North Texas has one of the largest Asian populations in the state. According to the U.S. Census, the city of Plano alone has an Asian population that is over five times the state average. Though there are organizations creating cultural experiences for locals to enjoy, some believe there should be more for it to properly represent the South Asian community.
FunAsia, a popular local South Asian radio station, organizes events and shows films in Bollywood movie houses in Richardson and Irving. IndieMeme partners with organizations and museums such as the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas to show independent films throughout North Texas.
Though IndieMeme primarily presents art house films and cinema verite, Bollywood is still the most prevalent form of South Asian media in the area.
One of the newest events to Plano aims to present the full spectrum of the culture and a more well-rounded view of what it means to be a part of the diaspora.
A conversation between Austin native and CEO of Jingo Media Jitin Hingorani and a friend from Dallas sparked the idea for North Texas’ inaugural DFW South Asian Film Festival (SAFF).
“The moment I had this realization was when I was talking to a friend of mine about the New York Indian Festival and the London Indian Festival, and she said, ‘We will never see anything like this in Dallas,’ and the thought occurred to me: Why not in an area that has such a large South Asian population?” Hingorani said.
In partnership with New York Indian Film Festival, Dallas International Film Festival and London Indian Film Festival, SAFF will feature 14 acclaimed films created by notable directors, producers and writers.
The Angelika Film Center and Cafe in Plano will be the backdrop for films that depict a variety of themes such as social issues, family dynamics, relationships, identity and more.
“We are an invitation film festival,” Hingorani said. “We spent a lot of time traveling and attending lots of film festivals. We’ve been scouring the Earth for these films. We’ve watched tons of films to see what would be a great fit for Dallas. We wanted to see what kind of awards they were winning and what type of reception they were receiving.”
The centerpiece gala, “SOLD,” has made a lot of noise in the international film festival world. Within the past year, the film has won many awards including Best Narrative Feature at the Albuquerque Film and Media Experience, the Audience Award at the River to River Indian Film Festival in Florence, and the Pure Heaven Audience Award at the London Indian Film Festival.
This film, based on the novel “SOLD” by Patricia McCormick, follows Lakshmi, a 13-year-old Nepali girl who’s sent to India by her stepfather in an arrangement to have her work off her family’s debt as a maid. This practice is prevalent in South Asia and is known as “debt bondage.” However, she soon finds out that she has actually been sold into sex slavery and will spend her days in a brothel called Happiness House. Lakshmi knows that she must escape and that being caught could mean her life.
Academy Award-winning director Jeffrey Brown and actress and producer Emma Thompson were the catalysts to bring the story to life.
“I read the book in one sitting and was deeply moved because it’s such an intimate first-person narrative,” Brown said. “You’re really in this kid’s shoes. I often call this book a prayer song poem because the chapters in this book are often one page or half a page, and it’s a very distilled fiction that is different from anything I’ve ever read. I really wanted to keep the spirit of that alive. It’s very much a slice of life and you, as a viewer or reader, are privy to a global human rights issue that is perpetuated largely on children all of the world.”
Brown said he was extremely calculated as the film was shot because of the book’s target audience.
“The book was written for high school kids, and frequently it’s an entry point for youth to understand the issue of human slavery,” Brown said. “It’s been translated into over 20 languages. So, turning it into a film was a razor’s edge because, on the one hand, we had to show the brutality and the reality, but balance it with the humanity of those caught in this issue.”
For Brown, one of the most poignant aspects of the book was the unabashedly dark, grim situations that the children of Happiness House would find themselves in. But, the resilient spirit and compassion that children naturally possess was highlighted throughout such tough circumstances.
He felt that if he wasn’t able to capture that, the film would be unsuccessful.
“That’s what the book did so beautifully. It went into such a dark situation and portrayed it with such beauty and grace. It went into the darkness but showed the natural ability of children to be compassionate and care for others. I really wanted people to come out of our movie deeply moved, but come out with a lot of hope.”
There are many films in the festival that tackle some deep-rooted issues within the South Asian community, but the festival committee chose to open the festival with a film that is universally relatable, “Brahmin Bulls.”
“The main characters are amazing,” Hingorani said. “The people around them are really amazing mainstream Hollywood actors. You know, you have Mary Steenburgen who’s won an Academy Award. We really wanted to open with this film because it’s relatable to everyone. Anyone can see themselves in this movie, but it also shows how Indians are apart of the American fabric.”
“Brahmin Bulls” was the product of stories exchanged by the director, Mahesh Pailoor, and his wife, Anu. Though it’s not autobiographical, many of the moments shared between the father and the son in the film were pulled from each of their lives.
“It’s interesting, because when you’re younger, you think that your parents are infallible,” Pailoor said. “But as you get older, you begin to see your parents for what they are – human.”
The story follows Sid Sharma, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy, who is a young man living in Los Angeles. His father, Ashok Sharma, played by Roshan Seth, decides to fly to Los Angeles to visit his estranged son without any previous notice. Though Sid initially believes his father is there to spend time with him, he later finds out his father is there to reconnect with the woman that got away.
“There are some anecdotes from my life,” Pailoor said. “There are certain characteristics about the father, and he’s like my dad. My dad showed up at my doorstop at 5 a.m., without telling me, from Maine. That’s the beginning of the film. There are other little anecdotes throughout the film that relate to my dad and that relationship.”
After a few attempts at creating a few short films during undergrad at NYU, he realized through conversations with his wife that this was the story they needed to tell.
He echoes Hingorani’s sentiments about wanting the movie to feel relatable to a wide audience.
“My parents came here in the ‘60s,” Pailoor said. “I think that since those times things have changed, and as a group we’ve become apart of the fabric of American culture. This is a universal story. They have issues from the past and things that lots of families go through.”
He did feel strongly that he wanted Indian people to be in the lead roles because of the lack of representation in mainstream and independent films.
“We showed the film at another festival, and one person that saw the movie thought that it was blind casting,” Pailoor said.
Blind casting is a term also known as “color blind casting” or “integrated casting” which means a role has been filled without any regard to the actor’s ethnicity.
“I think that’s exciting because it’s more representative of America,” Pailoor said. “The characters represent Los Angeles, which is such a melting pot of people. That’s how most places are in the world. So, for someone to not hone in on the fact that the main characters are Indian was refreshing to me.”
Each film will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the directors and some key actors from some of the films.