Festival demystifies South Asian cinema

In their fourth year as co-producers of the South Asian Film Festival, the Enzian Theater and the Asian Cultural Association continue in their quest to demystify the potentially alien, but no less vital, film work being done on the other side of the globe. This winter, the theme of "the other" informs the festival's four programs as well as its character, as a series of iconoclastic characters steps up to champion the values of another place and time.

In Harish Saluja's "The Journey," the Indian way of life intrudes on the complacency of an American family. A mixed-marriage between an Indian man and an American woman is threatened when the man's father arrives on holiday, seeking to renew family ties following the death of his wife. The father brings a suitcase full of Old World ways and mores, providing an eye-opening contrast to the young couple's more modern but spiritually bankrupt existence.

A slick, Westernized production (and an award winner in last year's Florida Film Festival), "The Journey" starts off as a lightly handled fish-out-of-water story; the scenes of culture shock played mostly for laughs. From there, its focus widens considerably; its protagonist, we learn, is a truly poetic soul and is far from an apologist for the more bloodless, class-based aspects of Indian culture. His denunciation of his own country's racism -- and his eventual renunciation of its sexism -- defuses concerns that the film itself suffers from a form of caste consciousness. The film's newfound substance fizzles out in a markedly abrupt ending, which leaves too many very real dilemmas unresolved.

More satisfying is "The Stranger," the last work of the late, great director Satyajit Ray. Like "The Journey," it too details the effect that a traveler's visit has on his relatives. In this case, the family lives in Calcutta, and the traveler -- a long-lost great-uncle who reappears after decades of globe-hopping -- provides a window to the "savage" cultures which he has seen and ultimately embraced. A cruder, talkier production than "The Journey," the film is nonetheless superior in its maintenance of a consistent, humanist ideology, and it builds to a hypnotic, tribal-dance sequence that effectively states its traditionalist case.

For an uninterrupted view of the world for which "The Stranger" yearns, there's "The Eye Above the Well," a calmly paced documentary exploring life in the Indian state of Kerala. The scenes of ritual -- including martial-arts exercises and dance rehearsals -- are a largely wordless travelogue through a world of timeless beauty. When dialogue does intrude, it's to point out the fragility of the wonders we've been witnessing: Local artisans and manufacturers bemoan the decline of their businesses, voicing their unease that the "advances" of the 20th century may make obsolete all they know of living.

Still, lauding one society at the expense of another is a facile view of the role of foreign film. The festival's most engaging moments are those in which cultures enrich and empower each other, from the English expressions that recur throughout the subtitled "The Stranger" to the short film "The Colours of the Sun," which in part reworks a passage from "The Catcher in the Rye" into a critique of the Indian caste system.

n a scene from "The Journey," the wistful father falls under the spell of a French ballad emanating from a car radio. "I love sad songs sung in languages I don't understand," he rhapsodizes. Like the South Asian Film Festival itself, the declaration is a testimony to the power of empathy tempered by distance.