New York Diary:  
Encounter with Aroon Shivadasani and the 8th New York Indian Film Festival 
 - Sunil Kothari in New York
e-mail: sunilkothari1933@gmail.com 
 
 November 17, 2008   

Returning from Los Angeles to New York after an encounter with  Asha Puthli at  Hollywood, another encounter was with Aroon Shivadasani, the dynamic organizer, a friend and a contemporary of Protima Bedi, Shobha De and several other friends from St. Xavier's College, Bombay (Mumbai) in the early sixties. During the last ten years, Aroon has established the Indo American Arts Council as a most vibrant organization which has made a mark on the mainstream American arts scene, be it literature, theatre, dance or films. She is adding another feather in her cap by organizing next year in June 2009, the First Annual Music Festival named The Tandon Music Festival. 

She with her wonderful .dedicated team of volunteers and workers had held the First Indian Dance Festival 'Erasing Borders' 2008 in August,  which I missed as the visas for Canada were not issued in time. What I gathered from The New York Times and its detailed coverage for two successive issues, it was a runaway success.  Narthaki.com has carried the reviews and also a special feature by Rajika Puri. They are already planning the second edition for the next year in August 2009. 

When I arrived on the 7th floor at 146 West  29th Street, Suite 7R3 office of IAAC,  a five member team present there was busy attending to e-mails, phone calls, preparing logs, programme book and Somi Roy, the Festival Director along with Aroon greeted me with warmth and affection. Somi Roy is from Imphal, Manipur and we go back a long way because of our Manipuri dance connection. Aroon took time off to converse with me and brief me about the film festival.  

With her silver/grey hair and winning smile, she looked extremely energetic and we recalled our early days in Bombay, her interest in sports and theatre, staging of the plays, Satyadev Dube, Chhabildas Theatre Movement, E Alkazi and Alyque Padmasee, the English theatre and when she moved to America after marriage, their early days in different cities, children growing up, settling down in New York and beginnings of the institution, Indo American Arts Council. We had known each other for a long time and during my repeated visits to New York, I invariably attended the several functions she used to organize. Be it a book launch, an arts exhibition, or the staging of a play, we kept in touch along with  Jaswant Lalvani, another New Yorker friend of Asha Puthli.  

"Not easy," said Aroon, "when we began. Fifteen years ago it was not such a strong presence that we have of late of the Indian Diaspora in New York. It was an uphill task but with wonderful friends, supporters, donors, we took off registering it as not-for -profit, secular service and resource arts organization."     

"The aim has been to build awareness, creation, production, exhibition, publication and performance of Indian and cross-cultural art forms in North America. Naturally our focus is to work with artists and arts organizations in North America as well as to facilitate artists and arts organizations from India to exhibit, perform and produce their works here in America. What better place than New York?" Aroon was brimming with happiness as within a period of eight years the result of her hard work is bearing fruits. Indo American Arts Council (IAAC) has emerged as a forum for Indians in America and Indians from India and abroad, not only to meet, exchange ideas, and projects, but also to make their presence felt in an impressive manner. 

What strikes one at the very first meeting with Aroon is that she has no personal interest in these ventures. As on the inauguration of the 8th Mahindra Indo American Arts Council (MIAAC) Festival of Jazz at Lincoln Centre, Columbus Circle, Shabana Azmi fondly said that Aroon was mad to carry on but how fortunate "we all are that thanks to her madness Indian films have found a regular opening in the film festival in New York!" 
I told Aroon that I often receive e-mails from her and looked at the time she must have sent it - it was true, she used to send e-mail after midnight.  She works with such zeal and amazing energy! But there is a method in her madness. It is quite infectious, as it rubs off on others and all her colleagues work in that spirit to make the event most successful. 
I asked her about the present financial crisis in USA and its repercussions globally. 

"Indeed it is a hard year for everyone - and an even harder year for the arts community. Times like this invariably see huge cuts in arts support and funding. Unfortunately tightening our belts isn't the answer as our belts are already as tight as they can be without constricting our blood supply altogether." She continued with her characteristic sense of humour: "I will just tell you my dreams of a white knight charging up and relieving us all of our financial burdens… Of giving us a place of our own where we can foster, nurture, celebrate artists in each of the artistic disciplines, pay our wonderful staff what they deserve, provide artists with resources and funding, encourage emerging artists, be a centre where artists and all those interested in the arts can hang, feel at home…where all of us worker bees continue working with laughter, joy, and confirmed support…," she continued breathless, convincing whoever listened to her to share her dreams. 

"Sunil, this and other festivals educate North Americans about alternative, independent art house, Diaspora Indian films, encourage these film makers to push their boundaries, exposing them to the industry, enabling sales and distribution, while simultaneously giving audiences the best film choices. You must not miss this event. Write and share it with the readers. Be with us from 5th till 9th November and see for yourself what wonderful response we are receiving!" 
 
'Heaven on Earth' film by Deepa Mehta 
based on story of Nagamandala
Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor 
in a scene from 'Slumdog Millionaire'


I am glad I arrived in time and attended the gathering on the opening night with Deepa Mehta's film 'Heaven on Earth.' The glittering function was a get together of the leading lights of Indians settled in New York, the directors and actors from India, critics, film buffs, and people from different walks of life. You bump into Mira Nair, Sooni Taraporevala, Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor,  our own Ketan Mehta and Apoorva Lakhia, Sunanda Sen, Boman Irani,  the cast of the film 'Slumdog Millionaire' with the celebrated British director Danny Boyle,  Suketu Mehta, the author of 'The Maximum City' and many celebrities. Many a time, it is easier to meet them at leisure in New York than in New Delhi or Mumbai during the Film Festivals. The atmosphere was charged with excitement. The film medium attracts crowds and more so in New York. With two films having their world premiers the houses were full well before the screening time. It was next to impossible to get tickets and invitations and many film buffs had to forego seeing the films during the festival.  

From Imphal, Manipur, Somi Roy, the Festival director, is based in New York He has commendable reputation having organized Asian Film Festivals in New York in the past. We were delighted to meet at the office. He observed: "I had to build on the achievements of the preceding festivals and develop it in directions that would continue to serve Indian independent and South Asian Diaspora films and their makers. Apparently to generate further avenues of distribution and marketing built on an audience that was founded on the South Asian community and Americans interested in South Asia." To my question about the highlights of the festival he replied, "You will see the experimental filmmakers working in digital media technology as in Motiroti's 60X60 installations at the Aicon gallery. And several films made in regional languages besides the Bollywood films find a place in this festival including films like 'Shadows Formless.' Films like Bollywood Backstage, a side bar on the history, music, dances and stars of the popular all India Hindi film. Of course one feels privileged to get the film 'Slumdog Millionaire' for world premiere, to have Ketan Mehta's 'Colours of Passion' ('Rang Rasiya,' based on Raja Ravi Varma's life) and  Shyam Benegal's 'Bose: The Forgotten Hero,' and for closing film Sooni Taraporvala's directorial debut 'Little Zizou' in English, Gujarati and Hindi with subtitles. And you must not miss Aribam Shyam Sharma's documentary 'Mr. Manipur' in which the protagonist hits the gym after he comes down with AIDS, builds his body and wins the title of Mr. Manipur!" 
 
Poster of Ketan Mehta film 'Colors of Passion' 
(Hindi title 'Rang Rasiya') on Raja Ravi Varma
Mira Nair and Suketu Mehta


With so much to savour one did not want to miss at BAM the Sanskrit Opera 'Arjun's Dilemma' and some rare dance events. I told Aroon and Somi that like 'Arjun's Dilemma' I too had to face a dilemma - to attend what of this sumptuous fare! There were interesting talks and panel discussions which included a talk by Salman Rushdie and a dialogue between Mira Nair and Suketu Mehta which indeed were the highlights of the festival. 

I caught up with the short films 'Mr. Manipur' and 'Punches and Ponytails' about Indian  women boxers wrestling with their day to day existence. Both were fascinating films throwing light on unusual subjects. Shyam Benegal's 'Bose: The Forgotten Hero' (duration: 207 minutes) at Asia Society kept one engaged from the very start, and many in the audience, in particular the young, did not know much about Subhash Chandra Bose. Sachin Khedekar as Subhash Chandra Bose was impressive but one often felt that he could have developed his character more in particular when faced with the Azad Hind Sena crisis! Shyam Benegal uses all his directorial gifts keeping the audience glued to their seats.  

Ketan Mehta's film on Raja Ravi Varma's life and works is a memorable film, with contemporary resonances, in particular when the borders of tolerance are getting erased more and more and the print media also plays truant. M F Hussain's is a case which comes to mind and the intolerance suggested in the film against Raja Ravi Varma depicting gods and goddesses as sensuous personalities offending the 'keepers of the morals of the society' finds contemporaniety. Ketan Mehta in the Q and A after the screening explained that unless an artist is fearless, he cannot be an artist and therefore one has to value Raja Ravi Varma's approach. Also the beginning of modern painting starts with him. Not exactly biographical, the film succeeds in touching complex issues subtly and competently. Sunanda Sen's role as a model on whom Ravi Varma painted the mythological characters, brings alive the persona of the female in an arresting manner. Filmed with sensitivity it leaves an indelible impression. 

Before closing film 'Little Zizou,' I was lucky to see 'Slumdog Millionaire' and attend the after talk with the director and the cast moderated by Shashi Tharoor.  'Little Zizou' is extremely well made and has commendable direction, centering on the Parsee community, with whom being a Bombayite (Mumbaikar), one could easily connect. All actors including child actors play competently and naturally. Boman Irani of course steals the show. Sooni has touched upon the issues of exploitation of religious beliefs by sham religious leader, intolerance to print media when Boman Irani as a publisher/editor is compelled to close his newspaper when he exposes the ills that hound the society. It has a smooth engaging style and I suspect keeps interest of those familiar with the Parsee community, alive.   

The runaway success of 'Slumdog Millionaire' lies in the way the film is directed and the events are shown through flash back, keeping audiences at the edge of their seats. After 'Salaam Bombay' and in particular if you have read Suketu Mehta's 'Maximum City' and Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram novel,  you at once realize that the Bombay slums provide an interesting backdrop to film makers. From there to the various facets of a city like Bombay and its life, the mafias, and the dons, the police and the entire system which does not allow a mere  young boy serving chaipani, to achieve his dream of 'Kaun Banega Krorepati,' is depicted in a manner which invariably succeeds in winning the audiences over. In particular, the Bombayites would love it. The system does not want to believe that 'a slum dog' with no formal education can know the answers to the questions posed. The game show becomes the protagonist Jamal's biggest life test. And our sympathy lies with him. Irfan Khan as a police officer, Dev Patel from London as Jamal and Anil Kapoor asking questions impress us as do the children paying Jamal, Salim and Latika. And excellent filming of the city. 

Shashi Tharoor asked the director if it was an Indian film to which he replied that it was a British film looking at India, its slums and the human quality that is seen among the slum dwellers. Reams have now been written about the film. The New York Times critic has, no wonder,  praised it and there is a buzz that the film may get Academy Award/s also. Not to be missed. 

When I look back I realize that such film festivals and other endeavours on part of IAAC, place Indian Diaspora as pioneers who carve a niche for Indian presence through various expressions of art, classical dance, music, theatre, literature and films. Of all the media, the film is the most powerful medium. Here is to wish Aroon Shivadasani and her colleagues all the best. She has already sent me 'call for the papers and entries' for Erasing Borders dance festival and seminar second edition to be held in August 2009! 

 

Dr. Sunil Kothari, dance historian, scholar, author, is a renowned dance critic, having written for The Times of India group of publications for more than 40 years. He is a regular contributor to Dance Magazine, New York. Dr. Kothari is a globetrotter, attending several national, international dance conferences and dance festivals. He has to his credit more than 14 definitive works on Indian classical dance forms. Kothari was a Fulbright Professor and has taught at the Dance Department, New York University; has lectured at several Universities in USA, UK, France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan. He has been Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific (2000-2008) and is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. A regular contributor to www.narthaki.com, Dr Kothari is honored by the President of India with the civil honor of Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi award.