Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: “I am Sindhutai Sapkal” a young Indian woman’s remarkable journey out of abuse and into a life of mothering orphans

3rd i’s 9th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF), began this Wednesday, November 9, 2011, and runs through Sunday, November 12, 2011, showcasing 10 new independent films from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, USA, and the South Asian Diaspora (Read ARThound’s coverage here).  As an adoptee who continues to process my own mothering and attachment issues and a fan of Indian cinema, particularly films steeped in history, I couldn’t wait to see Anant Mahadevan’s bio-pic  I am Sindhutai Sapkal (Mee Sindhutai Sapkal)(2010) about internationally-known Maharashtrian social worker Sindhutai Sapkal’s life.  The film had its world premiere as an official selection for the 54th BFI (British Film Institute) London Film Festival (2010) and has its Bay Area premiere at SFISAFF. 

We first encounter Sindhutai Sapkal as a 60 year old woman (Jyoti Chandekar) on a plane travelling to America for her first time to attend a Marathi Literature Conference in the Bay Area where she is being honored.  The co-passenger sitting next to her is the film’s director, Anant Mahadevan, whom she soon instructs to call her “Mai” (mother).   As they fall into conversation, and little things happen in the course of the flight that trigger memories, her life story unfolds through flashbacks.  Mahadevan’s non-linear narrative works well; the shifts back and forth in time seem plausible and enforce the character’s remarkable life journey.  During the film’s second half, Sindhutai continues her story but is addressing an audience in the Bay Area.  Mahadevan has wisely made a human drama that uses this singular woman’s story of true grit and compassion to comment on some of India’s most topical and historically vexing issues:  poverty, rural education, status of women, tenant worker’s rights, homeless children and traditional family life.  The rural India of the 1950’s where young Chindi’s story transpires, the interiors of Vidarbha in eastern Mahatashtra state, is a cinematographer’s dream–a ruined paradise overtaken by poverty.  It is especially harsh for women in the time period depicted, because being born female means the cards are already stacked against them. 

Twelve-year-old Chindi (Pranjal Shetye), wide-eyed and impish, spends her days grazing buffaloes and whenever the opportunity arises, she herds them into the water, instructs them to stay put, and rushes to the nearby school, where she studies in the fourth standard (grade).  She is one of a few girls in a sea of boys.  Her father, a simple man who from th very start seems human and loving,  sees education as her ticket for a better life but her mother (Charusheela Sable) sees no point.  Before Chindi even reaches puberty, her family, urged on by her mother, arranges her marriage to a 30-year-old farmhand, Shrihari Sapkal (Upendra Limaye) whose household is slightly more prosperous but the atmosphere is treacherous for young Chindi.  She is treated like a slave by her in-laws and lives in fear and isolation.  Her one solace, her love of reading, infuriates her husband who accuses her of trying to show-off and he punishes her with beatings.  A visit from her father who tells her that he regrets her not pursuing her education is pivotal for Chindi who senses that he is the only one who truly loves her and she listens to his advice.  Tragically he dies shortly after this visit, leaving her completely alone.

Sindhutai Sapkal escapes an abusive marriage to provide for her baby girl only to give her up. Years later, she realizes her true potential and becomes a mother to all orphans. Photo: courtesy third i

The final blow comes when Chindi at age 26 (Tejaswini Pandit) is pregnant and the local landlord Damdaji Asatkar (Ganesh Yadav) tells Chindi’s husband that she had been sleeping with him.  Without hearing a word from Chindi, he throws her out of the house and she gives birth to a daughter in a cow-shed surrounded by animals.  Desperate, she leaves with her newborn for her mother’s home but her mother (Charusheela Sable) turns her away, fearing her village’s reprisal.  The sting of abandonment by her own mother leads Chindi to attempt suicide but she cannot go through with it because her daughter’s cries awaken her nurturing instincts.  It is then that her life takes a turn, she wanders from place to place and, with pure grit, she survives because she has to.  She not only scrounges enough food for her child but she begins to feed and care for street orphans.  She abandons her image of Chindi and becomes Sindhutai, a social reformer and mother to all.

The film is carried by the exceptional and fully committed performance of Tejaswini Pandit, who plays Chindi as from age 20 through her 40’s and masters a full range of emotions as she enacts the defining moments of her existance.  Everything in Chindi’s brutal life prepares her for misery but somehow, she refuses to turn over her power to others and once she makes that decision, she cannot fail.  Mahadeven manages to throw light on the spiritual foundation of ethical behavior.  Here is a woman with nothing, who has been told she is nothing,  but she understands that unconditional love is healing and empowering and seeks to give a mother’s unconditional love to all those she comes in contact with.   K. Rajkumar’s cinematography takes full advantage of the breathtaking nature and colorful depictions of village life.  

In Marathi with English subtitles.  Running time: 110 minutes.  This film is not rated.

Cast and Crew: Directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadeven; Produced by Bindiya Khanolkar and Sachin Khanolkar; written by Sanjay Pawar; Cinematography by K. Rajkumar; Sound Design by Parikshit Lalwani and Kunal Mehta; Music by Ashokpati. 

With Tejaswini Pandit as Sindhu at ages 23-40; Jyoti Chandekar as Sindhutai at age 60; Upendra Limaye as Srihari Sapkal; Neena Kulkarni as Bai, who mistakes Sindhu for her own daughter; Pranjal Shetye as Chindi at age 12 years and Chatushila Sable as Chindi’s mother.

I am Sindhutai Sapkal screens Saturday, November 12, 2011 at 2:30 p.m. at the Castro Theatre.  The film will be followed by a panel discussion. 

Part of  The 9th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF), sponsored by 3rd i.   Tickets: $10 to $11.  For a full description of SFISAFF programming and schedule, click here.

November 12, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

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