For the past few years, the stated goal of the South Asian Film Festival has been to go "Beyond Bollywood." It's a noble mission, since South Asian films that don't conform to the saturated colors and song-and-dance numbers of mainstream Indian cinema have been historically neglected in their home country. And SAFF's approach – showcasing accessible dramas and comedies that don't qualify as art-house fare, but are still far more thoughtfully crafted and nuanced than most Bollywood movies – has proven to be successful.
For this year's edition, though, the programmers are faced with something of a dilemma: Despite the occasional highlight like the gritty Gangs of Wasseypur or the blatant Oscar-bait of Barfi, Bollywood's recent output has been notably awful and exemplary of a craven industry's worst tendencies. (Imagine if, for a year, Hollywood only gave you infinite variations on The Bourne Legacy, Project X and Adam Sandler movies.) Going "beyond" that? Well, that doesn't take a whole lot of work. Thankfully, though, the only laziness this year's SAFF reveals is that of the mainstream Indian cinema industry.
The contrast between the gloss and dross of Big Bollywood and the intimate storytelling that the SAFF specializes in is perfectly illustrated by the inclusion of Big in Bollywood (11 a.m. Sunday), a film that takes an American-born Indian, drops him into the making of one of Bollywood's most recent real-life blockbusters (3 Idiots), and basically inverts all the clichés about nonresident Indians that provide the oxygen for nearly every current Bollywood comedy or drama. Also on this year's program: Abu, Son of Adam (1:30 p.m. Sunday) is a slice-of-life drama about an older Muslim couple in south India who undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca; Valley of Saints (1:45 p.m. Saturday) took home two awards at Sundance 2012 and tells the story of the economic, cultural and ecological struggles that everyday Kashmiris face; West Is West (11 a.m. Saturday) is the sequel to 1998's East Is East, with a lighthearted look at intra-familial culture clashes among Pakistanis in England.
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