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14th Annual New York Indian Film Festival

Holi may be the official Hindi festival of colors, but for New York fans of South Asian and Indian-American arthouse cinema, a spring celebration that brings even more brightness is the New York Indian Film Festival. Last night over multi-hued dishes at Soho Tiffin Junction -- Modern South Indian Kitchen, NYIFF whetted appetites for its 14th edition, slated for May 5 - 10. The festival, which is the oldest and largest showcase of its kind in the United States, offers a rare chance to see indie films from the region or reflecting the Indian-American experience, few of which go on to receive theatrical distribution.

"People still think that Indian cinema is Hindu Bollywood musicals, but there is such a vast treasure of cinema in different regions and languages," fest director Aseem Chhabra told me after formally announcing the lineup. "What we do at NYIFF is to show films other than Bollywood, and I'm so happy that we're able to capture the diverse facets and faces even in a small way," he said.

Among this year's 34 fiction narratives and 11 documentaries are entries from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. There's even a film from Mongolia -- Amka and the Three Golden Rules, by Babar Ahmed -- one of that country's precious few productions. Festival-goers can expect to hear a Babel of languages onscreen, from Bengali, Bhojpuri and Hindi to Marathi, Urdu and Punjabi. All NYIFF selections are subtitled.

The Opening Night film is Anurag Kashyap's Ugly. Set in Mumbai, it explores the violence unleashed with the kidnapping of a 10-year-old daughter of a struggling actor. "It shows the dark underbelly of Mumbai: the corruption, police brutality and crime," noted Chhabra. Kashyap's 2004 crime drama Black Friday courted controversy -- and awards -- with its noirish look at the bombings that rocked Mumbai in 1993.

NYIFF will close on a darkly comic note, with Goynar Baksho (Jewelry Box). Directed by filmmaker and actress Aparna Sen, this Bengali-language ghost story is adapted from Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay's celebrated tale of family, greed and a dearly departed's stash of jewels.

LIAR's DICE stands as the festival Centerpiece. Directed by actress Geethu Mohandas, it follows a wife's search for her husband after his release from the army. The woman, her young daughter and the family goat set out from their snowcapped village near the Chinese and Tibetan borders and make their way to Delhi. En route they compose a makeshift family with a stranger. "They don't make road films very often in India," said Chhabra, who expressed particular admiration for the screenplay and performances.  

He also waxed enthusiastic about FANDRY, Nagraj Manjule's socially minded saga about a young Dalit (Untouchable) boy who falls in love with a girl from a higher caste. "It reminds you that in rural India castes still don't mingle," commented city-born Chhabra, adding, "The film tells you the reality of India as it is in these very remote parts of the country." For Chhabra, Manjule's portrait of caste differences is "a beautiful film but also very intense and disturbing."

Another festival highlight is the documentary An American in Madras. In it Karan Bali chronicles the exploits of American-born filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan in Madras -- present day Chennai in Tamil Nadu -- beginning in 1935. The film pays tribute to Dungan's 15 years and nearly as many productions in that south Indian city. Chhabra reported, "He introduced new technology, because cinema at that time came straight out of theater, so they didn't used to move the camera too much." Not only did Dungan expose the Tamil film industry to such innovations as the dolly and outdoor shooting, per Chhabra, "Actors used to be very theatrical and he asked them to speak in a low tone and not to yell out their emotion all the time. He really changed the way films were being made. And he was an American born in Ohio!"

Pakistani-turned-New Yorker Mumtaz Hussein comes to NYIFF 2014 with Art=(Love)2. Like Goynar Baksho, it summons a supernatural character to guide the living. New York's Columbia University provides a backdrop for this romantic mystery about a math student whose death sets her lover on a quest to uncover why. Hussein, who is also an artist and writer, teased the assembled press at Soho Tiffin Junction with an intriguing synopsis. 

Pakistan's official submission to the 86th Oscars also graces the Festival lineup. Directed by Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur, Zinda Bhaag explores illegal immigration through the lens of three young men desperate to change their fates.

A special screening of Gurinder Chadha's film Bhaji on the Beach will take place on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. As with many of the Festival's screenings, a Q&A with the director will follow.

For a full schedule see http://www.iaac.us/NYIFF2014/schedule.htm.

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