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Film Mon Oct 04 2010
This past weekend marked the first anniversary of the Chicago South Asian Film Festival. The brand new festival seeks to bring films from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka to the Midwest as well as featuring filmmakers of South Asian decent. Before this Chicago didn't have a film festival that represented only the South Asian community. Considering Illinois has one of the highest populations of South Asian families this festival seemed like a long time coming. The films offered spanned everything from shorts, features, and documentaries all with an Asian twist. We review Friday's opening piece Do Paise Ki Dhoop Chaar Aane Ki Baarish and two Saturday films Raspberry Magic and Babies Made in India after the jump.
Do Paise Ki Dhoop Chaar Aane Ki Baarish (Two Praise For Sunshine Four Aanas For Rain) (2008, dir. Deepti Naval)
Talk about your strange romances. Do Paise Ki Dhoop Chaar Aane Ki Baarish follows the relationship between Juhi, an ageing prostitute, and Debu, a gay lyricist, and their budding love for Juhi's disabled son Kaku. When Debu finds himself kicked out of the house by his lover he seeks employment as Juhi's maid and Kaku's caretaker while Juhi is out working. Kaku grows to love Debu and starts considering an integral part of the family and Juhi's romantic feelings towards Debu grow as she sees her son bonding with a father figure for the first time. Do Paise Ki Dhoop Chaar Aane Ki Baarish was the opening piece of the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, the first thing audience see as an introduction to what the festival offers. The issue was that it was far from the strongest piece the festival had to offer.
The film itself was ok, not terribly good but not absolutely horrible either. Nothing about the plot was very original and it kind of came off like an elongated episode of "Will & Grace" but with a child on the sidelines instead of the flamboyant sidekick Jack. The thing that really did bother me was the film's representation of Debu. Debu is a semi-closeted gay man and throughout the film his homosexuality is shown as a characterization of what a gay man may be. He dances around the flat, singing the female parts to popular Indian pop songs, does Jahi's make-up and hair, even plays the subservient gay man to Jahi's dominate masculine role in her home life. It's the same sort of gay man Americans have seen in 70s and 80s cinema - the "sissy." In the program for the festival the South Asian Film Festival called Debu's character a "controversial role" but by American standards there's nothing controversial about it. Debu's homosexuality is a volatile thing. One moment it's intact and the moment he gets closer to Juhi it's completely questioned. For a character that was previously living with his boyfriend for over three years, this seems unlikely. The role's not offensive nor is it positive. It's just there. However for a culture that just recently decriminalized homosexual intercourse I guess this film could seem progressive. There are very few representations of the GLBT community in South Asia and it's more important to be seen in the media than not seen at all. Indians are using stereotypes just like when Americans first started showing gays in cinema. It's not the best representation director Deepti Naval can offer the Indian community and I felt often times she uses Debu's character as a comedic crutch rather than an inspiring role. But I'd take the GLBT community being seen in Indian cinema than not shown at all.
Raspberry Magic (2009, dir. Leena Pendharkar)
Raspberry Magic was by far one of my favorite features of the festival. The story is simple but the acting and development really made it shine. Monica is a brainy sixth grader whose parents are experiencing some trouble in their relationship. Remembering the raspberry plants that once grew in her backyard, she starts a project for the science fair about how human touch and emotion can make the plants grow faster. When her father leaves and her mother sinks into depression, it's up to Monica and Gina to keep the family together. I enjoyed this movie because of the variety it offered to the festival. Raspberry Magic portrays a non-traditional family in the suburbs. This movie could have easily become the strict parents dominating Monica and Gina's lives but it didn't. Director Leena Pendharkar, who also wrote the film, creates a modern Indian family who still holds true to their culture while adapting to an American lifestyle. The father Manjog still is the patriarch of the family but allows his wife to be more than a housewife and his children to live a free life at school. It's this sense of pride as the patriarch that is the driving wedge and sparking event for conflict in the film. Pendharkar keeps the family modern but still instills old world sensibilities in the family that keep the plot interesting and realistic.
There's always a risk using children as your main characters because child actors can make or break a film. We've all seen indie films destroyed because their lead child actor was over doing it. But Lily Javaherpour (Monica), Keya Shah (Gina Shah), and Bella Thorne (Monica's best friend Sarah) all do a fantastic job in their parts. Monica and Gina's struggle to help out their mother and father is something familiar to people whose parents have separated or almost separated. Sarah's home life with her absent mother though barely shown makes a deep impact on the viewer, something that couldn't be done without these three girls' acting skills. It propels the story forward and creates a unique family dynamic, with Sarah becoming the "third" daughter of the Shah family. Raspberry Magic shows audiences that kids let on to way more than we give them credit for. Many people growing up experienced family rifts like the one in Raspberry Magic, myself included, and act out just like Monica and Gina do. It's not overdone whatsoever and offers a realistic portrayal of two sisters trying to keep their fragile family situation together with all the love that they have. The adult actors perform superbly as well and many will appear familiar to most American audiences especially Maulik Pancholy (Weeds, 30 Rock) and Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men).
Babies Made in India (2009, dir. Stéphanie Lebrun and Philippe Levasseur)
Many families decide to go to great lengths to have a child. For some it takes them many years and halfway across the world to find the child of their dreams. Babies Made in India explores the new business of surrogate motherhood in India. For Westerners coming to India this new business offers an opportunity for mothers who are unable to conceive naturally or who are infertile to have the child they always dreamed of. For the surrogate mothers, who are all Indian and usually lower caste, the money received is an opportunity to start a business, buy a house, and provide for their children's future. It seems like a win-win situation but like most things it appears better than it actually is.
I think a lot of people would consider this practice morally unjust at first glance. However the directors Stéphanie Lebrun and Philippe Levasseur do a great job of making Babies Made in India an unbiased documentary. They present the business of surrogate motherhood from all sides. On one hand it's extremely touching that a woman can make this sacrifice for another woman who otherwise would never experience motherhood. Lebrun and Levasseur choose to show these points through two couples. Jennifer and Ryan are two American parents. Because of Jennifer's uterine cancer she is unable to conceive. She and her husband travel to India to retrieve their baby boy and meet Ramuila, the surrogate mother. The other couple is Jeffery and Darren. Jeffery and Darren have been trying to have a family for five years but because they are gay they have been denied adoptive rights by many countries. A surrogate mother in India is the only way these two can afford to have the family they dream of. In both of these instances you feel for these American couples. Their dreams of having a family that is their own have driven them to India, a place very far away and very foreign to them. Ramuila, Jennifer's surrogate, was living in a shanty town with her entire family, which was very little room for so much people. With the 40,000 Euros, almost fifteen times her yearly salary, she receives from having Jennifer's baby she's able to pay for her own daughter's education and get her family out of their lean-to house. Both parties seem to benefit but what are the consequences? Ramuila tears up during her interview saying how hard it was to part with something that she carried for nine months. Jennifer and Ryan seem happy to have their child, a child neither had the ability to see grow since it was conceived. However Jennifer has no "physical" connection to the child. In the scenes where Jennifer is holding her child she appears excited yet uneducated about her son. Because she was unable to physically carry the baby that is biologically hers she doesn't have the maternal know-how one learns through motherhood. It's a tough business for all parties and all take the good with the bad to produce a healthy baby.
Babies Made in India covers the business side of surrogate motherhood as well so the audience can get a well-rounded view of the process. As this business booms some ideals and legalities practiced by surrogate clinics become questionable. Laws in the Indian medical world are extremely different than in the West. Surrogate mothers are impregnated with seven fertilized eggs where in the UK three is the allowed amount. Because of this many surrogate mothers end up having twins. These "wombs for rent" are cared for in group homes and given a monthly stipend, but are responsible for all the health problems they might have during the pregnancy. For those unlucky few that lose a child, they receive no "birth bonus." Westerners who pay for surrogate mothers must find their way back home after claiming their child. Jennifer and Ryan go to an office to doctor a birth certificate, stating that she gave birth to the child. Since the surrogate mother has signed away all rights to the child this practice is perfectly legal. Jennifer and Ryan don't bat an eye as they sign the paperwork. Though it's all legal in India sometimes the business seems to be one big human rights issue waiting to happen. But more and more couples from Europe and America travel to India to risk it. Is it worth it? Lebrun and Levasseur let the audience decide. Babies Made in India is one of the best docs I've seen in a long time and a perfect choice for the Chicago South Asian Film Festival.