South Asian Voices - Making Waves
For the 10th edition of the Monthly, we look at the international film festival circuit
and the representation of South Asian voices and narratives within the domain.
International Film Festivals bring together cinematic voices from all across the globe and give creators a platform to showcase their work and reach global audiences. But how successful have these festivals been in echoing non-western voices, in putting forth the stories of people beyond the West, and in giving a platform to native and South Asian voices? Let’s take a look at some prominent film festivals in the world and their representation of South Asian Cinema.
Illustration: Yash Saxena
The first-ever South Asian Lodge at Sundance
The Sundance Film Festival began in 1985 but it was only in January 2023 the festival held its first South Asian Lodge - a collaboration with 1497, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting and uplifting South Asian talent in the American film and TV industry. It took 38 years for the festival to host its first-ever South Asian Lodge, revealing how far we have come but also how much further we have to go.
How is the first-ever South Asian Lodge significant? It spanned over 2 days and marked the celebration of 20 years of Bend it Like Beckham, the first South Asian representation in the festival. Gurinder Chadha's film was the first to represent the South Asian diaspora in the West, a story about cross-cultural navigation in the West, told from an immigrant’s lens. The lodge brought a lineup of artists and creators of South Asian origins together, to participate in panel discussions celebrating the exchange of such stories, thus paving the way for many such spaces to exist.
2022, the year that was!
Over the past year, many South Asian films have gained recognition in various film festivals. All That Breathes - a film by Shaunak Sen received the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was featured in Cannes' special screenings. Joyland was the first Pakistani film in Cannes' official selection, it explores the story of a young boy falling in love with a trans-woman within a traditional Pakistani family. The films that made it big were unconventional and focused on minority representation with beautiful, humane stories.
Film festivals offer a platform for storytelling, allowing films that struggle to find a place in their own home grounds. For instance, releasing Joyland in Pakistan was a different battle altogether given the backlash it faced from the extremist factions in the country. All That Breathes, on the other hand, tells the story of two brothers protecting Black Kites in Delhi during the 2020 anti-Muslim riots, highlighting the dichotomy between their work and the Indian state's treatment of Muslims. Film festivals provide an opportunity for these stories to reach a global audience and create a significant impact.
Faridah Gbadamosi, a senior programmer at Tribeca Festival says “Before the pandemic, a lot of marginalized voices were only shown on screen as trauma voices. Films were only being programmed from the standpoint of trauma. If the stories we're telling from those spaces are only trauma stories, we’re inherently saying that those excluded communities only exist to be traumatized. Except during the pandemic, a lot of these festivals realized that the world's in a really hard time right now. We need to navigate the way we tell stories and make sure we are telling stories that are not hopeless.”
Illustration: Yash Saxena
Diving into 2023
South Asian cinema had a strong presence at the 73rd Berlinale with 30 official selections, including 8 Indian films and 11 Berlinale talents. Five South Asian films made it to Cannes in 2023. Indian director Kanu Behl’s Agra and Canadian-Pakistani filmmaker Zarrar Kahn’s In Flames, were screened in the Director’s Fortnight event, while Anurag Kashyap's film Kennedy had its premiere as part of the midnight screenings, filmmaker Yudhajit Basu’s Marathi film Nehemich was the only Indian origin film playing in the competitive section. The film was a part of the La Cinef Section, which features a selection of student films. Afghan Director Sahra Mani’s documentary Bread and Roses had a special screening at the festival. The film revolves around the lives of three women in Afghanistan after the resurgence of the Taliban.
In the year 2022, the commercial Indian film RRR saw massive success at international festivals and the upcoming Tribeca Festival will feature Om Raut’s Adipurush - as part of the midnight offering. However, these films have drawn criticism for their hyper-Hindu nationalistic tendencies. While some festivals showcase mainstream films to increase audience outreach, its impact may change the perception of Indian cinema on the global stage, it also risks becoming the standard against which mainstream Indian films are accepted internationally and the values and messages it upholds.
Where do we stand?
The USC Annenberg and Times Up study from 2017-2019 showed that only 8% of filmmakers in competition at the top 5 film festivals were women of color. Increasing diversity in the programming teams is crucial to address this gap.
Sundance, Cannes, and TIFF have implemented various initiatives to increase diversity, including mentorship
and funding programs.
Sundance has the Diversity Initiative, which includes multiple programs to reach out to storytellers
from underrepresented communities and regions.
The Cannes Can: Diversity Collective was created in 2017 to increase diversity in the advertising and marketing
industry at the Cannes film festival.
TIFF in collaboration with NBCUniversal launched the Every Story fund in 2021, to support the stories of
diverse filmmakers. TIFF also has a Media Inclusion Initiative.
While it's important for South Asian voices to reach global festivals, it's also important to redefine the bigness of these festivals and explore the relevance of regional festivals that echo our stories and our voices. Expanding the horizons of regional film festivals is key to reclaiming and redefining the meaning of "global”. There also needs to be a conscious effort for South Asian countries to come together and explore the potential for collaboration, have conversations about what it truly means to have our voices heard, and recognize our collective strength to pave the way forward.
Faridah Gbadamosi says “My job is to make this industry more diverse and how do I change the people whose voices are deciding what's good and what's bad. An awareness comes from having lived experiences, which cannot be taught. My goal is to bring in more programmers of color, more queer programmers, and more South Asian programmers. To represent diverse stories, you have to change who the programmers are.”