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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” at San Francisco’s ACT—a multi-layered love story—through February 8, 2015

Free-spirited English poet Flora Crewe (Brenda Meaney), left, arrives in Jummapur, India, in the 1930s as her younger sister, Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell), reflects on letters from her 50 years later in England in “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard's epic romance that weaves decades, continents, and cultures.  The play’s ending has recently been reworked by Stoppard and director Carey Perloff. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Free-spirited English poet Flora Crewe (Brenda Meaney), left, arrives in Jummapur, India, in the 1930s as her younger sister, Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell), reflects on letters from her 50 years later in England in “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard’s epic romance that weaves decades, continents, and cultures. The play’s ending has recently been reworked by Stoppard and director Carey Perloff. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink had its U.S. premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in 1999 and is back at ACT through February 8, with director Carey Perloff again at the helm.  Having been introduced to Stoppard through ACT’s finely-honed Arcadia in 2013, I couldn’t wait to see Indian Ink (1995), which also shares Stoppard’s penchant for twisting time periods, in this case the 1930’s and 1980’s—and examining important ideas with dialogue that is witty, sexy and deeply entertaining.  On the chopping block were British colonialism and art, specifically mogul painting.  The play also features another great passion of mine: British women writers who traveled the globe and had fabulous adventures.  Here, we have the fictional free-spirit and poet Flora Crewe (the delightful Brenda Meaney) who has ties to the Bloomsbury group and is in India in 1930 lecturing at the local Theosophical Society about literary life in London while trying to keep her terminal illness under wraps.

“Indian Ink” is structured around Flora’s letters from India to her younger sister, Eleanor, a political magazine editor in London.  Flora’s exciting past in 1930’s Jummapur (now Jamalpur in Bangladesh) is enacted with the Indian painter Nirad Das and the action then switches to 1980’s London, where Eleanor, now the widowed Mrs. Swan and in her 70’s, is going over their correspondence at the request of a Eldon Pike, an American scholar who is keen to write Flora’s biography.  Eleanor is also visited by Anish Das, the grown son of the painter.  All are intent to unravel the mystery of Flora’s time in India and the nature of her relationship with Nirad Das and there are three paintings which provide clues.  An evening with Stoppard is always jammed packed and Indian Ink rewards the viewer with a multi-layered love story.

Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji) paints a portrait of English poet Flora Crewe in 1930s India in Stoppard’s “Indian Ink.”   Das also played the role last fall in New York when the play ran with its newly revised ending at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.  In addition to their mutual attraction, Stoppard uses the relationship between Das and Flora Crewe to explore issues of culture clash.  Photo by Kevin Berne.

Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji) sketches English poet Flora Crewe at one of her public lectures in 1930s India and she then agrees to let him paint her privately in Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink.” Bamji also played the role last fall in New York when the play ran with its newly revised ending at the Roundabout Theatre Company. Bamji has also played the role of Anish Das (Nirad’s son) in other productions of the play. In addition to their deep mutual attraction, Stoppard uses the relationship between Das and Flora Crewe to explore issues of culture clash. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Stoppard, who was knighted in 1997 and is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest living playwrights, has collaborated with Perloff to rework the play’s ending.   This revised version had its first run in Manhattan last fall at the Roundabout Theatre Company, where Perloff co-produced it.  Wednesday’s opening in San Francisco revealed a highly-polished and very enjoyable performance, steeped in art, history and cross-cultural connections.  So much has been packed into this play, however, that it dances elegantly on the surface, enticing us with the brilliant alchemy that is Stoppard’s calling card but never taking the plunge into those murky intellectual depths that will produce it.   This is not “Arcadia,” a peak theatrical experience that stays with you for your lifetime, which isn’t to say that “Indian Ink” isn’t stirring or thought-provoking.

Stoppard uses character dialogue in a brilliant back and forth, almost debate, style to explore what he wants to know about and in this case it’s the mutability of the past, the concept of rasa played out between a poet and painter in fascinating conversation about their passions and, on a larger level, the morality of empire.  Perloff’s wonderful staging, excellent acting, Neil Patel’s elegantly textured sandstone wall which is a backdrop to his fine sets, Candice Donnelly’s spot on period costumes and Dan Moses Schreier’s evocative musical backdrop of tabla and violin all work in synchrony to bring out the very best in this play.

Brenda Meaney (who reminds me of Keira Knightley at her best) delivers a wonderfully complex Flora Crewe, a bold and intellectually, as well as sexually, adventurous young woman who is intent on living her life to the fullest in India while keeping it a secret that she is dying.  She is particularly delightful where she is flirting it up with Englishman David Durance (Philip Mills), one of many romantic dalliances, and blurts out one of the play’s funniest and most memorable lines—“Wangle the Daimler!”—urging Durance to secure the Residency’s fancy car and escort her to a dance.  Funny double entendre lines like this are Stoppard’s forte.

Anish Das (Pej Vahdat) and Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell) reflect upon the legacy of a portrait from 1930s India, painted by Anish’s father, Nirad Das in “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard's epic romance which had its US premiere at ACT 15 years ago.  Stoppard, who lived in India as a child, uses conversation between Das and Mrs. Swan and their different interpretations of history to explore issues of Empire without taking sides about whether the British occupation was good or bad for India.  Photo: Kevin Berne.

Anish Das (Pej Vahdat) and Eleanor Swan (Roberta Maxwell) reflect upon the legacy of a portrait from 1930s India, painted by Anish’s father, Nirad Das in “Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard’s epic romance which had its US premiere at ACT 15 years ago. Stoppard, who lived in India as a child, uses conversation between Das and Mrs. Swan and their different interpretations of history to explore issues of Empire without taking sides about whether the British occupation was good or bad for India. Photo: Kevin Berne.

The play’s title “Indian Ink” actually refers to a poem that Flora is writing while sitting for Nirad Das (the wondrous Firdous Bamji) and it is their meandering dialogue during those sittings that illustrates one of the play’s most interesting themes—rasa—an aesthetic concept and the central theory of Indian art appreciation that was developed by Hindu sages and artists in the third century CE that describes an artwork’s overall essence as well as the heightened state of delight that arises from the relationships among creator, audience and artwork.

When he first meets Flora, Nirad Das puts out an edgy vibe.  He seems a bit uncomfortable in his own skin and seems compelled to impress Flora with his bookish knowledge of England and British culture.  Flora really wants him to just be himself and to paint her from “his own point of view.”  Her idea of real Indian art is images of women with “breasts like melons, and baby-bearing hips.”  As Nirad explains rasa to Flora, his graceful spirit shines through and you can almost feel her heating up when he explains the elements of shringara, the rasa of erotic love—”a lover and his beloved one, the moon, the scent of sandalwood, and being in an empty house.” When he presents her with a nude portrait he has created of her in the style of a Rajput miniature, Flora is deeply moved and acknowledges that he has completed something in his own tradition rather than in the European style—“This one is for yourself… I’m pleased. It has rasa.

Meanwhile, in 1980’s London, through the conversations of Eleanor Swan (the elegant Roberta Maxwell) and Anish Das (Pej Vahdat) Stoppard conveys vital lessons about the reinterpretation of history, avoiding sides about whether being part of Empire was a positive or negative for India.  Mrs. Swan refers to the events of 1857 as “the Mutiny,” while Anish refers to it as “our first war of Independence.”  Mrs. Swan claims “We made you into a proper country” and Anish points out that long before the British came to India they had a culture that was older and more splendid than that imposed on them.

When the bothersome American academic Eldon Pike (Anthony Fusco) comes calling at Eleanor’s door to dig up material for his biography, we see her prickly side emerge as she  delivers another great Stoppardism, “Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong.”

Even as it verges on three hours, the play’s beautifully intercut narratives between sisters, lovers, father and son and academic and his subject, are captivating and reveal the myriad of ways in which the past is mutable and can be interpreted by bystanders or direct participants.  I can’t wait for another Stoppard production.

Director Carey Perloff on the re-worked ending: “I feel happy about where it (the ending) is.  It makes an enormous difference in actually finishing the relationship between Flora and Das, which is so complicated.  I also think time has caught up with this play in a good way.  Today, the notion of cross-cultural love affairs, and the complexity with which colonized peoples inevitably end up taking on the characteristics of their colonizers, are things we actually know about. … In the 15 years since it was done, the relationship between Flora and Das has become much more interesting and complex, because these ideas are more in the world than they were.

Stoppard is Czech!—Sir Tom Stoppard, now 77, was born Tomáš Straüssler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) in 1937.  His family left just as the Nazi’s invaded and went briefly to Singapore.  His father was killed in the war.  Tomáš and his mother arrived in India as refugees when he was four years old and lived there from 1942 to 1946.  Tomáš learned English while attending a school in Darjeeling run by American Methodists.  While in India, his mother met Kenneth Stoppard, a major in the British Army, who brought the family back to his home in Derbyshire, England, married the mother and Tomáš became Tom Stoppard.  Stoppard’s career spans 50 years.  His works include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Arcadia (1993), The Coast of Utopia (2002), Rock-n-Roll (2006) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).  He has received one Academy Award and four Tony Awards.  It has been nearly a decade since a new work of his has appeared on stage. “The Hard Problem” (2014) is now having its world premiere at London’s National Theatre and will be broadcast to thousands of people in cinemas across the world as part of the popular NT live series in April, 2015.  Stoppard has also just become engaged to heiress Sabrina Guinness, of the famed brewery dynasty, also catapulting him in the headlines.

Run-time: 3 hours with a 15 minute intermission

Creative team: by Tom Stoppard; Directed by Carey Perloff,  Neil Patel (set designer), Candice Donnelly (costume designer), Robert Wierzel (lighting designer), Dan Moses Schreier (sound designer)

Cast: Josie Alvarez, Firdous Bamji, Joel Bernard, Vandit Bhatt, Danielle Frimer, Anthony Fusco, Dan Hiatt, Roberta Maxwell, Brenda Meany, Philip Mils, Ajay Naidu, Mike Ryan, Glenn Scott, Pej Vahdat, and Rajeev Varma

Details:  Indian Ink runs through February 8, 2015 at 2013 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Performances are 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. most Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $120, phone 415.749.2228, or visit www.act-sf.org.

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January 26, 2015 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3rd i’s 9th Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival starts Wednesday, November 9, 2011, and runs through Sunday

In Prashant Bhargava’s “Patang,” (“The Kite”) which screens Friday at 3rd i’s South Asian Film Festival, a fractured family is transformed by the sumptuous experience and energy of India’s largest kite festival in the old city of Ahmedabad. Director Prashant Bhargava will be in attendance. Photo: courtesy Prashant Bhargava

 3rd i’s 9th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF) begins this Wednesday, November 9, 2011, and runs through Sunday, November 13, 2011, presenting 10 new independent films from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, USA, and the South Asian Diaspora.  SFISAFF is the oldest South Asian film festival in the US and the best outlet for South Asian film in the Bay Area.  The festival is organized by 3rd i, a non-profit, nationwide organization, based in San Francisco that is committed to promoting diverse images of South Asians through independent film.  This year’s programming features art-house classics, documentaries, experimental and Bollywood features, movies made by Bay Area filmmakers, with a special emphasis on Sri Lanka.  Several of these magnificent films have been huge hits on the festival circuit and have their Bay Area or U.S. premieres at SFISAFF.  

Focus on Sri Lankan Films:  Sri Lanka has recently seen a surge in independent filmmaking through French co-productions. The highlights in this year’s SFISAFF are Lester James Peries’ groundbreaking film Gamperaliya (1964) which ushered in a new cinematic language in Sri Lankan film and was shot entirely outside of a studio using just one lamp and hand held light for lighting.  Recently restored by UCLA Film Archives, Gamperaliya is an adaptation of Martin Wickramasinghe’s seminal 1944 novel of the same name.  The film explores class conflict through a simple and nuanced love story between a teacher and an aristocrat’s daughter, and has been compared to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (1955-59).   The trailer below has no subtitles but the film shown at the festival will have English subtitles.

On the contemporary end, SFISAFF screens Asoka Handagama’s controversial Letter of Fire (2005), a strident indictment of Sri Lanka’s judicial system, treated in Handagama’s unique firebrand style.  Banned in Sri Lanka, it is now making its US premiere at SFISAFF.  3rd i will host a Castro Reception on Saturday, November 11, 2011, following the screening of Letter of Fire, where audience members will have a chance for intimate conversation with Handagama, and with other festival guests.  Handagama will also address the audience on Saturday, before the screening of Gamperaliya, on historical and contemporary trends in Sri Lankan filmmaking.

Also part of the focus is Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s feature debut Flying Fish (Igillena Maluwo) (2011), which is reminiscent of the films of Vimukthi Jayasundara (The Forskaen Land, 2005, winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2005) and points to a new aesthetic in Sri Lankan cinema.  SF-based Pakistani filmmaker Shireen Pasha’s What Time is It?, shot in the aftermath of the tsunami in 2004, will round out the Focus on Sri Lanka.

South Asian Americans shine at this year’s festival with a number of films by desi American filmmakers: NY-based Prashant Bhargava’s Patang (The Kite) (2010), which won raves from Roger Ebert and was a fest-favorite at Berlin, Tribeca and Chicago, is about a family dueling, spinning and ultimately coming together during the spectacular kite festival in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat, in western India.  The personal and political meet in Midwest-based Siddharth Anand Kumar’s stunning debut feature Semshook (2010), which tells the story of Tenzin, a Tibetan artist born and brought up in India, and his attempt to return to his Tibetan homeland on a motorcycle.  Indie-favorite and LA-based Ajay Naidu’s directorial debut Ashes (2010)  is a soulful film about two brothers trying to hold on to each other through mental illness and hardcore crime.  Both Bhargava and Naidu will be attending the festival.

In “Play Like a Lion,” twenty-four year old American born Alam Khan travels to India on his first concert tour without his ailing father, legendary Indian classical maestro sarodist Ali Akbar Khan. Alam knows that soon he will have to play and live life without his father's guidance and support. When Alam feels the weight of living up to his family's North Indian Classical music tradition, he remembers his father's advice: "Don't worry, Play like a Lion." Photo: courtesy Mill Valley Film Festival

 Documentaries are an essential component for SFISAFF, as more awareness of South Asian stories spreads into the mainstream culture.  2011 brings three documentaries (with filmmakers in attendance) made by Bay Area filmmakers.  Bill Bowles and Kevin Meehan’s Big in Bollywood  (2011) charts the instant stardom that Hollywood actor Omi Vaidya achieved through his role in the Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots (2009).  Marin County filmmaker Dave Driver’s meditative documentary Way of Life (2011) follows the remarkable story of Michael Daube, a young man of modest means from small town America who finds a valuable David Hockney drawing in a dumpster, sells it at auction and builds a hospital in one of the most remote areas of India and Nepal and, then, goes on to found an international philanthropic organization that serves remote parts of the world.  Joshua Dylan Mellars’ celebratory doc on sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, Play Like A Lion (2011), is a moving illustration of Khan’s description of music as “food for the soul,” seen through the eyes of his American-born son Alam Khan.  Director Joshua Dylan Mellars, Alam Khan, and Producer Mojib Aimaq will be in attendance at the festival.

Shorts Programming: 3rd i’s signature local shorts program The Family Circus showcases 80 minutes of the best desi shorts by Bay Area filmmakers, with the artists in attendance.  This year’s program, on Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 7:20 pm, will feature a live neo-benshi performance by local writer/performer Anuj Vaidya.  This program will be followed by a party celebrating the festival and filmmakers at Bollyhood Cafe (recently merged with Little Baobab) in the Mission district.

A second 70 minute program of four new shorts focused on attitudes about gender and sexuality across South Asia and its diaspora will screen on Sunday, November 13, 2011, at 2:30 pm.  The featured shorts are: Anusha Nandakumar’s The Boxing Ladies (2011) about three Muslim sisters in Bengal who defy tradition by becoming national boxing champions; Siraj ul haque’s Chandni (2009, Pakistan) about a hijra who finds solace in Sufism; Jordache Ellapen’s Cane/Cain (2011, South Africa) about a Indian South African and a Pakistani immigrant who connect over love and sugarcane; and Neelu Bhuman’s (US; Bay-Area filmmaker) uplifting Family in Frame (2011), where the filmmaker comes out to her family as bisexual, with varying reactions.

Other programs include: Anant Mahadevan’s inspirational Marathi feature I am Sindhutai Sapkal (Mee Sindhutai Sapkal) (2011), an official selection at last year’s London Film Festival.  The film follows Sindhutai Sapkal from her impoverished childhood in the 1950’s in rural Maharastra, India, where she is forced to drop out of school and marry at age 12 into an abusive and spirit-quelching existence in her in-laws’ home.  With pure grit, she somehow survives.  After relinquishing her own baby, she goes on to become a renowned “mother of orphans.”   The film will be followed by a panel discussion. 

The Closing Night film for this year’s San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival is Selvaraghavan’s Tamil gangster thriller “Pudhupettai” which follows the unlikely rise of Kokki Kumar (acclaimed Indian actor Vengatesh Prabhu Kasthuri Raja aka “Dhanush”) from petty criminal to powerful gang lord in the Pudhupettai slums of Chennai, India’s 6th largest city. Dhanush plays the role with the energy of a young Al Pacino. Photo: courtesy 3rd i.

Bollywood at the Castro:  SFISAFF has special Bollywood programing at every year.   Playing homage to camp meets and bad-boy cult films like Snatch (2000) and The Hangover (2009) is Abhinay Deo’s bawdy, sexy and explosive new comedy Delhi Belly (2011) about a dopey trio of mates who find themselves in a whole lot of trouble when they accidentally mix up a bag containing a stool sample with one full of smuggled diamonds.  Vipin Vijay (Enfant Terrible of Indian cinema) delivers a visual/aural spectacle as he narrates most of his film The Image Threads (2010) in a philosophical monologue.  This mysterious tale, artfully shot in exotic Kerkale, is about an IT-professor who communicates with a cyber-creature and his dead black-magician grandfather through the internet.  The Closing Night film this year is the high-octane Tamil thriller Pudhupettai (2006) (featured in 3rd i’s Cruel Cinema series), a box office smash, which is South India’s answer to Brazilian filmmakers Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s stunning City of God (2002)  or Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brutal neorealist thriller Amores Perros (2000). 

For a full description of the festival programming and schedule, click here.  

Details:  SFISAFF opens at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., San Francisco on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 and continues there Thursday and Friday (November 10-11, 2011) and Sunday, November 13, 2011.  Films will screen at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco, on Saturday, November 12, 2011.   Tickets: $10 to $11 per screening.  Multiple Pass options are available (Full Festival Pass; Castro Pass; Roxie Pass; Weekend Pass; Focus on Sri Lanka Pass; American Desi Pass, etc.) varying in cost from $32-$120.  Complete ticketing and program information (including special guests, dates, times and venues) at  http://www.thirdi.org/festival/.

November 8, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment