Personal is Political : South Asian Lens on Vibrant Love
The 5-year evolution of Seattle’s Independent South Asian Film Festival
By Shahana Dattagupta
Having been a close witness to the journey of Tasveer, a local grassroots film organization, I am thrilled that this family of courageous, independent film enthusiasts is demonstrating a marked evolution (and revolution) in presenting perspective through film. They are poised to launch Seattle’s 5th annual Independent South Asian Film Festival (ISAFF), to be held from September 24th to 28th 2008, and this year’s theme is Personal is Political: South Asian Lens on Vibrant Love.
In a poignant way, Tasveer’s journey through 5 festivals has a special resonance with my own parallel journey during the concurrent time. In 2004 when the first ISAFF was screened, I was leaving an 8-year marriage to find myself once again. Since then, as I have struggled – regressed and evolved, unraveled and re-formed, searched and found, cried and laughed – Tasveer’s yearly festival has stood by me like a faithful friend, as if its annual evolution could be a marker of my own. It has provided me, as a South Asian woman rediscovering herself in the context and community of Seattle, on one extreme a platform and forum for common, public expression, and at the other end the cherished opportunity to be quietly anonymous in a comforting place that lovingly cradles the gamut of complexities – feelings, experiences and cultural ramifications – that I have carried around in my personal journey. On both ends of the spectrum, it has given me a special lens through which I can experience a hugely reassuring feeling - that I am not alone.
I find it compelling that rarely does a South Asian film festival present a collective of work bound by a theme like ISAFF does, around which there is a tag and considerable design. A glance at the previous themes presented by Tasveer reveals to me a significant evolution. Beginning in 2004 with One South Asia: Uncensored, Uncut, they have moved through Pushing the Edges: South Asia in a New Frame (2005), South Asia Captured: Social Movements & Reel Moments (2006), and South Asia Cares: Strengthening Roots, One Film at a Time (2007). In tracking these themes I sense a thoughtful, purposeful and choreographed journey through a series of political filters and facets presented via the narrative of bold, often low-budget, independent film. The themes have celebrated concepts of unity, freedom from censorship, pushing edges through art and activism, social justice, and strengthening roots … all pertaining to the region loosely referred to as South Asia, which includes the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. By virtue of being political filters, the themes are held together by a common string – they represent larger movements of the human collective.
This year’s ISAFF makes a bold statement: Personal is Political. Delightfully, it revives and celebrates the unit of the collective - the individual – you and me. In this sense it is not a deviation from the common string linking the previous themes, but enrichment through refocusing on its very source - the individual. It is through our individual lives and the actions and experiences within them that connective patterns are created, and the material of the collective is born. If charity begins at home, politics too begin at home. Further, while the landscape of our individual political impacts can be vast, the first step of such impact is manifested most visibly and strongly in our immediate social partnerships – especially in the one of love partnerships. Thus emerges the second half of the theme: South Asian Lens on Vibrant Love.
I reflect on the obvious - the predominant, mainstream body of work from the region, popularly known under the umbrella of Bollywood - that has had an untiring and unabashedly melodramatic obsession with love, swirling out millions of films about lovelorn couples fighting to preserve their undying love against the pressures of societal norms or caste hierarchies, religious and economic divides, crime and corruption, or in the last decade, the cultural divides between the diaspora and the vehemently “original,” or even love across war-ridden national boundaries. More recently, it has touched on gender issues, sexuality and even gently challenged the institution of marriage. But rarely has it ventured outside the safe realm of heterosexual love. Most of the films being presented in ISAFF this year revolve around the politics of struggling love: Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer (LGBTQ) issues, cross-cultural love, arranged marriage and work being done in the HIV positive / AIDS arena. Titles of the films selected include A Jihad for Love, Before the Rains, Every Good Marriage Begins with Tears, Donkey in Lahore, The World Unseen, 68 Pages, Kissing Cousins, Kagbeni, and Milind Soman Made Me Gay. But ISAFF is not simply about screening films. It is about creating a safe, yet courageous space for all types of people to come together to talk about the emergent South Asian lens on love, sex, racism, queerness, marriage … what incredibly rich and complex feelings shall be revealed through this process … ?
When asked about this year’s theme and its relevance, one of the festival’s directors Farah Nousheen said, “The theme actually started out with a queer film focus, a very important genre in independent South Asian film. Last year, we had screened the experimental queer feature film Yours Emotionally by Sridhar Rangayan from India. There were several people who were confused by it or didn't like it. For me, this was a sign that our audience is not familiar enough with this genre or subject matter to understand and discuss this complex film … Our solution was to make the queer film genre the ISAFF theme. Coincidentally, while we researched films and received film submissions, we found several films on the more encompassing theme of struggling love. We also felt that our audience will be prepared this year to look at love and intimacy since we've had Yoni Ki Baat for two years now. For Tasveer - for both the organizers and our audience - it’s a natural evolution.”
Personally, I am especially delighted for this year’s personal emphasis and lens on love because of my own recent adventures with Yoni ki Baat. In March 2007 and 2008, Tasveer’s festival Aaina, which is focused on women’s issues, showcased this South Asian adaptation of Eve Ensler’s highly political and individualistic play The Vagina Monologues, in which real-life, personal stories are collected from individual women to present the entire gamut of issues around female sexuality, repression and liberation. In the Seattle adaptation, in which I played both years, Yoni ki Baat presented stories collected from real South Asian women either in our local community, or from the Bay area (collected by the South Asian Sisters, who were the first group to perform Yoni ki Baat). Our very own Yoni ki Baat in Seattle has been a raving success two years in a row: the power of politics at the personal level, told through the experiences of the female sexual center, has reverberated in two house-full performances and well beyond. To me, the opportunity to hold stage with a deeply personal story of mine that was until now buried in the secret folds of internalized memory was a truly transformative event. It presented not merely a release, but a new, poignant identification of my reality with countless others who have not yet spoken up, and thus, an empowerment that enabled me to shift from the personal to the collective, from me to we.
This spirit of personal relevance is echoed through the sentiments of all in the Tasveer family. Program coordinator and graphic/web designer for Tasveer, Neelu Bhuman says, “This is as personal as it could get for me because I am queer. So, giving center stage and not just a token presence to ordinarily stigmatized LGBTQ anything (in our case films) is akin to giving me a space to feel alive, supported and respected for who I am. I am hugely thankful to Rita (Meher) and Farah (Nousheen) for having taken the bold and courageous step of being my allies.” Rita Meher, the festival’s other director, says, “I am passionate about ISAFF on the whole and the theme usually evolves based on the interests of our community, the movies that are submitted, the funding we receive, and all that. This year, it happens to be love and marriage, and I love that subject. It’s probably my favorite! I particularly like video portraits of real people and their stories."
It is time, therefore, for all of us in Greater Seattle to see, hear and experience the raw, uncensored, bold imagery of independent films pushing the boundaries on South Asian love - its nature, its forms, its context, its meaning, its expression, its struggles, its possibilities and its power. It is time to hear individual voices, struggles and stories, so that we as a collective may identify with something larger, more comprehensive, connective and inclusive, and recognize and redefine what is South Asian (love), but really, what is universally human (love) in the present time. ISAFF 2008 presents an evolution in that it brings Tasveer’s political mission to the level of personal relevance, and a revolution because it enables and unleashes the universal, transformational power of individual expression and experience through a very fundamental human emotion and capability: LOVE. Due to this universal potential of individual experience, and the power of love in all our lives, I truly feel that the stories being shared through film at this year’s ISAFF will have meaning and relevance not only to the Seattle area’s South Asian community, but to one and all in this culturally, ethnically and politically rich and diverse region of the United States.
The courage, spirit and outspokenness of the Tasveer community are infectious and powerful, kind and compassionate, inclusive and encompassing. As Farah Nousheen says, “We hope for people to get involved and invested in our journey, and also find their own paths. Every year, we provide new information for the audience to process, but this year we are taking it to the next level. And we don’t want them to feel alone in their process of discovery.”
I do hope you will all join!
Shahana Dattagupta is a Seattle-based architectural designer, visual artist, classical vocalist, stage actor and writer. She has written and performed in Tasveer’s production of Yoni ki Baat in 2007 and 2008.