Stage & Screen

Sitting Down... with the UK Asian Film Festival

The &ASIAN team got a chance to sit down with Dr Pushpinder Chowdury MBE and Dr Ashvin Devasundaram from the UK Asian Film Festival to ask them about setting up a festival during the pandemic, the importance of UKAFF in today's media landscape, and what they hope for diversity in the future.
Photo courtesy of UKAFF
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Sitting Down... with the UK Asian Film Festival

Pushpinder Chowdhry: My name is Pushpinder Chowdhry. I am the Director of the UK Asian Film Festival. I have been a founding member and a speaker for 23 years.

Ashvin Devasundaram: My name is Ashvin Devasundaram, Senior Lecturer in World Cinema at Queen Mary University of London. I'm also Associate Director of the London edition of the UK Asian Film Festival. And over the years, I've been conflating my recent specialism, which is about new independent Indian cinema – cinema that's very much of the moment – a form of independent films that started roundabout 2010; it emerged as a cohesive new genre of Indian cinema.

Can you tell us about the UK Asian Film Festival and Indian indie films?

PC: The festival started as a women's film festival, and it was London-based. Over the years, it has grown into more a feminist film festival, which is inclusive of a whole range of not only just issues but also about equality. So we are very proud that it has grown in its content and its thinking, as well as gone UK-wide from just being a London-based festival.

AD: The festival has championed upcoming talent, new filmmakers, films with more topical and timely content relating to gender issues, LGBTQ themes and issues, political, socio-politically attuned films, which kind of resonate with my own research. That brought me essentially to the festival to contribute to the curational aspects of programming, but also new and dynamic approaches in relation to bringing in young people, promising young curators of the future. So we've established the Young Curators Lab, which aims to nurture the future of film curation and we run workshops every year as part of the UK Asian Film Festival. So there's a real kind of diversity, a plethora of different dimensions to the festival, in addition to screening films.

What challenges have you had to face this year?

PC: All throughout the year, we were screening our festival films: the films were screened online, we contacted the filmmakers to do Q&A. The reason was we were keeping our audience engaged while pandemic was going on. So when it came down to doing a festival, usually we have a festival in March: March 2021 [we were] still under lockdown. We shifted it to May when we thought it will ease a little and we are offering a hybrid festival. Some screenings are in person with COVID compliance, and lot of hard work in collaboration with the venues: how we were going to screen the film and how we are going to carry out other activities, which will keep the audience safe.

What have been your personal UKAFF highlights?

PC: Highlight for us as a festival is when we can screen a film which has been banned in their original country. And we are doing a premiere: either a UK premiere for it, or a European premiere for it. So these kind of things where we can pick up gems going along when we are curating, these films come our way. This year is a film called Zindagi Tamasha, which is banned in Pakistan. Independent film, which is an amazing must-have film for any festival. So the legacy had been right from the start when our first festival started 23 years ago, we had a film called Fire and we were screening it here in London in the main cinemas, while they were burning the cinemas in Delhi and Bombay and all over India. These kinds of moments are important for us. But having honoured Bhanu Athaiya – she was the first Asian woman to get an Oscar for the film Gandhi, for her costume design… people didn't even know who she was! And there were Asian women pushing the boundaries.

AD: I concur with the idea of providing a platform for films that have a more, kind of, left-field, unconventional ethos: films that are radical to the point of being denied a certificate of release in their countries of origin. Pushpinder has cited Fire, which is a hugely influential Indian film about lesbian relationship. When it was released, there were kind of mob vigilantes going out on the rampage and destroying, vandalising cinemas screening the film. But now casting an eye back, that film has opened out, and is such a touchstone for new independent films that broach themes related to LGBTQ lived experience.

There's a whole host of films spanning a decade, from 2010 to the present moment, which have kind of, you know, foregrounded the issues related to the LGBTQ community in India. Also, this idea of film festivals constituting a lifeline for more independently-minded films that otherwise might not gain the oxygen of exhibition in the multiplex spaces, or even online. So film festivals are very important.

Another film that comes to mind is Lipstick Under My Burkha, which is a film, very feminist film by Alankrita Shrivastava, which was denied initially a certificate of release by what's called the Indian Censor Board or the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) to give it its more formal name. Now we managed to gain that film for the UKAFF, the UK Asian Film Festival. We have screenings–patch screenings, I must say, in Edinburgh, in London and it galvanised so many interesting conversations. So this, I feel, is the beating heart of what UKAFF can do with new currents, new independent currents of cinema, especially in terms of showcasing films to a broader, global, intercultural audience and create conversations around them. So that certainly is one of the highlights for me.

It's also some of the more recent initiatives that we've run. I mentioned the Young Curators Lab, working with young curators. This year we have a set of digital film commissions to commemorate what is quite a momentous year. It's the birth centenary of the Indian filmmaking icon Satyajit Ray. So the theme of this festival is Ray of Hope, which is also quite timely in relation to the long year that has ensued, and we are now kind of slowly emerging from the pandemic. A lot of the films that we've curated this time resonate with the idea of a ray of hope. So this is quite a special installment of the festival on that front.

We [are] also running an international conference this year, which is called Curation in the time of COVID: the South Asian Film Festivals International Conference. Now the reason for this conference is primarily because of the existential state that the film festival sector finds itself in as a result of the pandemic and locked down; a lot of audiences have gravitated to the streaming giants, and Netflix and Amazon Prime video has now, kind of usurped this role as a portal of access to films. So it's caused us in the film festival sector to try and think outside of the box, and devise new and innovative strategies to back in and keep, retain our audiences, kind of bring them back. And as Pushpinder mentioned, one of these strategies is the hybrid format. So blending of online screenings as well as in-person venue screening. That is certainly a legacy of the pandemic year. We're working with our own kind of streaming platform, Modern, which is providing the online service for us ‘modern films’. One of the aims of the outcomes that we hope that will emerge from this international conference, which features leading South Asian film festivals and curators is to formulate a network, a network of salvation from festivals that will build a community around curation, and hopefully we'll be able to share knowledge, share resources, network and maybe have that as an annual kind of event, part of the UKAFF every year. So there's a lot going on, too many things to mention.

What do you feel is UKAFF’s contribution to dialogue around the Asian community?

AD: Returning to the blanket term that is Asian, I completely agree that it can often be quite ambiguous, quite woolly and quite reductive in the sense of what is actually Asian. So I think it's important for us to try it through cinema and culture to unpack the nuances of, and the cultural specificities of what it means to, you know, have distinct–maybe overlapping in some cases–but very distinct identities, forms of culture and what have you. That is exactly the case with South Asian, kind of, geographical awareness as well. So we try our best not to be too India-centric, because invariably, South Asia has collapsed into India, which is usually problematic. So we do try to kind of, include and engage with a broad spectrum of films, and events that are linked to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, the wider region and look at some of these connections, as well as some of the specificities.

I think as long as one is having a very collaborative and very nuanced conversation, reflecting the differences and the similarities, and thereby showing the kind of wide spectrum that is South Asia, that I think would be a step in the direction of raising more representative interpretations of regional specificities. I think the same applies to the broader regions of Asia in general. Rather than kind of collapsing it into this rather kind of stereotypical idea of what Asia can denote... to kind of unpack the layers, and kind of reveal that through intercultural conversations. A lot of that stems from the post-screening discussions that we have. So that's another aspect that we've tried a lot to do, as in back into as diverse in audience as possible to, kind of, include non-Asian audiences as well, because a lot of these films then turn into primers, or kind of almost educational tools, opening out a window to regions in Asia that people might not have travelled to or not have a lot of awareness of. In that sense, using cinema as a window to a diverse spectrum of culture, politics, society, music, film, and a whole plethora of other dimensions.

PC: Can I just say that one of the advantages of running an independent film festival is: we are actually quite flexible with our boundaries. We also talk about issues that might relate to South Asian sensibilities. For example, we included an opening night film from Yemen. Yeah, because the subject connected with, completely con nected with all of South Asia, all of Asia, in fact. The other thing is, we also look at things in our stories– a look at Indian people going to Africa and settling there. So there's interaction. So, we had a story from South Africa, written by a Nigerian and made it into a film and it was a story about South Africans [and] Asians. That is a completely different experience. We had a film from Malaysia, Singapore, right? So, we are interested in where Indians have travelled, Asians have travelled, South Asians have travelled and bring in the flavour of South Asia, which then organically evolved.

How could the wider industry help with diversity and what are your hopes for the festival this year?

PC: I think what holds us back is all that I’ve said], [or] had gone before. We are careful, we are mindful, we are inclusive. And that means our progress,  getting resources is limited for us. But we are hopeful that there is enough support, with our reach out there, especially when we do innovative things like the conference and this networking of individual filmmakers, that's where our strength is in the film. And the next generation is our strength, where new storytellers who are grounded, you know, their roots are grounded. But the stories have wings. So we have challenges because of who we are.

AD: Yes, I think that diversity is innate in the New Wave currents of cinema that you're seeing emerge from India, but also from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, films like Zindagi Tamasha, which is a film that has been banned in Pakistan, is pushing boundaries. As have several new independent Indian films, pushing the boundaries of thought, of debate, [of] very timely, very topical things and issues, and broaching a diverse spectrum of storylines and confronting and challenging repressive and authoritarian systems. So for me, it's very heartening to see the burgeoning rise of these new waves of film across South Asia, not just in India.

Secondly, I think organisations and creative industries, institutions are waking up to the reality of walking the talk of diversity rather than using it as a buzzword, and tokenizing it therefore. I think even in the academy, we are now talking about things like decolonization and how to actually concretize or make it real, rather than just having this as a kind of buzzword. But the BFI (British Film Institute), I think it's doing some good work in relation to implementing strategies linked to diversity and inclusivity. We see a lot of research in that direction as well. But ironically – Netflix, if you look at the casting in a lot of Netflix series and films, it is very diverse. So I think online, big streaming platforms have taken on board some of this, these key questions relating to inclusivity and diversity, and also presenting a very international platform. So you can now watch films from esoteric regions of the world.

So I think it is in the public consciousness, it's in the social consciousness, but it just needs to be, reiterated and re-invoked in films, which is already happening. But I see this as a positive sign, a synthesis of the film festival sector, streaming platforms – everyone kind of coming together to present more avenues to open up these windows I talk about, into bringing to the consciousness of people the realities of the world we live in; about multiplicity, multiplicities of identities, different cultural and social and political contexts.

I think the more and more we engage with diverse forms from across the world, the more and more we see casting across ethnicities, more collaborative and more inclusive practices of curation, of filmmaking. I think things are going to move more positively in the direction of, as I say, walking the talk of diversity.

The UK Asian Film Festival can be found here, on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, and is running from the 24th May to the 6th of June, 2021.

This transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.