Beyond Bollywood: Samhita Sunya curates a film series that challenges stereotypes

Hell in India is one of the films that Samhita Sunya selected for the Virginia Film Festival's Middle Eastern and South Asian Sidebar. Hell in India is one of the films that Samhita Sunya selected for the Virginia Film Festival’s Middle Eastern and South Asian Sidebar.

Samhita Sunya will go to great lengths to see a film on a big screen.

The cinema scholar has attended 7am screenings in theaters. When the weather’s nice and the sky is dark, she’ll set up a screen and a projector in her yard and watch from a lawn chair. Two years ago, she traveled hundreds of miles to New York City just to see a screening of the Urdu-language film, Jago Hua Savera (Day Shall Dawn).

Directed by A.J. Kardar, Jago Hua Savera is, on the surface, the story of a fisherman who dreams of owning his own boat on the Meghna River in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan); more deeply, it’s the story of a poor community exploited by loan sharks. Considered by many critics to be an important work of Pakistani cinema and of humanist cinema in general, the film was banned not long after its release in 1959. At the time, director Kardar and his screenwriter, leftist poet and author Faiz Ahmad Faiz, were identified as communist enemies of Pakistan’s military dictatorship.

Samhita Sunya, assistant professor of cinema in UVA’s department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, selected seven films for the 2018 Virginia Film Festival’s Middle Eastern and South Asian sidebar. Photo courtesy subject

For decades, Jago Hua Savera was thought to be lost forever. Sunya says it was through the painstaking efforts of the family of the film’s producer, Nauman Taseer, that prints of the black and white film were located in archives around the world and restored ahead of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

It is a film worth traveling for, but thanks to Sunya’s efforts, it’s screening on Sunday as part of the Virginia Film Festival’s Middle Eastern and South Asian Sidebar, for which Sunya curated seven films across two thematic clusters.

The three films in the Letters of Love comedy cluster are playful films from a region that Western audiences too often associate with authoritarianism, violence, war, and other horrors; the four films in the Rites of Remembrance cluster deal with displacement, each meditating on the past, on presence, and possibility.

Sunya, an assistant professor of cinema in UVA’s department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures since 2016, accepted the position at UVA in part because of the Virginia Film Festival (the promise of an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema helped, too). While in graduate school at Rice University, she worked as a projectionist and a film festival assistant for Rice Cinema, a small “but exuberant” theater that proved to Sunya that the interesting research conducted in academic and critical film circles can be translated for any public audience.

“Some films can be very much like the experience of reading a novel. Other films can be very much like going to a concert,” says Sunya. “Historically, what’s interesting to me about cinema—and this doesn’t necessarily mean that every film does this—is that it’s the first time that you have the possibility of huge audiences simultaneously watching the same thing across great geographic distances.”

Sunya focuses her academic lens on the prolific circulation of Hindi language films outside of India, particularly across the Middle East and Central Asia in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, considering why and how these films were popular among, as she says, “non-diasporic audiences in the period of the Cold War,” and what implications the emergence of global cinema may have had on Cold War politics.

She wants VAFF audiences to see the true variety of films in Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures and to disprove stereotypes—not all Iranian cinema is poetic, just as Indian cinema isn’t all Bollywood. She also notes that blockbuster films, from many countries, rarely make it to big screens in other parts of the world. Jago Hua Savera is one example, and all three films in Letters of Love have officially screened in the U.S. only once before, when Sunya previewed them at Yale University last April.

Sunya grew up in Houston, spent significant time in Bombay, and lived and taught in Beirut before coming to Charlottesville. She finds that Charlottesville is “a strikingly…multilingual place,” with “significant communities of people who speak Hindi, or Urdu, or Arabic, Persian, Turkish,” and she’s noticed that many folks in the city seem unaware of that diversity.

“Part of this endeavor is to cultivate spaces for many different kinds of audiences to come together,” says Sunya about her reasons for selecting these films.

Another “is to say that, maybe these films are not so ‘foreign’ in a sense,” says Sunya, because people in our town speak the languages of these films. The films all have English subtitles, but Sunya means languages in a broad sense—if you don’t speak Turkish, perhaps you understand the language of An Indian Father‘s gangster comedy. You may not speak Arabic, but you might speak musical comedy as seen in Hell In India. And if you don’t speak Arabic, English, or French, go see Road to Kabul anyway, because it’s highly possible you speak stoner comedy.

Now Playing

Samhita Sunya, assistant professor of cinema in UVA’s department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, selected the following seven films for the Virginia Film Festival’s Middle Eastern and South Asian Sidebar:

Hell in India

An Egyptian military band goes to secure the release of a kidnapped ambassador. Thursday, November 1. 8:45pm, Newcomb Hall Theatre

Road to Kabul

After a trip to Amsterdam doesn’t go as planned, a group of friends searches for one of their own.

Saturday, November 2.  7:15pm, Violet Crown Cinema


An Indian Father

A stressed-out gangster falls in love with his yoga teacher.

Saturday, November 3. 2pm, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema


In The Last Days of the City

A filmmaker struggles to find inspiration for a film, until friends send him footage from around the world.

Friday, November 2. 3pm, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema


Oblivion Verses

The elderly caretaker of a remote morgue discovers the body of an unknown woman killed in a protest.

Saturday, November 3. 11am, Newcomb Hall Theatre


Looking for Oum Kulthum

An Iranian woman living in exile seeks to capture the life of a legendary singer.

Saturday, November 3. 4pm, Newcomb Hall Theatre


Jago Hua Savera (Day Shall Dawn)

A banned humanist cinema masterpiece once thought to be lost forever, it tells the story of a poor Bengali fisherman.

Sunday, November 4. 11am, PVCC Dickinson Center

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