India’s commercial Bollywood movie industry is the only foreign cinema that still has a flourishing theatrical presence in the U.S. But like all popular screening circuits, this one categorically excludes certain kinds of material. The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, which kicks off its fifth season on Tuesday, aims to fill gaps in our understanding of the most robust and prolific film factory on Earth. A realistic depiction of ordinary life and culture, for instance, is not something you expect to find in the commercial realm, which in India as elsewhere tends to be escapist. IFFLA has some rich offerings in that area but not, curiously, in the documentaries that were available for preview. In attempts like Paromita Vohra’s Q2P, which finds a feminist metaphor in the long lines outside women’s restrooms in Mumbai, and Sanjeev Chatterjee’s Dirty Laundry, nominally an account of the legacy of Gandhi’s sojourn in South Africa that devolves into a string of activist talking heads, there is such a thick overlay of ideology that reality is shadowed rather than illuminated. In the artful best of the festival’s independent-style fiction films, it’s easier to look past the artist’s preconceptions. John Jeffcoat’s Outsourced is a crisp and precise cross-cultural comedy about a befuddled American functionary (Josh Hamilton) who travels to India to set up a call center in a small town; the setup may be hackneyed, but the details are vivid and surprising. Even more surprising is Rajnesh Domalpalli’s beautifully crafted Vanaja, whose depictions of storytelling through music and of dance as a folk art form at the village level is nothing short of a revelation. (It will hit some Bollywood fans like a thunderclap — the origin story they never knew they were looking for.) Domalpalli’s absorbing tale of a young girl who apprentices herself to the crabby old local mistress of the art form manages to sidestep most of the follow-your-dream clichés of the genre. The festival’s well-programmed Bollywood by Night sidebar includes Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (The Wall, 1975), one of the iconic “angry young man” films that made Amitabh Bachchan a star, and Shekhar Kapur’s Mr. India (1987), a deep-dish family entertainment that is also a wry parody of Indian cinema’s masala format. ArcLight; Tue.-Sun., April 17-22. www.indianfilmfestival.org.
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