A Surfeit of Indian Cinema

So far this month New York has been host to two South Asian film festivals. The South Asian International Film Festival was last week. And on Wednesday night when the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council had its festival opening, WNYC's Arun Venugopal was there, stalking the red carpet.

Naseeruddin Shah and Aasif Mandvi in "Tonight

Naseeruddin Shah and Aasif Mandvi in "Tonight's Special"

REPORTER: Clearly an Indian arthouse event in midtown can't be expected to have the same star power as a big Bollywood spectacle. You don't come expecting a superstar like Shah Rukh Khan. Or Saif Ali Khan. Or Salman Khan, Aamir Khan or even an Arbaaz Khan. But this event at the Paris Theater on 58th street fairly held its own. Here's the doyenne of Indian arthouse cinema, Shabana Azmi, with songwriter husband Javed Akhtar. There's onetime Bollywood starlet Manisha Koirala.

The actors and directors who strut down the red carpet seem to feel something exciting’s happening in Indian cinema, both creatively and in terms of its international appeal.

Sanjay Suri is an actor who’s done Bollywood and alternative films …like the 2005 feature, "My Brother Nikhil," in which he portrayed a character with AIDS.

SANJAY SURI: These platforms, festivals like these, are a good initiative and a good eye opener for hey, India doesn't only do Bollywood. It does much more.

Some of the attendees think that distinction, between Bollywood and non-Bollywood films, isn’t so clear anymore. Shyam Benegal is one of India’s best-known arthouse directors.  He says the new generation of Indian filmmakers have benefited from the time they spent in the US, before returning to India.

SHYAM BENEGAL: Some of these kids actually learned their filmmaking in this country and made wonderful movies there.  So there's a lot to be said for new Indian cinema.

He says India also benefits from the work of Western directors , such as Danny Boyle, who made Slumdog Millionaire.

SHYAM BENEGAL: They're concerning themselves with films that concern us. Which means that India is no longer that exotic country - elephants and snake charmers and that kind of rubbish. That period is done.

Tannishtha Chatterjee is an actress who starred in the movie Brick Lane and is here to promote the drama Bombay Summer. Several years ago, she considered getting into Bollywood, but decided against it.

TANNISHTHA CHATTERJEE: The role of a woman was almost like a showpiece. I kind of didn't agree with that.

But these days, she says she would consider it. She thinks the industry is less convention bound, and that Indian audiences are open to new things.

For others at the festival, the challenge isn't India, it's the Western market. Actor Aasif Mandvi is mostly known as a correspondent on the Daily Show, but tonight he’s the star of the opening-night feature, called Today’s Special – an ode to Jackson Heights, and its food.

AASIF MANDVI: It's the Eat Drink Man Woman or the Tampopo of, uh, of desi food. Yeah!

Today’s Special co-stars actress and cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey and Naseeruddin Shah, who’s had a long career straddling Bollywood and alternative cinema. Mandvi says he couldn’t get financing for the project for a long time because there weren’t any major white actors attached to it. So he went to Silicon Valley and talked to rich Indians, who ponied up a lot of the funding. He’s convinced that the Indian diaspora is best equipped to make non-Bollywood movies.

AASIF MANDVI: and I believe that its from within the diaspora that we can generate that fusion. That East meets West... the solve-that-Greco-Bactrian confusion. And make the movies that speak to the Indian masses and also speak to Western audiences.

Today’s Special had its New York premiere at the festival. Now all it needs is a distributor, good reviews and -- most elusive -- the love of the masses.

The Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council's film festival continues through tomorrow.