Filmmakers from the Indian Sub-continent Diaspora Shine Bright at the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal

South Asian Film Festival of Montreal (SAFFM) 2023, presented by Kabir Centre for Arts & Culture is back after a year of dormancy. The festival was screened with Bibliothèques de Saguenay and La Cinémathèque québécoise from April 28 to May 10. This year’s films were picked all the way from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, to Canada and the United States; aired in person and online.  Kabir Centre aims to unite communities through thought-provoking films from the Indian Sub-continent empowering the culture and the languages. 

I have had the great opportunity to witness and be part of the pluralism the centre aims to promote through this festival. Amongst the 58 films in this year’s roster, I watched two movies: Agam Darshi’s Donkeyhead and Bhaskar Maurya’s Muthayya.  

I booked the tickets for May 5, 2023, a Friday evening to watch the Donkeyhead and Four Nights screening together. Montreal constructions and road closures confused the pedestrian in me, and I wandered around La Cinémathèque québécoise on St. denis street for a solid 15 minutes before finding the main entrance. 

As I finally found my way to the theatre, I hushed through the dark to find a high raised seat at the very end. Before I could make sense of the movie that was already on the screen, I realised that it was Nepali-English movie Four Nights, directed by Deepak Rauniyar. 

The drama film revolves around Ram and Maya who moved to New York City from Nepal to earn fame, success and money. It was a 17 minute short film, of which I watched 2 solid minutes before the end credits. 

What followed next was a nearly two hour film that entertained, mesmerized, resonated, and also made me cry. Donkeyhead, which is also written by Agam Darshi, is a Canadian-made immigrant story revolving around failed careers, sibling angst, strict parenting, and family mayhem. 

Agam Darshi also plays the lead, Mona, a struggling writer who neglects her potential while caring for her sick father. The first few scenes unlock a hidden fear in me, which is to see your parents lying unresponsive on the bed. But with a twist of events, Mona’s Sikh father wakes up, scolds her and goes back to taking rest. Within a few minutes into this scene, Darshi’s characterization manages to induce anxiety in me and then alleviate said anxiety with comedic relief from Donkeyhead’s character. 

This drama film is filled with witty jabs at the typical Desi-aunty behaviours, of siblings one-upping each other while their father is in a coma, and of untimely appearances and demands of distant relatives while the children mourn their father’s demise. It took the writer 10 years to write this story, and throughout the course of the decade Dasrshi says, “[she] fell in love with it and fell out of love with it multiple times in the process.” 

“Everybody who watches it has a different interpretation. Some people say at the centre it’s a father-daughter story, some people say it’s about siblings, or it’s about what it is to be a woman in a South-Asian family…all of it is true,” continues Darshi, talking about how the story evolves  from being a broad spectrum story to something personalised and close to home. 

The monologue Mona recites at the end of the film focuses on her relationship with her father, how his inflated ego prompted her to rebel so she can make some space for herself. Her monologue also reveals how she wishes there was someone who could have told him that it was okay to fail, and that it was okay to mess up.

“I don’t think that anyone has ever told him that. He needed to hear that at least once in his life,” ends the monologue, which made me wail. The story didn’t end there, but went on to take a positive tone when Mona decides to leave home and pursue her passion. 

Muthayya is a small town based heart-touching movie by debut director and writer Bhaskar Maurya. The movie has won the Best Feature Film Award 2022 at Kolkata International Film Festival. Bhaskar Maurya won Best Debut Director 2022 at Dubai META Film Fest

Creative Producer Hemanth Kumar made sure that the movie reaches an art film loving audience through unconventional promotional methods of participating in as many film festivals as possible.

“Our world premiere was in May 2022, and it all started with the UK Asian Film Festival,” said Hemanth. 

The comedy feature film revolves around the main character Muthayya (Sudhakar Reddy), a 70-year-old man who dreams of acting in movies and to see himself on the big screen at least once, before he dies. The film is set in a remote village Chennuru, in Telangana in India. 

I always had a fascination towards small town movies as they feel so simple and raw. When the story begins with Muthayya and his 24-year-old mechanic best friend celebrating their weeknights by drinking ‘till late under the sky, without a worry in the world, I silently wish to have that peace in life. 

Maurya worked on this script for two years but it only took 15 days to shoot the movie when scheduled with well-rehearsed talented actors, and a great collaborative team.   “Our main concern with casting was finding the right one to play Muthayya. Bhaskar Maurya had watched Sudhakar Reddy, the man who played Muthayya in mind especially for the look, and talent for a 70-year-old passionate man,” said Hemanth. 

The film’s atmosphere results from spontaneous acting with minimal takes and consequently makes the audience celebrate the victories, smile in the happy moments, and dwell in the sorrows alongside small-town Muthayya. 

Montreal’s Kabir Centre recognizes arts from many cultures through events and festivals; some of which will enlighten you, encourage you, or even make you cry.