The Enzian Theater's decision to abandon its expansion affects its mini-festivals more than any other element of the arthouse cinema. But even with just one screen, the theater's South Asian Film Festival remains an important cultural contribution. And though this year's documentaries aren't as well made as in past years, the variety of genres, subjects and styles – plus tasty cucumber chutney, vegetable samosas and chicken tikka – makes the festival a worthy three-day destination.
The 24th annual celebration of the culture of the Indian subcontinent begins Saturday, Sept. 29, at 11 a.m. with the Southeast premiere of Dark Wind (3 ½ stars out of 5), a Hindi-language drama set in the Rajasthan region of northwest India, where old, blind Hedu bemoans the heat and drought that have turned his family's fortunes to dust.
"Earlier we had four seasons," Hedu tells his granddaughter. "The wind brings the winter, summer and everything else. In my youth, it would bring sweet fragrances from all four directions. I don't know what has happened to it now. It feels like the wind has some illness."
Mixing familial tragedy with small doses of comedy, director Nila Madhab Panda has fashioned a profound, if underdeveloped, parable of suicide, sin, loyalty and loss – methodically viewed against the backdrop of climate change and featuring solid performances by Sanjay Mishra as Hedu and Ranvir Shorey as a debt collector dubbed "the god of death." As strange a pair as you'd ever meet, the two form an unlikely partnership to protect their families but, by doing so, risk their souls.
Introduced in 2016, Chhota Cinema: New Indian Shorts has quickly become a popular festival addition. "Chhota" means small in Hindi, and though this year's five short films – scheduled for Saturday at 1:45 p.m. – are brief, they are long on emotional impact.
"Bad things can happen to us, but do they define who we are?" asks the protagonist of The Peanut Seller (4 stars). Orphaned on the streets of New Delhi as a child, he struggles with his life's purpose until a fortuitous encounter opens his eyes to both his past and his destiny. This Hindi-language drama, stylistically helmed by Etienne Sievers, will open your eyes too.
The rest of the shorts aren't as stellar, but good genre balance makes it a worthwhile ticket. The Never-Ending Marathon of Mr. Dharam Singh (3 stars) is a slickly produced, funny documentary that examines what it takes to stay young. Shivani (3 stars) is also a doc, but its director chooses a grittier, more intimate approach to the story of a 3-year-old Indian girl trained in archery by parents who think she is destined to carry on their dead son's legacy.
Kaashi (2 stars), a drama about an Indian girl's effort to help her family while overcoming gender stereotypes, is, regrettably, hampered by a muddled story and unimpactful performances. In the end, it's more a PSA for health and sanitation than a mature narrative. And Tara Versus (not previewed) is an English-language dramedy about a stand-up comic who loses her sense of humor when her friend's career success overshadows her own.
The festival continues on Sunday at 11 a.m. with Lovesick (1 ½ stars), a documentary about Suniti Solomon. The first doctor to diagnose AIDS in India, Solomon is now a matchmaker who unites HIV-positive people struggling to find a life partner. HIV still carries a stigma in India, as does being unmarried.
"A single man – people will think of him as a low-life," one interviewee observes. "That's why one has to get married."
Though the doc's heart is in the right place, its camera often isn't, as the movie is poorly filmed and constructed. We almost never see the faces of the couple Solomon is uniting, presumably because they didn't want to be viewed. Instead, we're treated to random, handheld shots of whatever strikes the cinematographer's fancy, combined with tedious interviews and long, slow fades that rob the doc of its emotional impact and lend it a reality-television tone.
The next offering, at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, is not just the best of the festival – it's Norway's foreign-language Oscar entry, and deservedly so. What Will People Say (4 stars) is a shocking look at how far an immigrant Pakistani family will go to preserve their perceived dignity after their 16-year-old daughter is found kissing a boy, a behavior they, as Muslims, consider unacceptable, though they live in liberal Norway.
Featuring unforgettable performances by Maria Mozhdah as the daughter and Adil Hussain (Life of Pi) as her strict but emotionally tortured father, writer-director Iram Haq's Urdu- and Norwegian-language drama is based on her own experiences. Though it is over-reliant on handheld camera, it's the must-see movie of the festival and a powerful reminder of the subjugation of women at the hands of religious extremism.
The festival ends Monday at 6:30 p.m. with the Southeast premiere of its most stylistically challenging film. Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (2 stars) is a startlingly intimate look at the rap/hip-hop/urban music superstar now known as M.I.A. Born in Sri Lanka, she immigrated to England as a child but has never forgotten her Tamil roots. Refusing to play the part of a pop princess, she infuses her work with social commentary while shoving a literal and metaphorical middle finger in the face of the establishment.
If you're not familiar with M.I.A., this alternately gripping and messy documentary won't allow you to fully understand her impact, as director Stephen Loveridge's film is filled with pretentious home videos shot badly over 20 years. And if you don't like M.I.A.'s music, this might be a tough watch, though, surprisingly, the film spends little time analyzing her cross-cultural music (something M.I.A. herself complained about). Instead, it tries to be both a cinema-verité bio-doc and an examination of Sri Lankan genocide. While it has some success at both, the finished product suffers from self-indulgence and narrative clutter.