Tasveer_South_Asian_FF.png

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, all I knew of South Asian cinema came to me through poorly dubbed VHS tapes that traveled by mail across the ocean. Reenactments of gory Hindu epics were my father’s favorite. My grandparents, on the other hand, loved romantic song-and-dance movies or anything starring Raj Kapoor, India’s Charlie Chaplin. No matter the genre, what I remember most were the women: demure and dutiful, grappling with familial obligations, marriage proposals, or—if they were lucky—a lusty romp in a torrential rain that ended with a soaked sari and a hard up hero.

Sponsored
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s The Nutcracker is Back Onstage at McCaw Hall! Tickets start at $27.
Join PNB for a timeless tale of holiday adventure performed by PNB’s amazing dancers and orchestra.

It wasn’t until I watched Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy in my 20s (the best South Asian cinema seems to come in threes—Exhibit B: Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy) that I connected with the women on-screen. Their complicated desires and fleeting joys. The relationships they forged through tragedy. Mehta’s films told the stories of society’s outcastes, women living on the margins of respectability, yearning against convention.

The spotlight shines on the depth and diversity of women’s lives at this year’s Tasveer South Asian Film Festival (TSAFF), the largest South Asian film festival in the United States. Over 11 days (September 28 to October 7), TSAFF will screen more than 65 films throughout the Seattle area.

In her essay “The Anthropologist as Hero” cultural critic Susan Sontag writes, “Most serious thought in our time struggles with the feeling of homelessness.” The simultaneous push and pull of home—of escaping it, losing it, or perhaps never having had it to begin with—looms over the female characters in many of TSAFF’s films.

The festival opens with Cake, an offbeat family drama that centers on two thirtysomething sisters, Zareen and Zara, as they figure out how to care for their aging parents. Set in Pakistan, the film subtly tackles social divides (Zareen’s love interest is a household servant and a Catholic—double whammy!), exposing the ways that wealth and status blind people to their own cruelty. Cake can veer toward the nostalgic, yet it still manages to capture the contemporary conundrum of displacement, the ambivalence of parents who want their children to succeed abroad while remaining firmly rooted in the homeland.

In My Pure Land, another pair of sisters, this time from a poor family, aim their rifles at their uncle and the bandits he’s hired to seize their rural homestead. Based on a true story, My Pure Land reveals how women are often compelled to take justice into their own hands in order to survive the patriarchy. And how home is often the site of injustice and violence.

This is what we see in A Better Man, a documentary by Canadian filmmakers Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman. The film illumines a process of restorative justice in which Khan, a domestic-abuse survivor of Pakistani descent, invites the man who abused her to a series of conversations about their past. At one point, the former couple returns to an apartment they shared in Ottawa. Here, Khan recalls an incident when the violence got so bad that she fled the house and ran down the street, hoping for someone to come to her rescue. No one did, and the agonizing abandonment she experienced in that moment brings to mind the feeling of homelessness to which Sontag refers, a feeling Khan’s abuser must confront on camera.

Support The Stranger

Another gem in TSAFF’s lineup is Pinky Gurung, one of a number of LGBTQ shorts that highlights the vibrancy of the subcontinent’s trans community. Pinky Gurung, our eponymous heroine, runs a boisterous political campaign on the streets of Kathmandu, asking voters to support her third gender candidacy under Nepal’s system of proportional representation. It’s heartening to witness Gurung’s charisma and confidence in the face of an uphill battle, to see her reject simple tolerance for the more robust goals of inclusion and participation.

For me, here in diaspora, the film that struck the deepest chord was the short "Do We Belong?" In 2017, a little over a year after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a white man yelling “Get out of my country!” shot and killed Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an immigrant from my parents’ native city of Hyderabad, India. "Do We Belong?" takes place in and around the suburban home in Kansas where Kuchibhotla lived with his wife, Sunayana Dumala. In the film Dumala grieves her lost American dream, yet we don’t see her shaving her head or donning a white sari the way some South Asian widows might. Instead, she resolves to stay in small-town Kansas, marching with her neighbors in honor of her husband’s memory—and in defiance of the forces trying to shut women like her down.

We’ve arrived at a strange juncture in our world, where too many men in power—both in South Asia and here in the United States—seek to silence women’s voices and rip the ground we’ve gathered from under our feet. Maybe the only place to find home during these darkening times is movement. Film moves with us, trailing us through our various incarnations, penetrating our unreliability, our frailty, our most intimate gestures. What we convey when we’re not acting, when we’re candidly moving through space and time, might remind us of a more humane future.