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Toronto International Film Festival Features South Asian Films

Bharat Chari

Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna….Kabhul Express….The Namesake … Shame….A Cry in the Dark…Maati May…A Grave-Keeper’s Tale…Vanaja….The Fall ---  this was a special year of South Asian films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), one of the top film festivals and film premiere launch pads in the world.  This year’s film festival, September 7-16th , marked 31 years of the festival and welcomed over 500 international stars and guests.  Directors, actors, industry professionals and film aficionados all congregated on the streets and at cinema houses of downtown Toronto to preview and discuss some of the most anticipated films in the world.  

South Asia’s artistic presence was definitely felt at this festival.  Whether it was the sold-out intimate discussion like “Making of a Bollywood Blockbuster” or screaming fans at packed red-carpet events --- the South Asian influence was strongly felt.  A passionate Shah Rukh Khan noted, “We are proud of what we do … the chance to spread the word … to be able to explain to the market in the world that there is cinema that has been working for many years and has survived”.  This sentiment resonated even more as throughout the week more South Asian films were showcased, with content platforms that showed the true opportunity for integration of these films into more mainstream cinema audiences throughout the world.

The content of these movies was centered around universal themes … themes that are seeded at the heart of life whether it’s in Bombay, Toronto, New York, or a village in Pakistan.  Topics touched on love and extra-marital affairs, integration of an immigrant into a new country/culture, life in war-torn environments, and devastating aspects of unfounded revenge.

One of the major films to be screened at the festival was Director Karan Johar’s film, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (“Never Say Goodbye”).  The film was the first ever Bollywood film to be presented as a Gala screening at TIFF, which brought the director and the two iconic actors, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan to attend the festival on September 10th.  The dynamic trio spoke about the making of the film and conveyed their passion and importance of spreading the word of Indian cinema at the morning press conference and then later in the afternoon arrived at the red carpet in front of thousands of screaming fans for the film’s Gala screening at the famous Roy Thomson Hall Theater.  The film has already broken overseas box office records for a Bollywood film but has also generated buzz around it’s non-conventional subject matter of extra marital affairs.  Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna has raised questions and as director Karan Johar pointed out to the audience right before the screening, “it’s a film that makes you go back home and think”.   The Sunday Bollywood extravaganza finished with, The Making of a Bollywood Blockbuster, a very intimate and special live discussion between the trio and author Seketu Mehta.

One of the rarities of the festival was a documentary entitled, “Shame”.  It was directed by Pakistani director Mohammed Naqvi and told the story of a courageous woman, Mukhtaran Mai who was gang-raped in a village in Pakistan when the village’s tribal council sanctioned a punishment against her for a crime allegedly committed by her younger brother.  The documentary tells the horrific story of what happened and captures Mukktaran Mai’s determination to fight for women’s rights and to put a stop to such inhumane acts.  The film itself is not complete but the audience in Toronto got to watch the latest version of the documentary with Mukhtaran Mai and Mohammed Naqvi in attendance. “Shame” will later be aired on the Showtime channel.   

Mira Nair’s highly anticipated, “The Namesake” received a very positive reaction in Toronto. “Welcome to probably the most personal film I’ve made”, the director had pointed out as she introduced the film to the sold out audience at Toronto’s Elgin Theater.  The film is based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri and touches on the cross-cultural identity experience and importance of the parent/ child relationship. Leading actress Tabu, who Mira Nair referred to as the soul of the film was also in attendance and pointed out the film helped her understand her own mother better.  As in her earlier work, Ms. Nair captures the intricate details that are ever so important.

As South Asian films continue to have an impact on the worldwide film arena --- we’ll see more and more presence in film festivals like TIFF.  In fact, a key alliance made recently was between up & coming powerhouse UTV and popular actor Will Smith.  This type of deal along with the wonderfully powerful content that was showcased at TIFF promises to finally put Bollywood and other other South Asian cinema top-of-mind and highly-sought in the worldwide film circuit.

---Bharat Chari

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