrayed as a doctor, an engineer or as someone exotic. In reality, we're all different and I just want to tell our story," said Patel Bahl.