Mississauga's only film festival shines a much-needed spotlight on South Asian cinema
The Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival (MISAFF) is back for its seventh year
Growing up on a steady diet of Bollywood films, Hardik Mehta knew iconic Bollywood dialogues by heart — except they were the lines spoken by side actors in classics such as Amar Akbar Anthony, Don or Sholay, not the main star.
"They always said the same thing. A doctor would say, 'I'm sorry, we couldn't save him.' Or the police would always come at the last moment, and the inspector would say, 'Humne is jagah ko chaaron taraf se gher liya hai' — 'We have surrounded this place from all corners.' I loved those side characters," says Mehta in a phone interview from Mumbai. "I particularly liked the actor Sudhir. You'd see him in different movies with different looks; sometimes he had a goatee, usually a mustache. He mostly played villains."
Naturally, when it came to naming the central character in his debut feature Kaamyaab, Mehta borrowed the moniker chosen by his favourite real life side actor. The film — which follows a veteran side actor named Sudheer attempting to come out of retirement to make his 500th movie — is the closing night feature of the seventh annual Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival (MISAFF). Its gentle humour and insight into the Hindi film industry are informed by Mehta's insider knowledge working as an assistant director on big budget films like Lootera and Queen, as well as directing his debut documentary Amdavad Ma Famous.
MISAFF festival director Arshad Khan caught Kaamyaab at the 2019 Festival du Film d'Asie du Sud, which Khan was attending with his own documentary Abu. (Both films went on to win jury prizes at the French festival.) As soon as he saw it in Paris, Khan knew he had to bring the film home to this year's MISAFF, which runs Aug. 1 to 4 in Mississauga — the city's "only film festival, even though Mississauga is Canada's sixth-largest city," Khan points out. He says that it's important to showcase such films to both South Asian and non-South Asian audiences so that they understand that South Asian films are not just about "dancing around trees" — a common misconception that still persists.
Mehta, who also co-wrote the recent Bollywood thriller Trapped, will also participate in the MISAFF Chat program that will give audience members a chance to ask the panel about their experiences making their first feature film. Other panel participants include Canadian filmmakers Eisha Marjara (Venus), Akash Sherman (Clara) and Zana Shammi (Untying the Knot), along with Pakistani filmmaker Saquib Malik (Baaji) and Italian filmmaker Phaim Bhuiyan (Bangla).
Bangla, which opens the festival, is a rollicking ride into the lives of second-generation Bangladeshi-Italian youth. Bhuiyan, who co-wrote and directed the film, also plays a fictionalized version of himself — a 22-year-old also named Phaim who lives with his family in Rome's multi-ethnic, inner city Torpignattara neighbourhood and works as security personnel in a museum while trying to balance his multiple identities as an Italian and a nerdy Bangladeshi Muslim. Starting out as a YouTuber, Bhuiyan attended film school and worked on music videos and a TV series before embarking on Bangla, which is his debut feature.
Although immigration is a hot button topic right now in Italy and across the world, he didn't set out to make any political statements with his comedic film, he explains in a phone interview from Rome. "I wanted to show the real life, how people live in this community," he says. "How the parents speak, with their mix of languages and culture, and how the second generation speaks — who are more Italian than Bangladeshi."
Khan says that Bhuiyan quite literally has a voice that audiences don't expect in an Italian film. He was intrigued when he first heard Bhuiyan speak over the phone. "Phaim is a proper Italian filmmaker, who speaks English with an Italian accent. His film is in Italian, and it's so funny," says Khan.
Besides showcasing the unexpected, he adds that MISAFF is also committed to representing female and queer voices as part of its lineup, especially to counter traditional narratives in Bollywood. Take Kabir Singh, 2019's biggest Bollywood blockbuster, which also did big business in Canada but was criticized for its misogynist portrayal of romance.
There are voices out there that are not getting mainstream attention. They don't have the millions to spend on marketing. But they are important because they can help a larger audience understand us better.- Arshad Khan, MISAFF festival director
To that end, MISAFF is presenting films such as Venus, which centres around Sid (Debargo Sanyal) as she transitions into a woman. Her life becomes even more complicated when she discovers she has a pre-teen son — except he doesn't bat an eyelid at her newfound identity. The festival will also showcase The 410, a three-part CBC series by Supinder Wraich, inspired by news stories of Punjabi-Canadian truck drivers from Brampton, Ont. who were involved in the drug trade. Then there's the special screening of Pakistani film Baaji, which Khan describes as a "Lollywood masala" on the surface.
"It's a very subversive film. The heroes are all women," says Khan. "It's very feminist. It's marketed as a thriller, but it's pure comedy. It's a very self-reflexive film."
Although Baaji released theatrically in Canadian cinemas, it only played for one week. Khan feels that such films need to be championed — and he's happy that MISAFF can play a part in doing just that.
"There are voices out there that are not getting mainstream attention," he says. "They don't have the millions to spend on marketing. But they are important because they can help a larger audience understand us better."
Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival. August 1-4, 2019. Mississauga, Ont. misaff.com