South Asian fest eyes dialogue with 'Firaaq'

Nandita Das' film tackles the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots

Read a review of SAIFF opening film "Firaaq"

NEW YORK -- On the eve of the fourth annual South Asian International Film Festival in New York, Indian activist and actress Nandita Das, director of the opening film about Hindu-Muslim violence, called for the movies to act as a platform for peace.

Her film, "Firaaq" -- which means "separation" and "quest" in the Urdu language of Pakistan -- tackles the deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in India in 2002. It will screen Wednesday evening at the Ziegfield Theater in Manhattan.

In her own quest to bridge the divide between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India -- split at independence from Britain in 1948 -- Das traveled her homeland talking to students about identity, difference and acceptance of other religions, classes and sexual preferences.

"People were getting further divided and polarized, and I realized that the talks were not enough and that film was more powerful a medium to search for the truth and promote dialogue," Das told The Hollywood Reporter.

Without a single Bollywood song-and-dance film at the HBO-sponsored festival, Das said she hopes the U.S. audience will expand its understanding of her homeland beyond an interest in yoga and Steven Spielberg's new Indian finance partner, tycoon Anil Ambani.

"People are realizing that India is a complex country of many paradoxes. Films are a great window into those different Indias," Das said.

Reacting to Tuesday's kidnapping of Pakistani filmmaker Satish Anand in Karachi, Das called for calm until the facts around the kidnapping are known.

Anand, the head of Eveready Pictures, is a Hindu in Muslim-majority Pakistan and the relative of famous Indian actress Juhi Chawla.

Although Das does not know Anand personally, she called for calm because of the history of tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations.

"It's really sad, but whenever one small thing happens between these two countries India always blames Pakistan and Pakistan always blames India," Das said.

Its producer-distributor Precept Pictures will release "Firaaq" in India on Jan. 23.

"We should not assume it would generate a controversy but rather recognize that it is a human interest story that definitely will generate a conversation," she added.

Shilen Amin, SAIFF president, said that while sponsor HBO has not given much money to the event, it is offering winners of its short film competition a priceless opportunity -- to screen their entries on the cable network.

"They've recognized our potential and our growth and will give the young filmmakers we're supporting the chance of a lifetime," Amin said.

The festival will close Oct. 28 with Pakistani director Mehreen Jabbar's "Ramchand Pakistani," starring Das as a low-caste Hindu in Pakistan whose young son and husband are captured by Indian security agencies near the border.