A caste of thousands

With the world (and the India/Pakistan region in particular) in a state of turmoil, one might expect to find the South Asian Film Festival lobbing some inflammatory celluloid salvos of its own. Instead, the event's eighth annual edition -- set for Saturday, Feb. 2, through Monday, Feb. 4, at Maitland's Enzian Theater, and again co-presented by the Asian Cultural Association -- is putting on a proverbial happy face. And that's just how the ACA's program director, Jasbir Mehta, wants it.

"We thought we would lighten things up a little bit," says Mehta, who selects the festival's features each year in collaboration with Matthew Curtis, Enzian's director of programming. "`Since Sept. 11`, I think all of us have gone through a somber time. This is our way of dealing with it."

"Somber" is certainly not the word for "Lagaan," an uplifting epic, the screening of which on Sunday, Feb. 3, is the festival's centerpiece. A mammoth, majestic melodrama set in the India of 1893, the movie sees the inhabitants of a small farming village taking part in a crucial game of cricket against their British oppressors. At stake: The crippling tax the villagers owe the dreaded "Whities," which will be waived if the novice cricketers win.

"Lagaan," India's entry in the Academy Awards' 2002 Best Foreign Film competition, is also the festival's first-ever "Bollywood" picture -- a populist and commercial strain of that nation's cinema. Writer/ director Ashutosh Gowariker stuffs his story with sporting action, romance and comedy, and even works in six expertly staged musical numbers. Nearly four hours long, the film breezes by in a rush of pageantry and fun. (Still, to fend off widespread leg cramping, the Sunday, Feb. 3, screening of "Lagaan" will be bisected by an intermission, during which Ashok Rane, a visiting film professor from Mumbai, will speak on the subject of Indian cinema.)

The same genre "Lagaan" vindicates is sent up in Saturday's "Bollywood Calling," an uneven but clever satire in which a down-on-his-luck American actor (Pat Cusick) accepts a role in a Bollywood production, only to gain an invaluable education in the industry's peccadilloes. (Rule No. 1: Don't expect anyone to show up on the set before noon.) Mehta considers it a mark of the Indian audience's "maturity" that the self-parodying "Bollywood Calling" has been well-received at home, though its in-joke overtones make it a slightly harder sell to the segment of the festival's audience (nearly half, Mehta estimates) that is of Western descent.

Eastern and Western sensibilities meet in "Monsoon Wedding," director Mira Nair's ("Salaam Bombay!") highly effective, seriocomic portrait of a Punjabi father about to marry his daughter to a man she barely knows. A cast of esteemed Indian actors brings a sassy, talk-to-the-henna swagger to the matrimonial scenarios. Nair's film is joined on the Saturday, Feb. 2, schedule by "The Prince of Light," which applies the hallmarks of Japanese-style animation to an Indian religious legend. The heroic Prince Ram -- who, in cartoon form, resembles a cross between Li'l Abner and Scott Stapp -- leads his noble forces in a pitched battle against an evil king. The heroes are easy to spot: They're usually accompanied by gentle deer and/or fuzzy bunnies. Practically every major plot point is a deus ex machina. And listen closely for what is probably the first utterance of the line "Say your prayers, shorty" in the festival's eight-year history. Anime fans will chuckle in delighted recognition.

No, this is no one's idea of gravity. But so what? Far from a shrinking violet, Mehta has in the past challenged her audience with films that explored a vast number of social ills. She's more than entitled to take a year off from stirring the pot if she so wishes. What's more important is that she and Curtis have engineered a showcase of quality films with (mostly) wide appeal. Taken together, the 2002 roster is probably the festival's best shot yet at bridging the gap between the two cultures it courts. And maybe the take-no-prisoners approach will be back in 2003.

"Who knows?" Mehta teases. "We may have too much fun this year."

Hands up if you're a sucker for a Bollywood ending.

Time to kill

Though it won no awards at the recent Sundance Film Festival, the Valencia Community College feature "Killing Time" will be shown Feb. 28 at the school's East Campus Performing Arts Center, as the opening entry in this year's Valencia Film Celebration. Encore showings of past projects "Virgins" and "The First of May" will lead up to the climactic, world-premiere screening of the eagerly awaited "Dunsmore" on March 2.

On draft

Is the Temenos Ensemble Theater troupe about to become a downtown fixture? The Christmas installment of Temenos' interactive-theater experiment, "Joe's NYC Bar," reportedly caught the eye of Bank of America, which is considering making Temenos a component of its Parramore redevelopment efforts. The money men can take another gander at Joe's when the show returns for another run Feb. 7 through 9 at 300 W. Church St. This time, it's part of a "Lower West Side Interactive Arts Festival" that includes viewings at the nearby West Church Street Gallery of Contemporary Art and a Saturday street festival with mural-painting and performance opportunities for artistically attuned citizens of all ages.

These walls can talk

Two productions of "The Vagina Monologues" are currently staring Orlando in the, um, face. A group of University of Central Florida students, faculty and alumni will perform the show Feb. 15, 20 and 21 at the school's Student Resource Center Auditorium, with proceeds earmarked for Harbor House and other area charities. Harbor House and the Sexual Assault Treatment Center will be the beneficiaries of a March 3 performance mounted at Enzian by an entirely separate, all-professional collective of theater types. The latter production is part of the worldwide "V-Day" initiative, in which local groups stage "The Vagina Monologues" as fund-raisers for their communities' anti-violence organizations. The original idea was for all of the shows to be performed on Valentine's Day -- hence "V-Day," which stands for "vagina, victory and valentines."

Now there's an alphabetic lesson you won't learn on "Sesame Street."

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