Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Remember this name: Ajay Naidu

On Saturday TiaS and I went to see the great Bengali actress and director Aparna Sen at the South Asian Film Festival.

First, though, we had to sit through Antaheen - a long-ish film set in Kolkata that stars Sen and her real-life husband, New Jersey-based English professor Kalyan Ray. The product placement (Reliance Mobile, anyone? Cafe Coffee Day? How about a Pepsi?) was distracting - it was directed by former adman Aniruddha Roy "Tony" Chowdhury - and it's nearly impossible to make an interesting film about people chatting on the internet. I would have preferred fewer cumbersome slow-mo music video numbers (when the final one started, the entire audience groaned in unison... just before they killed off the young heroine!).

This one was pretty good, though:

[Editor's note: HA! - the joke's on me. After writing this, I learned that the film's title means "The Endless Wait." Indeed!].

Afterwords, the regal Aparna Sen came out fighting and corrected the unsmiling University of Chicago film prof moderator, who described her as a "feminist" director. (I think she was offended. She is a filmmaker, period , and it reminded me of when people called Spike Lee "the black Woody Allen." Um, no, he's a filmmaker, period).

Aparna Sen's new film, The Japanese Wife, was screened the following day. She also directed one of my favorites, 36 Chowringee Lane (which stars Jennifer Kendal and was produced by her husband, Shashi Kapoor!), and 2003's Mr. and Mrs. Iyer. The questions from the audience were good, although people kept trying to get her to say that her films were better than the one we'd just seen. she didn't take the bait. She said it's hard to get funding these days, and that product placement is a necessary evil. She also said, "It's an exciting time for Bollywood. All kinds of subjects are being explored - it is no longer a boy-meets-girl or running-around-the trees story." We also learned that films about rural lives are not popular in Indian cinema (although this does not seem to be true in South India; plus, female director Anusha Rizvi's new Hindi farmer suicide black comedy Peepli Live is has been selected to represent Indian cinema in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year's Academy Awards (it probably helped that the big-time Hindi film actor Aamir Khan has attached his name to the project).

Afterwords, TiaS and I dined on veg. biryani and curry, and talked about whether we could sneak into the next film - Ashes, which was getting its US premiere and was sold out before we arrived. It's directed by and stars Evanston, Illinois native Ajay Naidu - who attended film school at Columbia College for two years. It's the film we really wanted to see, since it's Naidu's directorial debut and had an interesting premise, - focusing on "two brothers whose lives are unraveling. As one brother plummets deeper into mental illness, the other, Ashes, copes by throwing himself into the drug-dealing community that consumes him."

We were finishing our meal and talking about yoga, yoga, yoga, yoga and yoga when a man with an official-looking ID badge dangling from his neck asked if we were interested seeing in Ashes. You bet! We said. He said it looked like there were a few seats left, and asked if we wanted them. We did.

The film was as alive, vibrant and heartfelt as the previous one was not. The score was visceral and unsentimental (as the other was not), with original music from the likes of Talvin Singh and Karsh Kale. I was pulled in from the start, and it kept me there the entire time. The relationships were believable, the acting and writing were great and so was the editing, directing and photography. It was awesome - especially the acting and directing - and at the end even I was crying.

Afterwords Ajay (whom you may know from Office Space, and The West Wing) and his producer and female lead came out to talk about the film. He said that he wanted to shoot in Chicago and spent seven years trying to make it happen here. But all of his crew, etc. was in New York. Once he realized it had to be shot in NYC (Queens, actually), he was shooting within a week.

He said that the stories - about an elder, bi-polar brother with Schizophrenia (I think) and his younger, drug-dealing brother came from real life and the events all really happened - "only not in that order." You could tell that he was speaking from the heart - both during the film and after. He said he hoped the film would serve as a catalyst for people to discuss that which is taboo in the South Asian community - mental illness and suicide - and bring it out into the open. He also said that the title comes from the ashes the saddhus (holy men) in India smear on their bodies. (BTW, his fiancee and high school sweetheart, Heather Burns, played the bad girl).

I pray he gets into the film festivals, finds a distributor with deep pockets, and that everyone gets to see it.

And then I hope they give him a big, fat budget for his next film.

Read the Times of India's take on the fest here.


  1. I went to HS with Ajay and he is a friend of my best friend. The story, is based on his sister, whom was incredibly gifted and intelligent. She committed suicide at a young age (early twenties, I believe) and the film was made as a way for him to come to terms with her death.

  2. He has such a presence *and* amazing energy. I can only imagine what his sister was like. He spoke a bit about her during the Q&A.

    I hope you get to see the film.