or two days this month, South Asians from around the San Francisco Bay area will congregate at the Roxie, an independent theater in the Mission District of San Francisco, and at the Castro, a beautiful pre-Art Deco 1,400-seat theater. That’s because the two theaters will be showing a bevy of South Asian independent films and shorts, just as they did one year ago, for the 2nd San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival. Last year marked the kickoff of the event that showcases independent shorts and features by South Asians.

“San Francisco didn’t have a South Asian film festival,” says Camille Ramani, one of the organizers. “There was even an Armenian film festival, but nothing focusing on films from the subcontinent. It was incredible given how big the South Asian film industry is. We couldn’t believe it.”

This year, curators expect Second Generation to steal the show. The soap-operatic film about sexually liberated South Asians in London features Bend it Like Beckham star Parminder Nagra. As if wishes could come true with a blink of an eye, organizers have snagged Nagra for a guest appearance.

Eye Candy

3rd I follows up with the 2nd San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival on November 13-14. Though the title is a mouthful to pronounce, the films are more than easy on the eyes. Highlights of the festival run the gamut from poignant to hilarious to experimental to, of course, Bollywood.

is a touching documentary of young Indian and Nepalese girls who are sold into the circus and for whom escape is a constant challenge. Laatoo, from Pakistan, looks at the sociopolitical meanings of classical dancing in Pakistan, especially in light of religious controversies. Also in the lineup is a Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Argument and Story), a film by Ritwik Ghatak, lauded as one of Indian’s most notable independent directors. Paminder Nagra’s Second Generation is sure to be a big hit. The weekend-long film extravaganza takes place again at the Castro Theatre and Roxie Cinema in San Francisco.

The festival is just one effort of 3rd I, an organization whose mission is to “promote diverse images of South Asians in independent film.” But long before the event was even conceived, 3rd I was blazing the way for South Asian independent film all over the United States.

3rd is a first

For many Hindus, a third eye conjures an image of an aperture planted in the middle of the god Shiva’s forehead. It’s a potent force that possesses the capacity, when opened, to wipe out the world as we know it. But we’re often too quick to focus on the destruction that results from the gaze of this symbolic eye, forgetting that the flipside of this destruction is creation. After all, when a forest is torched to the ground, the scorched earth suddenly becomes ripe for the planting.

It must be prescient, then, that 3rd I is named for a clean slate. The organization is interested in the world cast anew—a world in which the multiple identities, the many “I”s that South Asians inhabit, can be explored. To the founders, the name also encompasses the connotations of “third world” and “third cinema.” This not only references the “thirdworldness” of the South Asian subcontinent, particularly in a post-colonial world. It’s also about making and seeing images of ourselves throughout the diaspora.

Before they knew it, Ivan Jaigirdar, Shilpa Mankikar and Camille Ramani had banded together to form 3rd I. Ramani explains, “Shilpa, Ivan and I came together over a couch conversation.” They had no idea they’d founded a flourishing organization when they put together their first event, a showing of Gurinder Chadha’s I’m British But and Nandini Sikand’s Bhangra Rap in April 2001. South Asians from all over the San Francisco Bay area flocked to the Artists’ Television Access, a screening venue for independent film, to see the selections. The well-dressed, mostly second-generation intellectual types were looking for a place to view films about people like themselves.

3rd I co-founders Camille Ramani and Ivan Jaigirdar.

Jaigirdar, who is now a salaried staff member of the nonprofit, says the founders knew they wanted to focus the lens on independent film as a way of moving beyond stereotypes of South Asians, which were apparent in representations of South Asians in mainstream roles, especially in England and in the United States. “I was coming from being a filmmaker, working at ATA, a venue that promotes political and subversive films. Camille was working with the Network of Indian Professionals and had an interest in film. Shilpa was part of National Asian American Telecommunications Association, which organizes the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival. We were all thinking about a way to bring independent South Asian films to Bay area audiences.”

Must-See: Second Generation

Saturday, November 13, 4:30 p.m., Castro Theatre, $8

A fresh contemporary British South Asian made-for-television film that has it all: Second-generation youth living their lives in synch with the pulse of their city, London. The new generation is liberated in its sexual exploits, entangled in family intrigue, and invested in making it in business and in the underground Asian music scene. The dream cast includes Parminder Nagra (Bend It Like Beckham), Om Puri (East is East), Anupam Kher (Bend It Like Beckham), Rita Wolf (My Beautiful Laundrette) and Roshan Seth (Gandhi), while Asian Underground musician Nitin Sawhney provides the electrifying soundtrack.

Directed by Jon Sen. UK (2003). 138 minutes. Video/color/English. Q&A with actress Parminder Nagra following the screening.

Filling the void

As quickly as it started, 3rd I caught on. The first few screenings evolved into a monthly series at ATA. In the beginning, many of the films were from England and provided the groundwork for portraying the lives of South Asians outside the subcontinent, especially the newer generation of South Asians. In addition to the Chadha and Sikand shorts, one of the early screenings was of Goodness Gracious Me!, the popular BBC television show written by the famed comedian and author Meera Syal. Jaigirdir notes that the success of these screening stemmed from a hole that needed to be filled: “We needed to see ourselves in images. That’s one of the reasons for starting 3rd I.”

3rd I’s programming is often political in nature, which is hardly surprising given the nonprofit’s mission to focus on the many experiences of South Asians throughout the diaspora. The organization has invited such notables as the irreverent Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Padwardhan to show his films. Many of the screenings have been co-produced by local South Asian activist organizations, such as Ekta and the South Asian Progressive Alliance. The collective has also curated and co-produced programs for the San Francisco International Film Festival, the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and the San Francisco Queer Arts Festival.

And 3rd I’s films come from around the world—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka as well as Australia, Trinidad, Canada, and, of course, the United States. While filmmakers from these countries are easiest to access, the founders hope to tap into communities beyond these basics. “We began to have a vision of 3rd I being a network to help South Asian filmmakers from across the world to bring their films into this country and for South Asian filmmakers in this country to screen their films around the world,” says Jairgirdar. “To make it into an international organization, where we all communicate about cinema and our individual lives.”

A local I

Jaigirdar admits that 3rd I still doesn’t have the infrastructure to realize its vision of being international in scope. But 3rd I has blossomed into a national organization with chapters in New York, Washington, DC, Chicago and Los Angeles, with sites forthcoming in Austin, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia. These satellites are a part of the larger organization’s project, yet they are administered independently by their own volunteer curators. They choose their own films and venues to screen.

Several events at 3rd I’s first South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco sold out.

Ramani and Jaigirdar both attribute the ease of beginning these chapters to personal connections. “New York was the first national chapter because we had friends who were interested in film and activism who wanted to do what we were doing in San Francisco,” says Ramani. “We had the idea to replicate the mission in other cities but to have those cities cater to the taste of the locality.” The founders say it’s no accident that chapters are cropping up in key metropolitan areas where there are young, politically-minded South Asians.

“I never dreamed I would be incorporating Bollywood into 3rd I. In fact, I looked down on it.”

Saba Waheed, one of the members who helped get the New York chapter off the ground, illustrates her chapter’s unique spin by pointing to an event titled Desis Bite the Big Apple: Films By and About New Yorkers. “We showed three or four films by artists based in New York, and all the filmmakers came. Each filmmaker was dealing with one’s own relationship to the city. One film was about 9/11. One was about kids in Queens. One was about a transgendered female,” says Waheed. The event packed in 150 viewers and many more were turned away at the door. Local DJs were invited to spin after the films and the event continued into the night. “It was an exciting night. It wasn’t ‘you sit, you watch a film, you leave.'”

Must-See: Starkiss: Circus Girls in India

Sunday, November 14, 5 p.m., Roxie Cinema, $8

A not-to-be-forgotten glimpse of a world hidden behind the spangles, spotlights and smiles of The Great Rayman Circus, which has thrilled and delighted audiences in India since 1924. This insightful and moving documentary explores the lives of 50 Nepalese children who find themselves exploited and isolated, taught to perform dangerous acrobatics, given no education, and paid just enough to “work off” the advance their parents received in exchange for their services.

Selected for their beauty and agility, the girls perform and practice acrobatics and other seriously dangerous and physically demanding acts. The title of the film, Starkiss, references one such act that requires the girls to grip in their teeth a rope that is lifted high into the air while swirling them around at a dizzying clip. This documentary focuses on the circus culture and how the girls feel about their lives, capturing their emotions, struggles, longing for home and their dreams of having a different future.

Directed by Chris Relleke and Jascha de Wilde. The Netherlands (2002). 77 minutes. 35mm/color/Hindi & Nepalese with English subtitles.

Neeraja Aravanudan, one of the curators of 3rd I Chicago, says they’ve been operating for almost a year and have had much success with programming in the Chicago area already. “We don’t have a big budget like San Francisco, but it’s interesting that word has gotten around anyway. There hasn’t been anything like this before in Chicago. People are hungry for it.” Asked about the unique flavor of Chicago’s programming, Aravanudan says, “We’re trying to get a sense of our vision.” She points to the recent screening of Patriot Acts by Chicago native Sree Nallamothu as an example of tailoring the programming to the community. The documentary tells the story of two South Asian immigrants in the Chicago area who are unfairly detained twice after September 11, 2001, by immigration authorities because of Special Registration legislation.

“We invited the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the Coalition for African Asian European Latino Immigrants Illinois and the South Asian Progressive Action Collective to co-sponsor this event with us. We hosted a panel discussion afterward as a way to connect with each of these communities,” says Aravanudan.

An I for festivity

It’s the film festival, though, that is the jewel in 3rd I’s crown of events. Last year’s festival showcased independent shorts and features ran the gamut from the scintillating Road to Ladakh, a sexy story of an unlikely couple, to the highly-praised Flying with One Wing, about the life of a Sri Lankan transgendered person. A suprising highlight was the showing of the Bollywood hit Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham at the Castro.

“I never dreamed I would be incorporating Bollywood [into 3rd I]. I never even looked at Bollywood. In fact, I looked down on it,” confesses Jaigirdar. But as Bollywood has entered the American mainstream, its appropriation by South Asians—both independent film aficionados and traditionalists—has also become palpable. Ramani adds, “We saw Bollywood becoming a craze. We wanted to build on its popularity but we also wanted to show an alternative to that.”

But 3rd I plans to stay to true to its mission by featuring homespun films. Alka Raghuram, who has made several experimental shorts, is exactly the type of artist 3rd I likes to support. Her film Tired of Dancing screened at last year’s festival, and her upcoming film Panchali premieres at this year’s festival. “I am grateful that such organizations exist because filmmakers make films in order for them to be seen,” says Raghuram. “Exhibition and feedback are an important part of being an artist and 3rd I provides that. This is especially important for experimental filmmakers, because the traditional venues of exhibition are closed due to the perceived inaccessibility of their work.” And that is exactly what 3rd I aims to do: Ensure that many doors (and eyes) are opening to South Asian film. n

Published on November 1, 2004.
Photography: Courtesy of Third I.
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