One Madder Woman, a novel by Dede Crane
Freehand Books, 2020, 360 pages

 

The year is 1858, the place, a Parisian suburb. A family of five is having breakfast. There is Papa, M. Morisot, the patriarch, a chief advisor in the finance ministry, his much younger wife, and their four children: Yves, the eldest daughter, 21, followed by Edma and Berthe, two years apart, and Tibby, the 10-year-old baby brother.

The manservant, Thin Louis, brings M. Morisot the mail. After reading one of the letters, M. Morisot laughs. Sent by Joseph Guichard, Edma and Berthe’s art teacher, it says: “…If your daughters are to continue under my tutelage, they will be in serious danger of becoming real artists. And in your social circle… this path would be catastrophic. I trust you understand my words and intention and heed my warning.”

Early in her accomplished novel, One Madder Woman, Canadian author Dede Crane deftly sets up its central conflicts: the difficulty that Edma and Berthe will face trying to establish themselves as professional painters in an art world where there is no place for women, and their struggles to define themselves as something other than wives and mothers.

But there is more to the scene described above. Here Crane also establishes the unequal power balance not only between Papa and the rest of the family, but also between Berthe and her elder sister, the beautiful, assured, and ambitious Edma. Berthe adores Edma; in fact, she wants to become Edma. Papa also chooses to love Edma over Berthe.

Soon we meet the hero, Édouard Manet, whose provocative and inventive paintings are panned by critics and spurned by buyers. Manet appears to be swayed by Edma’s charms, while ignoring or belittling Berthe. Berthe hates him. As well, Manet is married.

The plot moves forward on twin tracks. The author develops the love triangle between Edma, Berthe and Manet, and later, the multi-faceted affair between Berthe and Manet. This love story forms the spine of the book. The strong bond between Edma and Berthe is also central to the narrative. Alongside, Crane tells the story of how Edma and Berthe develop as artists, focusing particularly on Berthe. These strands are interdependent. Berthe is influenced as an artist by Edma and Manet. Manet as an artist is also somewhat influenced by Berthe.

 

Eugène Manet and His Daughter in the Garden Of Bougival, by Berthe Morisot (1883), via Wikimedia Commons

 

In the first of a series of beautifully written scenes about the art of painting, we have Edma and Berthe, chaperoned by their mother, walking through the woods carrying the tools of their craft, stopping to untangle their voluminous skirts from the brambles. They have moved on from their earlier teacher, Guichard, to no less a figure than Corot (Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot), after Edma has asked “for a teacher of the new Barbizon school, one who painted en plein air, in natural light.”

They step out of the woods and wait a long time, Berthe’s impatience mounting. Then the sun rises to reveal river, trees, sky, grass and tiny wildflowers, as never before. “Can you feel them?” asks M. Corot. “These were my teacher’s words. The question less jarring than the fact that I could feel them, the colours, of course, because what else could he mean?” thinks Berthe.

The die is cast. From here, Berthe embarks on a tumultuous journey of self-doubt and discovery, turmoil and ecstasy, to become a uniquely gifted Impressionist artist. Underrated in her day (and even later, in my opinion), she would nevertheless blaze a new trail for artistic expression and for women artists.

One Madder Woman is an ambitious work. Crane dares to write in the first person, and in so doing, puts the reader inside Berthe’s skin. Her aim is to recreate the life and the incredible times of Berthe Morisot. She does so in brilliant detail, with sensuous imagery, engaging dialogue and well-developed characters, fleshing out a web of relationships. The inner world of the principal characters is also revealed through the intimate correspondence between them, given that it was the norm to write letters at that time.

Crane covers the Parisian art scene as well – the salons, exhibitions and artistic trends, and the squabbles and debates. She gives space to two major political events: the Franco-Prussian War (in which the Prussian army took Paris), and the other extraordinary event of those times, the Paris Commune in 1871. Under the Commune, Paris was ruled by a radical socialist, revolutionary government until the French army put an end to it. According to the book, an estimated 25,000 commoners were killed.

This brutal turn of events devastates Morisot, driving her into a state of depression. She finds her way out by painting, fully embracing Impressionism:

I tried to paint a leaf as it spiraled to the ground. The very instant I believed I could capture the action, I lost the quality I chased. My brush made swift stabs and feathery dashes… More intimations than objects. Temporaneous living things… The attempt to fix an image killed it dead. Movement was life… The fan was not so much a thing but an action. Life too was an action, perception, a fleeting moment of engagement… Teetering on the edge of sloppiness, carelessness, I painted the fragile, transient movements before me, their furious, hopeful colours and shadows full of grief.

Crane’s Berthe is moody and feckless, as well as questing; a woman consumed by her passion for Manet, and also defiant. She is flawed. The novel is an accomplished study in character development. Berthe goes from being a dependent sister, someone not particularly ambitious, a woman madly in love, to a principled, humane and courageous woman, devoted to her craft. This is a study of how an artist is shaped by her environment – physical, emotional, social and political. Crane also gives Manet, Edma, and the other characters their due.

Having read thus far, you may ask: how true is the book to Berthe Morisot’s life? The back of the book reveals that Crane has done her research. That said, I believe that fiction offers a world that is complete in itself. I judge this novel on the strength of its artifice alone.

It’s a thrill to encounter the now-famous artists – Degas, for example – as flesh-and-blood characters. It is also pleasurable to look up the paintings that Crane writes about in the book. (She provides a handy reference list.) One is, after all, reading in the age of the Internet.

Like Morisot’s paintings, this book is a veritable feast.

 

The Sisters, by Berthe Morisot (1869) National Gallery of Art, Washington, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

Who Belongs in Quebec? Identity Politics in a Changing Society, by Raquel Fletcher, Linda Leith Publishing, 2020 (148 pages)

 

[Though a book reviewer is supposed to keep herself out of a review, I took the decision to leave myself in. The author, Raquel Fletcher, also puts something of herself in this book.]

 

Québec is distinct; Québec is different. This is something every new Canadian inevitably learns soon after immigrating to Canada. This was my experience too.

Being an immigrant first to Canada and then to Québec, I have heard many views and opinions on this province. When I lived in ROC (Rest of Canada), I came across two predominant perceptions of the province: it was either glamourized as the “other,” as arty, gourmet and “European,” or criticized for being a renegade. The existence of the abbreviation ROC is in itself telling.

Who Belongs in Quebec? Identity Politics in a Changing Society by Raquel Fletcher, Québec National Assembly reporter for Global TV News, is at once a personal account of a prairie girl, a self-confessed, proud francophile “encountering” Québec (both the capital city and the province), and political reporting on the increasingly fraught identity politics here.

In the introduction Fletcher writes:

“Quebec is a society full of inconsistencies. While it’s arguably the most feminist and progressive province in Canada, it’s also the only jurisdiction in North America to limit civil liberties by banning religious symbols. It’s increasingly modern, global, diverse and multicultural, particularly in Montreal – and yet, some nationalists defend what could be characterized as anti-immigration policies in the name of protecting the French language.”

Fletcher goes on to say that getting accurate reporting on Québec issues from the ROC is more difficult. It’s hard to get the nuances. And this is one of her reasons for writing Who Belongs in Quebec?

The book is an account of very recent Québec politics in relation to identity issues with many footnotes, mostly cross-referencing media articles in English and sometimes in French. It is old-fashioned journalism in a positive sense and shows restraint.

Here are the issues and discourse- shaping events that Fletcher methodically covers: “pastagate” when the name Resto La Mama Grilled Cheese in Québec City was seen as contravening Bill 101 Charter of the French Language; the passing of Bill 62 (curtailing the rights of niqab wearers) by the Liberal government in power; the mosque shooting in Québec City (both events took place in 2017); the growth of extrem-right media (particularly radio) and alt-right groups (La Meute); the negative impact of Trump becoming the US President, including the rise in racism; the first-ever English-language debate in a Québec election and the rise and majority win of the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) in 2018. By the end of that year, an estimated 20,000 asylum seekers had crossed into Québec from the US and Parti Québécois (PQ) leader Jean-François Lisée, in a tweet, suggested the building of a barrier. In 2019, the CAQ passed Bill 21 which bans religious symbols being worn by “authority figures” to promote Québec’s version of a secular state. The bill was opposed, largely by leaders and citizens in Montréal. And that same year there was Bill 9, an immigration bill that would set the groundwork for a French language exam and a values test for new immigrants. This bill was passed by fiat in the middle of the night. CAQ cut the number of immigrants to Québec by 20 per cent, ostensibly to ensure better retention and integration, while at the same time unceremoniously dumping 18,000 pending immigration files.

Whew! Even though I have been following the news, the book made me more aware of the rapidity and extent of the change.

I moved to Montréal 12 years ago. I learnt French after moving here and can converse in that language. I had tried to learn it before, but not being immersed, I was not that successful. I also give Indian cooking classes in French, as needed.

With a white Québécois partner, I have easy access to Francophones who are friends and family. I live in multiple worlds. In Montréal, one circle is made up mainly of Anglophones and allophones who mostly also speak French, and who are somewhat racially diverse, though most are white. Another circle is almost exclusively made up of white Francophones, many of whom can speak English. These circles remain separate. Even so, this is diversity, isn’t it? And it should feel normal and good, right? With passing years, moving between these groups has become increasingly disorienting, and belonging in Québec, more tenuous.

Fletcher notes one of the distinct features of Québec that impacts politics: “Suspicion of religion in politics is often a progressive impulse in Québec politics… this tendency in Québec is often seen as being progressive rather than Islamophobic.” An Angus Reid survey found that far fewer Québecers were likely to vote for a candidate who wore a face covering as compared to people in ROC. For any party voted into power here, the need to preserve Québec’s unique Francophone culture and identity is paramount.

In Chapter 3, Fletcher sketches out the political spectrum spanning from left to extreme right in the 2018 election, represented by the four candidates running for party leadership. The sole woman, Manon Massé of Québec Solidaire, a left-wing and pro-independence party, was the only one willing to look into systemic discrimination in the province.

In late June 2020, as I write this review, the words systemic discrimination/systemic racism have acquired a whole new meaning and urgency after the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and its impact in Canada. And yet, despite documented evidence, Québec Premier François Legault still denies the existence of systemic racism here.

This compact book views identity politics through the lens of party politics, government, legislation and mainstream media coverage. Minority voices are presented only in two chapters. Fletcher conveys the views of the people at the Québec City Islamic Cultural Centre after the mass shooting there that killed six men and seriously injured five. And in a chapter entitled “Islam, Women and the Secularism Debate,” we hear from Muslim women who are both for and against face coverings.

Sondos Lamrhari, the first police student to wear a hijab, is quoted as saying:

“I think the day we accept the fact that there’s not only one single way that liberty can be conceived, I think is the day we’ll accept, that yes, there are women who feel free wearing the veil, and others who feel free wearing the least amount of clothing possible. As long as women feel free in the way they present their bodies, that’s what we need to take into consideration and to highlight.”

Having illustrated the difficulties in finding a common ground, Fletcher ends the book on a personal, reflective note. There are no grand conclusions. Real life is often bereft of them. As an example of progressive change she describes how the Monastery of the Augustine Sisters in Québec City which, while displaying and “owning” its past, has modernized into a world-renowned health retreat.

She also says: “Perhaps the problem is that the current political debate focuses on what to exclude, rather than what to include in the common project… And perhaps that debate distracts from the ongoing work, some political and some not, that is taking place to build a better, more secular Québec.”

The work that is unfolding in community groups, certain institutions, people-to-people, etc., is not the focus of this book.

Written in straightforward language, with personal anecdotes that humanize the narrative, Who Belongs in Quebec is also the voice of a young Canadian woman on a key topic. This slim book is a useful introduction to very recent identity politics in Québec. Its impartial tone will make it palatable to many. Apart from serving the general reader, it can be a handy primer for newcomers to Québec.

 

 

 

Taimur Rahim, With Bells on her Feet

 

The South Asian Film Festival of Montréal (SAFFM) was launched in 2011. Since then it has established a reputation for showcasing quality documentary and feature films from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as films about the sub-continent made in Canada and the USA.

Three documentary films from Pakistan shown this year drew my attention: These Silences Are All the Words, Indus Blues and With Bells on Her Feet. The films were screened on October 26, 2019.

What struck me as a journalist in India during the 1980s was the lack of coverage of Pakistani culture within English language media at a time when India-Pakistan politics dominated print and airwaves. I wonder if my experience would have been different had I lived in Delhi (Northern India) or Hyderabad (South Central India) instead of Mumbai in Western India. I also lived, unwittingly, in Hindu India.

These Silences Are All the Words (15 minutes) is a deeply personal portrait of three libraries – Bedil Library, Ghalib Library and Saeed Hashmi Reference Library – in linguistically diverse, “madly urbanized” Karachi. The film is made by photographer and filmmaker Madiha Aijaz, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year.

The camera pans “unvarnished” interiors: cupboards filled with aging books, some that seem uncategorized, books on tables, including some ancient-looking manuscripts, librarians at work, people reading, contrasted with empty interiors, old photographs on the wall and other memorabilia, views from the windows, entrance ways, exterior views of the libraries, as well shots of the city. The soundscape consists of traffic and other city sounds and Urdu voiceovers – excerpts from interviews with the librarians, the library users and unidentified others. Some of the reasons for the decline of the libraries come through as the changes wrought by the internet, the growing influence of English and contemporary urban culture, an ignorance of local languages and literature, and a lack of care and resources.

One voiceover is of a man who says he cannot identify with what is happening outside; the library is his refuge. Another is of a woman librarian who talks about keeping the library going against many odds, then indicating in a phrase that perhaps her own faith in the undertaking is faltering. We hear a voice asking why the library was closed over days, at particular times, and could the librarian please respond to phone messages.

 

Madiha Aijaz, These Silences Are All the Words

 

We learn that the Saeed Hashmi Reference Library, a bastion of Balochi language and literature, is in turn dominated by Urdu. (According to Wikipedia, Balochi is a Northwestern Iranian language spoken primarily in Balochistan, a region divided between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan). A voiceover tells us that some people (in authority) are looking at what people are reading here and asking questions, exposing the Big Brother attitude of a centralizing Urdu-dominated State and the growing influence of radical Islam in Pakistan.

While I found this film atmospheric and interesting, I also felt a little lost while watching it, perhaps because I lacked context. These Silences are All the Words nevertheless communicated its central message of language, literature and culture under threat, also conveying that there are still people who care as readers or as custodians.

With Bells on Her Feet (15 minutes) is a striking portrait of the art and resistance of Pakistani dancer, Sheema Kermani. At 68, she is an indomitable presence. At the beginning of the movie she says: “For me, there is a direct relationship between dance and liberation. When a woman stands on stage to dance, what she’s saying is: Here I am, I’m not ashamed of my body, I am confident, and I do not fear you.”

Here again we have a marriage of visuals and voiceovers. The voice is that of the articulate Kermani who describes and defends her art with infectious passion. The visuals show her at work: performing, teaching. There is some archival footage as well. These sequences are interspersed with images of people moving through everyday life in Karachi.

The film traces the genesis of political and cultural repression in Pakistan to the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978-88) who introduced Sharia laws. We see close-ups of official forms that say: “Dance, obscenity and nudity not allowed.” Kermani had to re-label her performances when she filled out these forms. Incredibly, she got away with performing, and has continued her work despite death threats in recent years. Many other dancers however have left the country.

Towards the end of the film, a voiceover tells us of the suicide bomb attack at Sehwan Sharif, a Sufi shrine in Karachi that killed 90 people in February 2017. Soon after the brutal massacre, the devotees, including Kermani, pray and dance at the shrine.

“My journey has been a lonely one but what keeps me going is a hope that future generations will embrace dance, not just as an art form, but as a means to achieve humility, freedom and beauty,” says Kermani. The film is an essential, well-rendered tribute to an artist who richly and courageously embodies her art and ideals.

 

Jawad Sharif, Indus Blues


Indus Blues
(76 minutes) by Jawad Sharif is a stark, touching, beautiful depiction of impending cultural death. It also throws light on how a revisionist view of culture is being expressed in Pakistan. It travels up the Indus introducing us to poor, marginalized, fantastically talented, folk musicians who take great pride in, and are very knowledgeable about, their musical lineages, which hark back to the distant past. Unfortunately, they are the last in the line.

With them will also disappear some unique musical instruments like the boreendo, played by Fakeer Zulfiqar and the sarinda by Ejaz Sarhadi. The boreendo is a small, calibrated clay pot with holes – a wind instrument, and the sarinda is essentially a bowed, string instrument.

The film takes us to starkly beautiful, desert landscapes and frames the informal performances against mud huts, thorny trees, children at play, and women at work. The musicians are often dressed in strikingly traditional costumes and jewellery. We also see the more urban musicians framed against heritage sites like a mosque and a garden. Some are filmed performing on simple boats that float on the mighty Indus.

The film also depicts the careful work and dedication of the craftsmen who make the musical instruments locally, and who are often musicians themselves. A telling scene portrays Ejaz Sarhadi in traditional garb, playing the sarinda, accompanied by his son in modern clothes, on the sax. Most of the musicians address the difficulties involved in passing musical heritage to the next generation in the 21st century.

As if the disappearance of this music because of the “lack of economic sustenance, poor opportunities, low market demand and lack of government patronage” isn’t enough, director Jawad Sharif explains the other hurdle these artists face: “There is no doubt that music is a rich and inseparable part of the cultures in Pakistan, but the increasingly menacing religious orthodoxy and obscurantism are jeopardizing this beautiful form of creative expression. I believe our very civilization is under threat…The musicians and craftsmen that we have featured in this film have first-hand accounts of harassment and violence at the hands of religious clerics and their followers. Even the makers of this film were physically threatened and obstructed by some miscreants in some of the communities covered.” And we get to witness all this on camera.

This film is in contrast to Song of Lahore, another film shown at SAFFM a couple of years ago, made by Oscar award winner, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy with Andy Schocken. A sort of Pakistani Buena Vista Social Club, it is about musicians who had scattered and gone underground during the repressive years. They come together to create a roots-fusion-jazz sound popularized via internet videos. They end up being invited to play with Wynton Marsalis and his musicians at the Lincoln Center in New York. One of the reasons for this success and for who gets highlighted and helped vs who gets ignored seems to be based on opportunities available in urban Pakistan as opposed to what is out there in the backwaters.

I found myself crying throughout the film. When I left the theatre, it was cold comfort to know that at least Indus Blues was able to record these musicians and their lives. Perhaps the film will bring about a “rescue mission.” Whatever the case, it was a privilege to witness the haunting and soulful art of these wonderful musicians and bear witness, albeit briefly, to their lives.

 

Bios of the filmmakers

In her films, photography and writing, Madiha Aijaz (1981-2019, Pakistan) explored how people experience pleasure and privacy in reordered urban spaces. She was a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship (2010) and the ROSL Visual Arts fellowship (2017). She obtained an MFA in Photography from Parsons – The New School for Design, NY. Her works have been presented at Chobi Mela X in Dhaka, Bangladesh (2019), the International Film Festival of Rotterdam (2019) and the Karachi Biennale in Karachi, Pakistan (2017), and in Liverpool.

Her book with Reema Abbasi on the Hindu temples in Pakistan was published in 2014 (Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience, Niyogi Books, New Delhi). Aijaz also served as Assistant Professor at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, and as Visiting Professor at Habib University.

Jawad Sharif is a Pakistani filmmaker who believes in using his skill as medium to inspire social change. He started his career in 2007 and has also directed several documentary films and a drama series for TV. He worked on a number of socially and culturally sensitive film projects involving the themes of human rights and social injustice, as well as arts and culture. He has contributed as the cinematographer and editor to the critically acclaimed K2 and the Invisible Footmen, which has been screened and won accolades in festivals around the world.

Taimur Rahim is a producer and director from Pakistan. He completed a Bachelor’s degree in Film and Television at Concordia University in Montréal and later finished a Master’s degree in Film and Digital Image at the University of Sydney. Taimur has worked in television for over 10 years. His work includes producing and filming television programs in Pakistan, Australia and the UAE. With Bells on Her Feet is his first major independently made documentary.

 

 

Land for Fatimah by Veena Gokhale, Guernica Editions (Canada), 2018

 

Veena Gokhale’s second book but first novel is a bridge spanning cultures and languages across South Asia, Africa and Canada. It is about the separation of vulnerable populations from their ancestral land through bureaucratic systems set up to work against Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The ubiquitous forms, documents and multifarious “schemes” add a legal veneer over the rights of those who belong “to their land, not the other way around,” and for whom the buying or selling of land is an incomprehensible “abstraction.”

Regardless of whether it is a small slum in Andheri (Bombay) or Fatimah’s village of Ferun – the Aanke people’s family farmland in the fictional country of Kamorga (Africa) – the decisions made by Bombay’s district municipality or Kamorga’s central government are irrevocable. Shanty huts are bulldozed to build colonies, and ancestral land is taken over for cocoa production. Promises for compensation are made and broken as a matter of course. Hopes are built and shattered, filling generations with powerlessness: “When land is abundant . . . communal rights can exist more easily. But as it becomes more scarce, individual rights advance.”

And flowing stealthily beneath is the deep animosity of the Kakwa against the minority Aanke people displaced from their land into the settlement of Madafi. Originally from West Africa, the Aanke do not belong, not in Kamorga, one of the many countries “collapsed into AFRICA.” Among all Kamorgans, there is an unspoken code: “support your own people against a foreigner.”

Working to relieve some of the stress within this environment are well-intentioned multinational non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as HELP (Health, Education and Livelihood Skills Partnership). These organizations are tightly bound by complex protocols that clearly identify the “regulars” with identity cards who can be served, and the “irregulars” who are supposed to be turned away. Although exceptions are made for IDPs, HELP offices in Toronto and Kamorga can never agree upon recognizing the Aanke people as IDPs since they are believed to have received compensation for their land. HELP staff therefore do their best to serve the “irregulars” who show up “the day after and the day after . . . lining up on the verandah, spilling up into the sun-roasted compound, waiting patiently for hours and days on end.”

The list of names at the beginning of the book helps the reader in keeping track of the slew of characters. To name a few: Anjali Bhave Bhagat, acting Executive Director of HELP’s African regional office, who provides a central perspective to the novel; hard-working Mary Iwu (Anjali’s maid) and her son, Gabriel; Elizabeth, Anjali’s loyal assistant; Fatimah Ditta and her immediate and extended family of Aanke farmers; Grace Madaki, the iron-fisted chairperson of HELP; and Hassan, the charming and unforgettable contractor hired by HELP. The fictional language they speak is Morga, Kamorga’s national language.

Whereas on the one hand, Land for Fatimah is about the poor and the dispossessed, it is also about the plight of foreign or local NGOs: “Community Based Organizations, Charities – linked to religious groups or otherwise, organizations spun from trusts, organizations linked to universities and other institutions” that do not amount to more than “drops in an ocean of need.” Forced to categorize people, they end up helping some while ignoring others. Although a few of these organizations become corrupt, “some wrong-headed, others merely inefficient,” almost all of them are “well intentioned.” In actual terms, there is not much that they can change, but it is difficult to imagine life without them.

Land of Fatimah provides a rare insight into the day-to-day challenges faced by these organizations. Set against the backdrop of busy city streets with swarming Matatas (privately-owned mini-vans) and the all-consuming dust of African countryside, this novel makes a great read.

“high density settlement – view from gilbert hill, Andheri Mumbai” (CC BY 2.0) Madhav Pai

Curry: Eating, Reading and Race by Naben Ruthnum

Coach House Books, Exploded Views Series, 2017.

When it comes to word association, some words are more potent than others. Like curry.

“Curry isn’t real . . . .  It’s a leaf, a process, a certain kind of gravy with uncertain ingredients surrounding a starring meat or vegetable . . . but it’s also an Indian fairy tale composed of cooks, Indians, émigrés, colonists, eaters, readers, and writers.

Fuck off, my ideal reader might be saying right now. Of course it’s real, it was on my plate and soaking into your naan last night. And you’d be right, sort of. But even if the flavour is real, and delicious, it’s also become a crucial element of how the story of South Asian cultural identity is told . . . .”

So begins Toronto-based writer Naben Ruthnum’s dazzling and long essay, which successfully marries erudite, penetrating socio-cultural and literary analysis with a personal exploration of eating, reading and race.

Ruthnum’s parents immigrated to Canada from Mauritius. Trying to grow up “Canadian” in Kelowna, British Columbia, he visited Mauritius just once, at age 9. While he proudly claimed the “curry” made at his home as authentic and defended it as part of his cultural identity, he rejected “curry books.” These were books authored by people with Indian names, with stereotypical fonts and images on their covers.

“There was an acceptable authenticity in what we ate, one that I felt counter to the books with various brown hands, red fabrics, clutched mangoes, and shielded faces that turned up on our shelves . . . .”

In the book’s first section, “Eating,” Ruthnum deconstructs food writing, including recipe books, bringing in his own experiences of making and eating curries. Myth making and romanticism abound here, with memories of grandmothers’ and mothers’ kitchens. But cooking “authentic family recipes” comes hard to the second generation, given the imprecision of the recipes handed down from relatives! And some then resort to buying cookbooks by Indo-British cooking celebrity, Madhur Jaffrey.

Ruthnum acknowledges briefly that Indian food is as hard to define and encompass as curry, given the incredible regional variety. He writes that myth making and attempts to pin down authenticity expanded further when it came to curry books. Through the 1970s and 80s, “South Asian literature” became mainstream, and the “disconnected-family/roots-rediscovery page-turner” became a sub-genre within that larger genre. These books, both fiction and nonfiction, typically contrasted “the pure-if-backward East with the corrupt-but-free West,” and were largely “nostalgic, authenticity-seeking reconciliation-of-present-with past family narratives.”

There are of course more subtle and nuanced curry books, very much part of great South Asian literature. Ruthnum details a number of authors and books of this kind. But since the somewhat problematic success of curry books, which after all pander to stereotypical views rather than exploring new ground, South Asian writers in the diaspora started getting a strong message on what kind of book they should write. There is a growing Western and diaspora audience for such books, and the sub-genre includes Western writers like Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray Love).

There are ironic and lighter moments in the book like Pakistani-American novelist Soniah Kamal’s “mango” dilemma. Not wanting to pander to an “orientalist Western gaze,” she mulls over the issue, finally allowing her characters to eat the fruit in a summer scene set in Pakistan! Tropes reflect real circumstances, says Ruthnum, who feels some sympathy for the affirmation of alienation that makes (some) readers turn to curry books.

Ruthnum’s last chapter on race is his most powerful. Here he deconstructs many homogenized, sanitized, “banalized” concepts and realities, including the South Asian diaspora:

“A poisonous, crucial element of this imposed expectation is that brown people and their books should look back, into a past and a place that may never have existed.”

Despite all obstacles, Ruthnum demands multiple narratives spanning many genres from culture (not just literature) about and by brown people, and finds South Asian stand-up comics already taking this on.

I took courage from these words:

“The realities of racism and the white majority dominance of life in the West defines how brown people are seen, how they must act, and what they are allowed to achieve – but this doesn’t need to limit our imagination of ourselves, or lessen the distinctiveness and individual nature of experience, especially as expressed in art…”

He has set aside his first novel, with some curry book connotations, for now, and will be publishing a thriller instead (Find You in the Dark) in 2018. The book will be published under the pseudonym Nathan Ripley. A copout? In “Curry” he offers a convincing argument for why he chooses to go this route.

[NOTE: A different and shorter version of this essay, with another title, has appeared elsewhere.]

 

Kabari ani? How are you? Hoori. Good.

I introduce Morga, an invented language, with the above phrase, in my forthcoming novel, Land for Fatimah. In the book, Anjali, the Indo-Canadian protagonist, has taken up a posting in Kamorga, an imaginary east-African country. Despite her five languages (as calculated by her Canadian boss), she is struggling with Morga.

Living as I do between different languages and cultures makes for a stimulating and interesting existence, though not necessarily an easy one. There are some questions that confront me as a minority writer writing in English, and I take them up in this essay.

What do you do when a lot of the reality you portray takes place in a non-western culture where English is only one of the languages?

My solution: sprinkle your prose with words from other languages. As I explain in “A Note on Language” in Land for Fatimah, “I strongly believe in using non-English words and phrases in my fiction to bring home to the reader, directly and tangibly, the fact that s/he is reading about a non-Anglo culture.”

Growing up in India, I learnt my first language, Marathi, at home. I was sent to an English school right from kindergarten. Hindi, the language of the state I lived in, became my second language at school. In the Indian Constitution, Hindi is the designated language of the Central Government, and so is English. In addition to these two, India has 20 other “official” languages. Generally speaking, every time you cross a state boundary, you are in another “language territory.”

I was in my early 20s when I came across an essay by a Hong Kong-born writer of Chinese origin who described English as his principle language. Thanks to him, I found a way to describe the place of English in my life.

When I became a journalist, I exuberantly introduced some Hindi words into an English article. (I worked for English publications.) I was challenged by my editor, who came from southern India and knew little Hindi/Urdu, which are north Indian languages. Her reaction also reflected the complicated language politics in India. Reluctantly, she allowed me to retain a few words, with the English translation in brackets.

This was around the time that Salman Rushdie “decolonized the English language” through the innovative use of that language, which included sprinkling Hindi and Urdu words throughout “Midnight’s Children,” his groundbreaking novel that won the Booker Prize. He did not explain the “foreign” words.

Zoom to Canada in 2012. Guernica Editions had accepted my manuscript entitled Bombay Wali and other stories. (Bombay Wali means a woman from Bombay.) Characteristically, it contained some Hindi, Urdu and Marathi words. I suggested putting an asterisk next to the words and explaining them in footnotes. My editor, Michael Mirolla, rightly protested. Some words then would have had five asterisks or more! A makeshift solution was found in explaining a word here and there in the main text and adding a glossary explaining other words and phrases. In Land for Fatimah, we italicized the “foreign” words and phrases, as is customary, and put the translations right next to them.

I have asked myself if naming my book A Woman from Bombay instead of Bombay Wali could have resulted in more sales. I don’t have regrets, but the thought lingers.

The language issue is somewhat easier to tackle than style. “Use the active voice, short sentences and don’t overdo the adjectives.” This advice, commonly doled out to writers, always made me uncomfortable. True, it is intended more for non-fiction, but it permeates everything. But how can I actualize it, given the complexity of Indian cultures – and now diasporic cultures – that I write about?

When you’re dealing with a layered, mediated history, things are rarely clear-cut. Indian mythology is circular, dense, dazzling and inconsistent, but still influential today, while Indian culture also reflects a myriad of other influences, including western.

“Use ‘very’ sparingly,” was another piece of advice I received. Really? India is a “very” country, was my internal response. As for adjectives, I tend to gravitate towards a string of them to describe something. (See example in paragraph above!)

As a writer, an important goal you are supposed to strive for is finding your voice. Finding my voice while following the instructions mentioned above feels akin to breathing deeply and evenly while doing a complicated yoga pose!

Lately I came upon an essay by Rahul Varma, artistic director of Teesri Duniya (Third World), a “diverse” theatre company based in Montréal. The essay spoke to me:

“Hierarchy is associated with cultural hegemony, where artistic excellence is mediated by race and dominant culture. As a consequence, the excellence of visible minorities’ art is judged from the Occidental viewpoint that upholds standards of the dominant group, pre-supposing visible-minority art, which is different in form and content [emphasis mine], as inferior. Their art world is stereotypically perceived as informal, low-status and folkloric, their cultures exotic. Folklore has a nostalgic appeal to the Occidental mindset on account of its exoticism, which feeds into its stereotypes of what visible-minority art should be. ‘Othering’ is not just a political phenomenon, but extends into the domain of the arts.

This is why a hegemonic process immersed in Occidentalism fails to equitably evaluate racialized companies, which refuse to attune to the stereotypes and nostalgia of the dominant group.”[1]

Post-colonial theory began to explore these themes decades ago, and diaspora literature and writing has spawned other related analysis. Style is not only shaped by race, class, gender, nationality, etc. – artistic tastes and standards are also set and applauded, or denigrated, by elites. In Maharashtra, my home state in India, dalit literature – which later came to be recognized as a dynamic and innovative force – was initially rejected by the established Brahmanical literary circles as unacceptable in terms of language usage, style and subject matter. There is a similar trajectory for black writing and culture in the U.S.A.

My own writing style had changed after living for two decades in Canada. While Bombay Wali reflects Indian English, idiom and usage, Land for Fatimah is more of a hybrid. This evolution, in my case at least, has been natural rather than imposed.

Along with language and style, there is the actual content of literature to consider. Naben Ruthnum, in his penetrating, long-form essay, Curry, Eating, Reading and Race (Coach House Books, 2017), describes the evolution of what he terms “curry books.” He writes about “books with various brown hands, red fabrics, clutched mangoes and shielded faces” that he, of Mauritian-Indian ancestry, growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, turned away from as a child.

An established Indo-Canadian woman writer whom I know, whose back-cover book photograph included the statue of a Hindu god, remarked: “We are not even religious, but my publisher insisted on that photo.” This indeed is peddling exotica.

Delving into “curry books” as an adult, Ruthnum found greater variation and talent in them than he had expected, but nevertheless, there were recurrent themes of South Asian immigrant lives in the West with the nostalgic pull of the motherland, and the “pure-if backward East in opposition to the corrupt-but-free West.”

Ruthnum, like Varma, talks about the difficulties faced by the western art/publishing establishment when dealing with visible minority playwrights/writers who buck the conventions of Indian/South Asian diasporic literature and defy convenient labelling. He also talks about the self-censorship regarding subject matter, which immigrant and visible minority writers may practice, given that curry books have established a readership and a formula for achieving success.

On the language issue, Ruthnum says: “There’s ingrained colonialism and empire in the mere existence of any brown narrative written or filmed in a non-Indian language: for the ones in English, the connection is inescapable.”

In acknowledging the inventive use of English, he mentions Salman Rushdie, among others. Rushdie has been acknowledged by many, including Indo-Canadian film director Deepa Mehta, for having a liberating influence and showing what could be done in rendering the Indian reality in English.

Among the lesser-known Indian writers is Alan Sealy, an Anglo-Indian writer who is also, like Rushdie, a Booker Prize winner. I encountered his novel The Trotter Nama (1988) in my youth. His infectious play with language in this book has stayed with me. The influence of countless early Indian writers and poets who confidently claimed English as their own cannot be underestimated.

Reflecting on my own arc, going from a collection of short stories set in India, to a novel set in Africa (albeit with an Indo-Canadian protagonist), to a manuscript of sensuous stories set not only in different places but also in mythological settings, Indian and western, I wonder about market appeal. Where is the coherence of themes and geography that is supposed to help gain a loyal following? And yet, isn’t an imagination that roams freely an asset to a writer, and to literature as a whole?

Right theory, wrong universe, perhaps?

How many times have I had literary journals amply praise a short story and urge me to keep writing and submitting, before rejecting it with the words: “this does not fit our issue”? Far too many. Could the lack of fit be attributed to the language, style and content? This has led me to seek out journals that explicitly publish “diverse” writing, resulting in publication, yes, but also deepening the ghettoization that exists and is perhaps becoming more entrenched in contemporary Canadian literature.

I remember a conversation with a Nigerian-Canadian woman writer at Montréal’s Blue Metropolis Literary Festival a few years ago. It was about her first novel set in Nigeria.  “People are interested in my book, but when it comes to buying, they say, oh, we already have the book of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,” she said.

Adichie is a well-known, best-selling, Nigerian-American woman writer. Worryingly, this sort of quota concept also seems to inform the publishing world.

At the same time, given the greater openness to new cultures in Canada today, one hopes that literature from minority writers is also being better received. When a publisher introduces writers from minority groups, a greater effort at marketing is needed, at least to begin with. Although the mere selection of minority writers might be seen as a courageous step, particularly in new genres for the publisher, real change is elusive without that extra effort of highlighting the writer and the work.

If literature and the arts help open hearts and minds – and there is research that shows that reading fiction helps people develop empathy – then minority artists and writers indeed have something to contribute, in more ways than one.

Says award-winning Asian-Canadian writer Madeleine Thien:

“Like many writers, I believe that literature not only defies borders, but it brings the periphery to the centre. It draws our gaze to the crevices and the minute, the cracks in the epic, the multiple selves within the individual. It adds labyrinth upon labyrinth to our shared experience of the times in which we are now living.”[ii]

A noble and uplifting statement! One hopes that the ideas contained in it are accepted and applied by the various actors and sectors that make up the Canadian literary landscape.

 

[1] Montreal Gazette, “Systemic Discrimination and Cultural Hegemony in Arts Funding,” November 14, 2017 http://montrealgazette.com/opinion/opinion-systemic-discrimination-and-cultural-hegemony-in-arts-funding

[ii]The Shattered Mirror: On the Migrant in Literature and Politics,” presented as part of the International Writing Program Panel Series at the University of Iowa, Iowa City Public Library, on the eve of the 2008 US Presidential Election.

 

 

 

 

Les dépossédés – opening shot

 

Film Review of Mathieu Roy’s The Dispossessed (Les dépossédés)

 

The camera shows a woman in a field. The ground around her is rough, with a bit of greenery in the distance. She goes down into a ditch, comes up with her shallow enamel bowl filled with water and tilts it into a watering can. In this way, she fills the whole can then takes it a bit further out into the field and waters the parched ground. Though the ditch with its muddy water isn’t shown, we can imagine it and we realize that this is a precious resource for her.

The camera stands still – an observer, interested but unobtrusive. There are no zooms, no close-ups, no cinematic gimmicks that viewers have become so accustomed to.

This opening shot from Mathieu Roy’s The Dispossessed (Les dépossédés) encapsulates all that is to follow. This is the life of a small farmer in a so-called developing country – an existence replete with repetitive, continuous physical labour that goes unnoticed in the high-tech frenzy of urban existence.

The small farmers in Roy’s film are ever-present in our world, have been for time immemorial, with their basic tools, humble dwellings and simple diet, and they are numerous, 3.5 billion to be precise. And yet they are almost invisible. Roy’s intention in The Dispossessed is to imprint their hardy existence on our consciousness.

The film brings to mind the magnificent photographs of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado in his book entitled Workers. Here he powerfully portrays, in stark black and white, labourers of all ilk from across the world, documenting and dignifying this million-armed surge of humanity. Roy’s ambition goes beyond bearing witness. Aided by his talented cinematographer, Benoît Aquin, he poses the question: why are these feeders of the world so marginalized themselves and often so malnourished?

That question becomes a piercing arrow in this political film, which goes from micro to macro settings, often from one frame to the next. Given the palpable reality of peasant life that it embodies, a bird’s eye view of a giant fallen tree and women hacking away at it with an axe to make firewood; a misty shot of two young farmers seeding and spraying their fields; the slick precincts of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the high-tech lab of Syngenta, the world’s largest crop chemical producer with approximately US$13.4 billion in 2015 (source: Wikipedia), come as a visceral shock.

Worldviews collide, particularly when Roy interviews a left-wing Indian economist and award-winning developmental journalist, P. Sainath (Everybody Loves A Good Drought, 1996, Penguin India), who, along with others, delves into the whys and hows of farmer disempowerment – western protectionism of agriculture and the dumping of cheap surplus grain and other foodstuff in developing nations; farmers forced to shift from food to commercial crops that are priced by a volatile commodities market, wreaking havoc for small farmers; the need to take loans to buy expensive and harmful chemical inputs that have caused massive indebtedness in India and a wave of farmer suicides; not to mention the degradation of soil fertility and other environmental fallouts of neoliberal policies.

Les dépossédés – P. Sainath

In underlining the global scope of the problem, Roy takes us to Switzerland where traditional dairy farmers in a remote, rural community talk about their inability to compete with a market flooded with commercial, factory-produced milk – an ethos that treats cows as milk-producing units, making profane the age-old bond between a farmer and his or her animals.

For me the success of this 3-hour film rests in the indelible images of the unending work of farmers and people in farm-related sectors, and the way the film weaves together the human and political story (micro-macro) into a cogent and compelling whole.

“These (small) farmers are inefficient; they should be doing industrial jobs; let global agribusiness feed the millions,” is a common cry of market-is-king economics. Roy’s rejoinder to this is to show the displaced rural poor, working on a huge construction site in an Indian city, with no safety equipment, babies tied to the women labourers’ backs or older children walking around on slabs of concrete hundreds of feet above the ground. The camera shows a crumpled sheet on the slab and a woman bathing with water gushing out of a pipe in far shot, letting us know that for these people, even the basic brick structure that we were shown as their home in their village is now gone.

My only critique of the film is that the approach of ‘show not tell’ and ‘letting the camera sit still as action unrolls before it’ (that is so life-like and effective in depicting the farmers’ lives) does not work when the camera is trained through a window on executives dining in expensive suits or on a blonde woman relaxing on the roof of the WTO, taking her sunglasses on and off and talking on her cell phone. The camera, humane until then and intelligently probing, grows petty and didactic, falling short of the systemic critique that the film otherwise makes so well.

Les dépossédés

The last scene is also a telling one. Now the farmer has somehow procured some grain and is shown squatting near a mud hearth at dusk, cooking cereal in a pot that she balances with some difficulty over her faulty “stove.” She stirs her proverbial pot, and we realize how very little she has to eat and how precarious is her existence.

These images in the film will stay with you long after you’ve exited the theatre and the statistics and arguments have faded. The conviction will remain with you that a terrible wrong is being inflicted here – one that must be exposed, fought against and righted.

 

 

 

The South Asian Film Festival of Montréal (SAFFM), launched by the Kabir Cultural Centre in 2011, has grown year by year in scope and reach. This year it runs over two weekends: October 27-29 and November 3-5.

http://www.saffm.centrekabir.com/en/

 

Veena Gokhale spoke to Dipti Gupta, member of the programming committee. Gupta teaches at Dawson College in the Department of Cinema and Communications. She curated the SAFFM with Karan Singh, a Montréal-based writer and filmmaker.

 

V.G.   The films chosen for this year look really interesting and innovative, taking on various issues. They include short films and feature-length movies. What, for you, are the highlights?

D.G.   We have a diaspora panel with four Montréal-based, South Asian filmmakers (Eisha Marjara, Arshad Khan, Karan Singh and Ameesha Joshi) and one from San Francisco (Pallavi Somusetty). Our aim is to encourage and engage with the diaspora filmmakers, and start the conversation on the kinds of films they have been making, what more can be made, and the stories that are part of this community. I hope we learn more about their journey.

We are celebrating the work of Ali Kazimi, a distinguished filmmaker based in Toronto who has made some very important documentaries. We will chronicle his work and show one of his latest films – Random Acts of Legacy.

We have award-winning films, and films that are premiere presentations in Canada. The wide range of stories include refugee camp uncertainties and longings in Northern Pakistan in A Walnut Tree, observations on the Maoist movement in the mountains of Nepal in Kalo Pothi, deep insight into North American immigration in From the Land of Gandhi, and a film that celebrates colour but is shot in pristine black and white, A Billion Colour Story. Also on the program are films like A Ballad of Maladies, which captures the struggles of artists and their survival in highly militarized Kashmir, and Mukti Bhavan (Hotel Salvation), a comedy about family and relationships, the rigidity of religion and the demands of blind belief, while debating life and death.

Some of the Festival’s bolder films include Lipstick Under My Burkha, the story of four women who attempt secret acts of rebellion to break the monotony of their lives. The film attempts to shift the male gaze in cinema and was censored for several months, finally receiving clearance from the Censor Board in India. There are also films sponsored by Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival’s Global Initiative, focusing on LGBTQ issues in and around South Asian communities: Transindia, Normalcy and Any Other Day, along with Escaping Agra.

 

V.G.   I noticed quite a few LGBTQ films featured this year. Can you speak about them? Was it a conscious choice to include LGBTQ films?

D.G.   I beg to disagree. Of the total 19 screenings, we have only 3 short films that speak to LGBTQ issues. Our aim is to bring in a variety of issues, and we like to explore themes that are underrepresented or have had no visibility in the past years. There are several artists/filmmakers in South Asia who are focusing on marginal communities and identities that had been taboo in the past, including LGBTQ, migrants’ stories and stories of people who have not been part of the mainstream. If you look at our program, you will see a lot of these voices represented.

 

V.G.   One of the films you are opening with is Manto. You are screening an extract from this bio-pic about the Indo-Pakistani author Saadat Hasan Manto. He is a towering figure in South Asia, but audiences here may not know him. Could you tell us who he was and why he is important?

D.G.   I read Sadat Hasan Manto, an Indo-Pakistani writer and playwright, during my tweens and was fascinated by the strength of his writing. His story “Toba Tek Singh” still resonates in my psyche. Here, the author addresses the fact that in 1947, when India and Pakistan became independent, the people in both these nations continued to remain slaves to prejudice, religious fanaticism, barbaric acts and inhumanity. Sadly, to this day, we are embroiled in the same tensions and we witness this everywhere.

When I heard that Nandita Das was making a film on Manto, I was intrigued and wrote to her and her company. They immediately replied and sent us the short clip that we are presenting. We hope to show the full-length feature film next year.

Manto is a statement and represents an ethos. Today, in a world where free speech has become a privilege and is no longer a basic right, Manto speaks to the core of this debate. Thus we hope to start our festival introducing this idea to our community members. SAFFM would like to be a forum where free speech is celebrated and encouraged.

 

V.G.   The second film on the opening night is the Cannes prize-winning Cinema Travellers, described as “a journey with the traveling cinemas of India.” You say on your website that distinguished filmmaker Rock Demers will be in attendance. What’s the link between the film and Demers?

D.G.   We are very fortunate to have Rock Demers inaugurate our festival and do the talkback for Cinema Travellers. It is a story about exhibiting films in the remote villages in India where there is no access to theatre or cable television, and people watch films once a year!

Rock is an important producer of this province and of this country, and has been a huge fan and supporter of films from India. I also think that he knows more about Indian cinema than many people from India in Montréal.

In 1999, Rock produced Hathi (Elephant) directed by Philippe Gautier. When I saw that film, I was spellbound by the beautiful story of a mahout and his elephant. It was the premiere, and Rock talked about his love for India and Indian films. This registered with me, and I got to know him through some of my connections in the field.

Through the years, we have had several exchanges with Rock and learnt from him. Karan and I interviewed him in 2013 for our short film At Home in the World, where he talks about the kind of films he has watched from India, and their directors.

We felt that Rock would be the best person to talk about Cinema Travellers, given his background as a producer in Québec and the struggles he has gone through to circulate the work he has produced.

 

V.G.   There are quite a few films by women film directors, and not all of them by middle-class women, as one would expect. It was heartening to note, for example, that there is a film by Manasi Deodhar, who lives in a small village in Maharashtra. Do you think it’s easier now for women to make films in South Asia?

D.G.   Today, with changing technologies and greater awareness, I hope that the landscape is changing, and we have seen this. I agree that people in cities had/have more access, but I believe that there is strength in every sector, and everyone has a story. Today, a lot is being done on extremely low budgets. We received this film through a FilmFreeway submission.[1] This is a perfect platform for everyone to submit, and creates a kind of a level playing field. Both Karan and I choose offbeat themes and are keen to introduce filmmakers who are not that well known.

 

V.G.   You are taking some of the films to Chicoutimi this year. How did that come about? I would imagine most of the films are subtitled only in English. Would this be a problem to taking the festival around in Québec?

D.G.   Kabir Centre is always willing to explore presenting events in other cities in Québec. For this we need a local partner who can take care of the logistics and who can mobilize an audience. In Chicoutimi, we have Bibliothèques de Saguenay in that role, and this is the reason why we have been able to think of taking a mini-version of the Festival there.

French subtitles are very desirable for a location such as Chicoutimi, and we are planning to take some movies that already have French subtitles.

V.G.   You decided to charge an entrance fee this year, which I think is a good idea. What was the reason for this change?

D.G.   Running a festival such as SAFF Montréal involves a lot of expenses. In addition to resources that can be allotted from Kabir Centre’s own reserves, the board members are exploring the help that can be obtained from various funding agencies, donors in the community and local businesses. Ticket revenues are a small part of the solution needed for making the Festival financially viable.

 

V.G.   There is a lot of emphasis on after-film screening discussions at SAFFM. Why is that?

D.G.   I have always believed that any art form – cinema, theatre, painting, literature, mainstream or underground – only comes to its fruition after one shares it, discusses it. It is in the multiple interpretations and conversations that we reach the depth of its true expression. We hope that the talkbacks with the audience, with the filmmakers in attendance, with film scholars also present can push the conversations above and beyond what we see on screen. Festivals such as ours enliven local life. They are an attempt to start multiple dialogues, create understanding and build bridges across communities.

 

V.G.   How would you describe the evolution of SAFFM?

D.G.   Festivals always take time to take shape, and funding is always a challenge. It is never easy to find a permanent place to screen the films, procure the rights for them and invite filmmakers. This takes a lot of time and effort. Karan and I have been working on this for over 10 months.

Before 2011, Kabir Centre used to screen interesting movies as part of its film club. The decision to organize the screenings into a festival format was taken in 2011 in the context of the Year of India in Canada. In the initial years, the Indian High Commission helped us with copies of films that they had and also with auditorium rental. As the choice for the films expanded beyond old classics or current Bollywood films, we stopped approaching them.
Some years we have had a specific theme. For example, in 2011, we presented three films based on Rabindranath Tagore’s writings, as it was his 150th birth anniversary. In 2012, the theme was “Through a woman’s lens;” in 2013, “100 years of Indian Cinema;” and so on. In 2016, for the first time we invited submissions from independent filmmakers through web-based FilmFreeway, so our presentation was a combination of submitted and invited films. In 2017, we are continuing the same format, and have added awards for the best short and best feature films.

With time our vision has strengthened, and we have a better idea of what we wish to bring to the Montréal audience. Our attempt is to get a wide range of films, and each year we are slowly trying to reach more filmmakers.

The Festival is meant to be a window into the dynamic world of cinema from South Asia. South Asian cinema is not homogenous, and is in many languages. I often see that the language aspect is lost in translation, and the subtitles do not do justice. This is always a challenge during programming. We hope that as the festival strengthens, we will be able to attract more representatives who speak multiple South Asian languages.

SAFFM is a platform for artists to not only submit their work, but also be present in person. We have guest filmmakers who are travelling from South Asia and other parts of the world to join us this year for audience talkbacks and panel discussions. Our attempt is to encourage intercultural dialogue through our choice of films.

 

[1] https://filmfreeway.com/