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Film fest sets a price above rupees 

When he arrives at Maitland's Enzian Theater this Saturday, Feb. 3, Krutin Patel will be the first visiting director ever to appear at the annual South Asian Film Festival. Filling that void, however, is a minor feat compared to another task the New Jersey filmmaker has in mind -- replacing the image of the "typical" Indian American with a fuller, more accurate portrait.

"We need to branch out," says Patel, a native of Ahmedabad, India, who immigrated to the U.S. at age 8. "Or else all we're going to have is Apu on 'The Simpsons.'"

To that end, he's bringing his first feature, ABCD, to the Enzian, where he expects its story of cross-cultural identity crisis to resonate with the racially mixed audience courted by the Asian Cultural Association, the festival's co-presenter.

The most modern work on the festival's schedule (and the only one set in the United States), "ABCD" addresses Patel's perceived need for "a pop record of the Indian-American experience." It dramatizes the struggle of a pair of immigrant siblings (Faran Tahir and Sheetal Sheth) to locate their own dreams and desires within the traditional worldview proffered by their mother (Madhur Jaffrey).

A favorite at festivals in Texas, London and New York, "ABCD" wasn't easy to make, Patel says. He wrote it in the early 1990s (collaborating with Texan James McManus) and shopped it to the major studios. A pile of very complimentary rejection letters followed.

"The story wasn't commercial enough for them," Patel says. "They didn't know how to market the film."

Left to fend for himself, Patel began photography in 1998, finishing postproduction chores at the end of 1999. A family connection led to the godsend casting of Jaffrey, a veteran of several Merchant-Ivory projects. After reading the script on a plane, Jaffrey agreed to participate "for virtually nothing," Patel says. (The "virtually" must explain her executive-producer credit.)

The product of their labors occupies a new wing in the culture-clash school of comedy/drama. (Think "East Is East," then transfer the action from England to these shores.) Sheth's Nina is tart-tongued and promiscuous, her determination to act "Western" confused by the affections of an earnest Indian boy. Her brother, Raj, is engaged to an Indian woman but finds himself drawn to a white co-worker. Raj's career as an accountant follows a bumpy path, forcing him to reconcile his notions of success with those he's inherited.

That quandary is slightly familiar to Patel, whose decision to major in the cinematic arts at New York University came as a surprise to his mother. "'Film?'" he recalls her asking. "'What is film?' She had no clue you could actually go to a college to study something like that."

Hopefully, the questions he'll field at Enzian will be more specific. And if any budding auteurs pelt him with queries about budgets, Patel will be ready: He spent his college summers taking finance classes. Cultural change is a noble cause, but why cut every apron string at once?

India through the out door

The Saturday and Monday screenings of "ABCD" bookend a festival that earns full marks for daring. Once again, the Enzian and the ACA have selected a slate of films that challenge our preconceptions even as they entertain.

Actress Jaffrey is back on Merchant-Ivory turf in Cotton Mary, playing an Anglo-Indian nurse in the 1950s who schemes to ingratiate herself with a family of Brits. The film's composed critique of imperialism finds its stylistic opposite in "Bhopal Express," director Mahesh Mathai's fictionalized but passionate account of the 1984 gas leak that killed thousands near a Union Carbide pesticide factory.

Social protest, however, doesn't come more outraged than "Sandstorm," the true story of a low-caste feminist activist who fought her rapists though the Indian legal system. It's a highly controversial treatise, unsparing in its representation of government officials who are still alive and able to take offense. No wonder that director Jagmohan is only penciled in to attend its Saturday showing at the Enzian: He's currently in India, defending his film before the Censor Board. You won't hear that excuse at the People's Choice Awards.

Every bit Mounts

There should be a palpable feeling of relief in the air at this weekend's Mount Dora Festival of the Arts. The Mount Dora Community Trust recently awarded $12,500 in grant monies that paid almost half of the annual event's city fees in one fell swoop. According to Cindy McGeough, development director at the Mount Dora Center for the Arts, the grant exceeded expectations by a solid 10 grand.

McGeough, who assumed her post Jan. 1, says that the gift represents a renewed spirit of community support and puts the center in a better position to start looking for matching funds. Another good sign: Paid membership has grown from 70 to 182 in the last two months.

"We still have a long way to go to be stable again," McGeough admits, referring to the disarray that befell the Center last fall. (The Green Room, Sept. 7). "[But] we're not in the red. We just want to make sure we can maintain being in the black."

Tube tops

Last week's National Association of Television Programming Executives (NATPE) convention in Las Vegas was a hooligan's holiday for Orlando's Discount Comedy Outlet. While in town to chat up their recently completed TV pilot, "Comedy With Balls," the troupe won second prize in the convention's "Pitch Me" contest, wowing a panel of industry bigwigs with their off-the-cuff proposal for a conceptual sketch program titled Don't Mind the Probe.

What did they win? "A nice button-down shirt and a keychain," according to DCO member Peter Hurtgen Jr. -- plus a pocketful of business cards they'll use as a contact list when they fly to Los Angeles for a showcase performance sometime before early March. If time permits, they'll warm up with a two-weekend run-through of "greatest hits" at Zoë & Company. (Their previously announced program of new sketches is now defunct.)

On a side note, Hurtgen says that the admission "We're from Orlando" was a sure-fire conversation killer at NATPE -- unless it was followed by the swift addendum, "Lookin' to relocate!" I suggest that the latter phrase now be our salutation of choice here at home. It's so much more honest than "I'm with the DJ."

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