Once upon a time in India

Music and outlandish tales mark South Asian FIlm Festival

17th Annual South Asian Film Festival

Saturday-Sunday, Oct. 1&-2
Enzian Theater,

From the Mahabharata to The Satanic Verses, India is no stranger to a good story. This year’s edition of the Enzian’s effort, alongside the Asian Cultural Association, to extend the conversation of South Asian cinema beyond Bride and Prejudice or Slumdog Millionaire is a tribute to the continent’s rich storytelling history. From a classic restored to its true sheen (The Music Room) to the roller-coaster journey of a very famous toddler (Marathon Boy), this two-day festival is as mighty as its theme.

The Music Room (5 Stars)

Both devastating and uplifting, complex and universal, auteur Satyajit Ray’s (The Apu Trilogy) 1958 masterpiece stars the Orson Wellesian Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy, a shell of a former king (actually, feudal landlord, though the difference seems minimal here) wasting away his days as an old recluse, his once-mighty fortune having dwindled to virtually nothing and all but his most loyal servants gone. The titular music room, in which he once hosted the finest musicians for personal recitals, now looms as a taunting ghost. Roy is snapped back to life by the oboe sounds drifting from a neighboring lord’s celebration and we flash back to the agonizing story of this man’s former self. Ray’s dizzying directorial talent, along with Subrata Mitra’s glorious cinematography, is in full bloom at the film’s epic conclusion, in which the dying of the light frees Roy to take one last gasp of life. This thing is a marvel. (1:30 p.m. Saturday)

A Decent Arrangement (2 Stars)

Although its upper-middle-class setting and thoughtful examination of a custom so foreign to Western audiences – arranged marriages – provides a welcome respite from the gritty slums that saturate Indian filmmaking, writer-director Sarovar Banka dooms this potential charmer with dull walk-and-talk conversations that consistently hit dead ends and a wet-blanket star (Adam Laupus) whose demeanor is uncomfortable at best and downright creepy at worst. Laupus plays Ashok, an Indian-American copywriter who, with apparently nothing better to do, takes up his prodding parents on their suggestion to travel to India and have his cousin arrange a marriage for him. Along the way, he meets a dull American woman, with whom he falls into bed, and an equally dull potential bride (Diksha Basu) whose heart isn’t really in the arrangement. Who could blame her? Laupus’ delivery is as inane as the script, and his cross-cultural interactions serve little purpose but to provide fuel for more teeth-pulling discussion. (1:30 p.m. Saturday)

Marathon Boy (4 Stars)

Director Gemma Atwal’s jaw-dropping documentary about the life of little Budhia Singh, an Indian long-distance running wunderkind who became the source of pride for the state of Orissa, is a remarkable achievement. It tells the tale of Singh and his controversial coach/guru, Biranchi Das, and is a sprawling, surprising and moving portrait of a lightning rod from the slums, delivered from poverty and violence by a benefactor whose personal interests are nearly impossible to decipher. (Das proves a wily subject, constantly mindful of the camera at his best and worst moments and speaking volumes with the dart of his eye – he’s like an Indian David Brent playing for higher stakes.) The journey follows Singh from cultural phenomenon to pre-K recording artist, Olympic hopeful to foul-mouthed slum boy to, if it’s at all possible, normal schoolboy. The mind-bending sight of a nearly deified 3-year-old is matched through and through by increasingly hard-to-fathom twists. By the film’s tragic end, viewers may feel as if they were the ones running a marathon. (11 a.m. Sunday)

The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical (4 Stars)

As uplifting as the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical at its center, this documentary about a progressive arts education program in impov-erished India plays like a real-life, third-world Glee. Director Sarah McCarthy’s well-told story of a group of schoolkids who get a chance, for one night, to perform with a classical orchestra comes complete with infighting over a solo, hope in the face of an almost certainly dim future and even its own Rachel Berry in the form of a groomed-for-stardom girl with stars in her eyes. While the program is an inherently good thing – one parent mentions “karma” and wonders if she must’ve done something good in her youth, wink wink – the teachers can’t help but remind us of the fleeting nature of the moment. Still, McCarthy achieves in an hour the kind of exhilaration that most feature films never reach. Or Glee, for that matter. (11 a.m. Saturday)

In the Spirit of Laxmi [precedes The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical] (4 Stars)

A cute, emotional short film about naturalist Gerhard Weihahn’s months nurturing an injured leopard cub back to health while teaching it to survive in the wild, Laxmi feels like a counterpoint to this year’s Project Nim, and provides some relief that, yes, there are still animal workers who are getting it right. Weihahn’s dangerous resolve not to anthropomorphize the growing animal and to follow the laws of nature – even if that means having his heart broken – is inspiring. (11 a.m. Saturday)


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