Good evening. How are you?
Distinguished guests, Friends, and ladies and Gentlemen:
Thank you for that kind introduction.
I want to express my deep appreciation for your warm welcome and thank you for your hospitality.
A sense of humility brings us together as a fellow Indian American linked by common cause and common goals and bonded by shared history and shared heritage. Our bonds are stronger than the differences that too often drive us apart. This festival is a tribute to timeless tradition of our shared culture and shared background. I am always reminded by the words of President Kennedy who said:
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.
Thank you, Manoj and Geeta, for inviting me to speak on this special occasion and present the awards to the artists and filmmakers who made these past three days so memorable. The men and women we are going to recognize today at the conclusion of this fabulous film festival are among the best in business, not just in South Asia, but across the globe. So it is indeed an honor and privilege for me to be here.
Even though much of my life has been devoted to business — and lately civic engagements and philanthropy — I have been uniquely blessed and fortunate to be able to involve myself with various artistic causes over the years, through organizations such as the Kennedy Center and Strathmore, where I serve on their boards.
So, when I was invited by Manoj to be part of the DC South Asian Film Festival, there was no way I could resist.
In just three years, DC South Asian Film Festival has become one of the finest film festivals in our nation’s capital. Having been a Washingtonian for more than three decades, I can state with some authority that there is no annual South Asian art, or cultural carnival in this city, or region that is comparable to this festival in scale, variety and quality.
The job Manoj and Geeta are doing with limited resources is admirable. I applaud their passion and commitment for art and cinema. We are deeply grateful to both of them.
Now let me begin with a confession. Like most Indian children, films played a significant role in my life while growing up in India in the 1960s. Mughal-e-Azam — that eternal love story — was a part of my childhood. So was the Guide, another 1960s Dev Anand masterpiece. Of course, who could forget Waheeda Rahman? I had crush on Waheeda Rahman. Aradhana was another film that haunts me to this day.
But my love affair with the Hindi movies came to an abrupt end when I came to the United States, as a teenager. (All good things must come to an end, right?)
Moving to America meant I was deprived of the pleasure of watching, living and breathing Hindi movies. Forget about watching films, even tracking the new releases from India wasn’t easy from here those days. This was the pre-internet, pre-cable era. There was no Star Movies, no Colors, and no Zoom back then.
The only way you could follow the trends and the directions of Indian movies was through a magazine, or a newspaper article you might stumble upon in libraries and occasional phone calls to relatives and friends. VOIP and Vonage didn’t exist even as ideas back in those days. So spending hours on the phone with friends and relatives, discussing films, as many do today, was a luxury only the very rich could afford!
Now fast forward to 2014.
Today, you can not only watch as many South Asian films a day as you possibly want, thanks to the cable and satellite channels, you can also see a new movie at almost the same time it is released in India. This is absolutely something that I could not have imagined when I landed in America four decades ago.
Today, globalization and an explosive growth in technology have made Bollywood nearly as universal in America as Hollywood is in India. This is a great thing.
In my opinion, if anything should spread globally, in breakneck speed, it should be ideas and art. But that is a topic for another day. Today, we are here to celebrate the DC South Asian Film Festival, the cinemas it screened and the artists who made them happen.
For me, the most important thing about DC South Asian Film Festival is not that it provided us Washingtonians with an opportunity to watch films from South Asia non-stop in a state-of-the-art theater over three days and interact with artists that were part and parcel of those movies.
It is the quality and the type of movies screened at this festival, and the way it celebrated independent movies. Every single movie shown here was a movie with a social message.
Like Manoj, I am a big believer in the promotion of social causes through art. While I recognize that art can exist for art’s sake—and, trust me, it has for millenniums—art and cinema can also have a greater educational purpose. That is educating and advancing social causes.
We all love art and music that delight us. But I firmly believe that art, music and cinema that enthralls and teaches is superior to that which just pleases us.
This is the main difference between the handful of independent movies screened at DC South Asian Festival and the hundreds of mainstream movies produced every year by filmmakers from Bollywood, Tollywood and Lollywood, as they are known these days.
Despite the easy availability of Indian and South Asian movies in the United States, you don’t get to watch independent movies from the region as much as you get to watch some of the so-called “masala” movies. This is why DC South Asian Film Festival is all the more important.
Too much of the outside world, India is known as the land of Bollywood — of Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Nargis, Hema Malini, Amitabh Bacchan, Sreedevi, Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit. Now don’t get me wrong: I love Bollywood.
As I said at the beginning, Mughal-e-Azam, Guide and Aradhana — which are as Bollywood as it could ever get — are still etched in my memory. Arguably, Bollywood is one of the finest cultural exports of India of the past several decades. It is a powerful symbol of India’s soft power around the world — from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Morocco and Tunisia; from East Asia to Eastern Europe.
But South Asian and Indian cinema is not just Bollywood. Great movies are produced every year in dozens of languages across South Asia. Many of them are independent movies with strong social messages. The films of Prakash Jha and Nandita Das are the best examples of that. Some of the best-known names in Indian film industry, including Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and Shyam Benegal, are not identified with the so-called mainstream Bollywood cinema.
Again, I commend Manoj and Geeta for bringing independent films from South Asia of such high caliber to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area.
As you know, this is the third edition of the festival. The DC South Asian Film Festival was launched two years ago at the Universities at Shady Grove, campus — roughly 2 miles from here. In the first year, the festival had a retrospective of the ever-brilliant Shyam Benegal.
Last year, the festival showcased some really great movies, including Lamha, a film from Pakistan that won the best movie award. Among the illustrious artists that came here was the late Farooq Sheikh.
This year, we are again very fortunate to have many once-in-a-generation creators and artists like Prakash Jha, Nandita Das and Sanjay Tripathi. To me the highlight of the festival was the Prakash Jha retrospective. Let me say a few words about Prakash Jha
Great works of art, cinema and literature are true reflections of societies. Just as the works of Shakespeare held a mirror to Elizabethan England and that of Gustave Flaubert to 19th Century France, the cinematic works of Prakash Jha reflect the contemporary Indian reality.
Enough said. I thank Prakash Jha for coming here and spending time with us despite his busy schedule. Similarly, I thank Nandita Das, Manoj Bajpayee, Sanjay Tripathi and every single artist who came to our city. I hope you have enjoyed our hospitality!
I know that we have an exciting evening ahead of us and you are all eagerly waiting for the awards ceremony.
In closing, once again, thanks to Manoj and Geeta for inviting me to be a part of the festival. More importantly, thanks to them for enabling all of us here tonight to see and to think and to feel India and South Asia beyond Bollywood.
That is a gift that will keep on giving. Hats off to Manoj and Geeta and all of the filmmakers who shared their hearts and souls with us in this wonderful festival.
Thank you for this opportunity. It has been privilege to be here
God bless you all.