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Meme Weaver

Local distributor Indie Meme brings independent film from India to the U.S.

By Matthew Irwin, Fri., Nov. 8, 2013

<i>I Am</i>
I Am

Real life is a privilege afforded to the educated and elite. By "real life," we mean the everyday struggles of average people as depicted in films. Average people outside of films, meanwhile, would much rather watch an escapist blockbuster than a reenactment of their own day-to-days. This describes the difference between independent cinema and Bollywood in India as related by Alka Bhanot, founder of the Austin-based distribution company Indie Meme.

"For a country with such a large population that faces a harsh reality, [escapism] is important for them," Bhanot says. "When you show films that reflect reality, it isn't that compelling to them."

But Bhanot says the historical indifference to independent film in India is changing due to a rising middle class, a significant population of "well-off" urban dwellers, and the intervention of outspoken filmmakers. She created Indie Meme earlier this year to increase demand for and understanding of Indian independent film through an international exchange. On Friday, Nov. 8, the company presents its fourth film, I Am, at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre.

Cultural Transfer

The use of "meme" might sound like an odd choice for a film company founded at a time when one can hardly avoid confusing it for a reference to Internet memes. Indie Meme seeks to reclaim the term "to rhyme with 'dream,'" the website says. "The word 'meme' ... is an element of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another, electronically as an image/video etc."

For Bhanot, that transfer of culture began with her work as a television producer in India. After she moved to Austin, she worked with locals Bryan Poyser and Jacob Vaughan on their first film, Dear Pillow, released in 2004, and then with Margaret Brown on the Townes Van Zandt documentary Be Here to Love Me (2004), and with Karen Skloss on the documentary Sunshine (2009). She also supported children's book author Trevor Romain on an animated series that aired on PBS. Austin, she realized, is really "broad-minded," and she decided that if she were going to introduce India's best indie films to the U.S., Austin would be the place to start.

Ideally, she would also like to send independent films from the U.S. to India, but the market is barely developed for that country's own independent films. For context, consider that Slumdog Millionaire, which had a $15 million budget and grossed $377 million worldwide, remained relatively uncelebrated in India because viewers didn't want to be confronted with the depiction of the slums.

"Slumdog is inspired from Bollywood," Bhanot writes in an email. "It has numerous references to Indian cinema from the '80s onwards – the themes of rags to riches, escapist, aspirational cinema. The underworld drug/crime scene was the theme of a lot of the films from the '90s. The ultimate happy ending, which is what we have been used to forever. Yet it is a far cry from Bollywood. And a lot of people in India were very offended by how the country was portrayed in the movie."

If Slumdog hadn't been celebrated at the Sundance Film Festival, Bhanot adds, it would have gone straight to video.

'I Am' and What Will Be

Since Oct. 6, Indie Meme has shown three films around town. The first was actually a special presentation of the 1982 classic Gandhi, staring Ben Kingsley, to coincide with the nonviolent revolutionary's birthday. The other two, "The Rat Race" and "Timbaktu," were independent documentaries that Indie Meme brought over from India. For the screening of I Am this weekend, the director, Onir, will be present to talk with the audience.

"He's the poster child for indie filmmaking in India," Bhanot says of Onir. "He's the guy who's been fighting the battles."

Alka Bhanot (r) with her business partner, Anjalika Sharma
Alka Bhanot (r) with her business partner, Anjalika Sharma

Those battles have been punctuated by the fact that Onir's films tend to cover topics that are still taboo in India, such as homosexuality and women's rights. He made his first film, My Brother ... Nikhil in 2005 about a champion swimmer diagnosed with HIV. If AIDS awareness in the U.S. was slow to come throughout the Eighties and early Nineties (the period of the film), it was all but stationary in India; Nikhil is arrested for being HIV-positive. A review in The New York Times describes it as a "'multiplex movie' – appealing to an urban middle-class audience, peppered with English phrases." Without any sex scenes or even so much as a kiss, the article says, the film avoided some of the backlash of six years earlier that faced Fire, which depicted two women in love.

Despite the success of My Brother ... Nikhil and Onir's high profile in The Times of India, I Am came together only after a crowdfunding campaign amassed a crew of 400-odd producer-owners. Released in 2010, the film could not get the rating from the government censors to show it on one of India's largest television broadcasters, according to a report by the Indo-Asian News Service, despite edits made to please the board.

In mid-September, Onir wrote a letter on behalf of Save Indie Cinema, a 65-member group, to the Indian government requesting that indie films be recognized as much by opportunity as they have been by awards. India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting oversees regulations that prevent some indie films from screening and is charged with promoting the film industry at large.

I Am is an anthology film, collecting four loosely related stories of struggle: I Am Afia, I Am Megha, I Am Abhimanyu, and I Am Omar. The fictional vignettes cover artificial insemination, friends divided by religious conflict, sexual abuse, and sexual discrimination.

"Our laws are very unfair," Bhanot says. "And [Onir] is liking to change those, too. In many ways, he's a social activist."

The messages in Indie Meme films are largely for Indian-Americans, who will not only appreciate the subject matter, the locations, and the actors, but who have also, Bhanot says, disconnected from everyday life in India. However, she believes that many of the themes in the films are universal enough that they will attract a global audience.

If there is one particular struggle she would like to illuminate, it is that of Indian independent film itself. Like the filmmakers whose work Indie Meme represents, Bhanot has been staging a grassroots effort, hosting single screenings through alternative means, including partnerships with local organizations such as Green Gate Farms and, for I Am, the Austin Film Society.

"It's very tough," Bhanot says. "Each film is like a baby that needs a different kind of attention and involvement. It's not a very sound model. We need to work on it."

The urgency to develop a more sustainable model may increase as Indie Meme sets its sights on screenings outside of Austin. Bhanot would like to take three to five films across the country each year, and she says she's already found someone in Dallas interested in hosting a screening of I Am. That someone, she said, works at the Angelika – that is, the worldwide network of legendary independent cinemas.

In the meantime, Indie Meme is already gearing up for its next run of films, titled Powerless, Gulabi Gang, and To-Let. Power­less looks at how the city of Kanpur gets by during periods of up to 18 hours without electricity, and Gulabi Gang chronicles a group of pink-sari-clad women in a small northern village who are fighting for women's rights. Bhanot recognizes that the last film, To-Let, seems a lot less urgent. It covers "no big issues," but many Austinites won't have any trouble relating to the story of young artists and musicians who move into rundown buildings, fix them up, and then get kicked out by greedy landlords who can now double the price of rent. These young people do this year after year, fixing places and moving on.

"[The film] is a little more niche, but it's a very beautiful film," Bhanot says.


AFS at the Marchesa and Indie Meme present I Am, Friday, Nov. 8, 7:30pm. Visit www.austinfilm.org for tickets and complete details.

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