It’s no mean feat keeping an independent film festival up and running in these economic times. With arts budgets slashed, bodies like the UK Film Council being abolished and private sponsors tightening their belts, it’s a wonder such events still exist.
But it takes something more than a financial crisis to dampen the spirits of Tongues on Fire, the London Asian Film festival which kicked off in London on 18th March 2011. Now in its 13th year, the annual celebration offers an eclectic mix of films, stimulating interviews, master classes and annual short film competition – something for every film buff.
Back in 1999 I was given the opportunity to work on the very first festival by its co-founder Dr Pushpinder Chowdhury. As festival director it was her brainchild to create a showcase that celebrated the achievements of Asian women in cinema. By letting young British Asian women like me get involved it was a way for us to learn about filmmaking from a female point of view and also inspire and expose the wider community to a whole new world of cinema.
Thirteen years down the line Dr Chowdhury continues to champion the cause in her own quiet, unassuming way. Volunteers like me may have come and gone but we’ve always been welcomed back and supported the festival, watching it develop from its original female focus to one that has looked at Bollywood and beyond. Seeing our own films included in the programme has also been part of the experience.
While it may be small and less commercially ambitious compared to other South Asian or female oriented film festivals that have popped up in the UK in recent years, Tongues On Fire fully deserves the attention it receives. Besides providing a platform for new filmmakers to showcase their productions and engage with industry folk, the festival has also enables audiences to meet accomplished figures from the film fraternity.
From Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Deep Mehta and Meera Syal to Nandita Das, Kiron Kher, Jaya and Abhishek Bachchan, many famous names have passed through the Tongues On Fire hall of fame. And this year is no different. Amongst experienced Indian actors like Juhi Chawla, Sanjay Suri and Gandhi’s Oscar winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya are rising stars like Anusha Rizvi, director of the critically lauded satire Peepli Live, and talented Indo-American actor Ajay Naidu who presents his directorial debut, Ashes.
The tendency for South Asian filmmakers to tackle heavy subject matters such as honour killings (Land, Gold, Women), terrorism (Khuda Kushi), sexuality (Pankh, Mr Brother Nikhil) and female exploitation (Woman From The East, Pink Saris) is evident in this year’s film selection. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any lighter gems on offer. Amongst these is Dilip Mehta’s Canadian culinary comedy Cooking with Stella, and New York based rom-com When Harry Tries To Marry. For those curious about regional language films there are Marathi (Jogwa) and Tamil films (Natural Selection, Thittakudi, Varnam) to be watched.
Anyone interested in finding out how social media can be used to fund and produce films may be interested in Onir’s I Am, a feature consisting four thematically cohesive stories that address the issues and dilemmas facing modern Indians. Described by its producer and lead actor, Sanjay Suri, as Indian’s first “crowd sourced” film, the use of Facebook and Twitter to find finance is a contemporary example of true independent filmmaking.
As Suri rightly pointed out when speaking at the opening night gala screening of I Am, only a handful of lucky Indian actors like Amitabh Bachchan believe Bollywood is recession proof. For the vast majority of actor/producers like him, it’s a contact struggle to make films that are out of the norm or ‘hatke’ to use Hindi film jargon.
So before you rush off and watch yet another brainless Hollywood comic book caper or hold out for the next big Bollywood release, why not lend your support to independent filmmakers and give the London Asian film Festival a try. It could just spark a fire within you.
Tongues On Fire runs from 18-27th March 2011. For more information on the festival and its screenings and events visit www.tonguesonfire.com