West is West
The South Asian Film Festival opens with some familiar faces. West Is West, a British comedy-drama set mostly in Pakistan, reintroduces us to the dysfunctional Khan family of England, who we met in 1999's East Is East. The Khans have faced crises before thanks to the Pakistani beliefs of father George (Om Puri), who often clashes with his sons and English wife. This time it's George's youngest son, Sajid (Aqib Khan), who is rebelling, and the solution seems to be a trip to Pakistan to show him his roots.
What we expect to be the son's coming-of-age story turns into a tale of life lessons relearned by the father. Indeed, in an unexpectedly rich and touching commentary on Pakistani-English cultural differences, we learn that George – Jahangir in his native Punjabi – is the patriarch of not just his British family but also the one he left behind 30 years before.
"I don't know who I'm supposed to be," Sajid laments. By the end of director Andy De Emmony's well-crafted creation, which is the best of this year's festival, both Sajid and George have completed a life-altering journey to find their answer. Screens on Saturday at 11 a.m.
Valley of Saints
This Kashmiri-language production quietly washes over you, much like the waters of Dal Lake, where its characters live and work. It conveys both a Yasujirô Ozu-like serenity and a darker edge, but it's ultimately a simple tale of a young man finding a new direction in a world he realizes he never truly knew.
That man is Gulzar, played with quiet confidence by Gulzar Ahmed Bhat, and he desperately yearns to escape his life as poor boatman in war-torn Kashmir. "If [the saints of the valley] were real," he complains, "they forgot about Kashmir."
After an escalation of violence, Gulzar and his friend must wait out a military curfew before fleeing for Delhi. During that delay, Gulzar meets a young woman who gives him a new view of his environment and himself, while also driving a wedge between him and his friend. The ensuing events are not without dramatic power, and when director-writer Musa Syeed, in his non-documentary debut, combines them with stunning cinematography, the result is a cultural document of stark realism. But like the shrinking waters of the once-great lake at the heart of its story, Valley seems a bit shallow. Screens on Saturday
at 1:45 p.m.
Big in Bollywood
It wouldn't be the South Asian Film Festival without a glimpse into the world of the splashy musical/comedies that Bollywood is known for. But Big in Bollywood is not the typical choice to fill that niche, as it's a documentary about the fantastical world of Indian cinema told from an outsider's perspective.
Indian-American Omi Vaidya is a struggling Hollywood actor when he stumbles into a supporting role in 3 Idiots, a mediocre movie that, astonishingly, grows into India's highest-grossing film. The actor is branded the "fourth idiot" and elevated to icon virtually overnight, despite his subpar abilities. And we, the audience, get to experience this crazy transformation right along with Vaidya and his friends, as it happens.
Created by Bill Bowles and Kenny Meehan, Big in Bollywood is shot and paced poorly, and dodges profound questions involving hero worship, but it's still an interesting examination of pop-culture insanity and the lives of people who are famous simply for being famous.
The documentary is preceded by Audacity, a 13-minute Hindi-language film about a rebellious Indian girl and her strict father. Not much more than a trifle, it nevertheless sheds light on generational conflict in modern Calcutta. Screens on Sunday at 11 a.m.
Abu, Son of Adam
Film is such a youth-centric art that we often forget the power and perspective of older generations' stories. In the Malayalam-language Abu, Son of Adam, first-time writer-director Salim Ahamed harnesses that power by weaving the tale of a poor, elderly Indian couple's quest to visit Mecca in the annual Hajj pilgrimage. It's the life dream of so many Muslims, yet it's virtually absent from Western cinema.
To make the journey, Abu (Salim Kumar) and his wife, Aisu (Zarina Wahab), must raise money not by accepting charity, which is religiously forbidden, but by selling their cherished possessions – including their prized jackfruit tree, for timber. But when the tree is discovered to be hollow, not only do their Hajj hopes suffer a setback, but their entire life, including their estrangement from their son, is condensed into one heartbreaking, metaphorical truth: "There are some children – we nurture them," Abu explains, "[but] only when they are grown up, we realize their inside is hollow."
Some bad audio post dubbing and poor subtitles make Abu a tough watch, but a heartbreaking performance by Kumar and a sweet, if overly sentimental, style make this a strong choice for any Asian film festival. Screens on Sunday at 1:30 p.m.