The charkha goes global, truly

Spinning Wheel Film Festival brings diverse interpretations of Sikhs' traditions, writes Gurmukh Singh.

india Updated: Nov 02, 2005 14:43 IST

The charkha - spinning wheel - has gone global. Figuratively. Time was when womenfolk in Indian villages swapped tales sitting around it as they wove khadi (coarse cloth).

Three years back, Toronto's celebrated lawyer T Sher Singh and his friends decided to transplant this (desi) idea in Canada. Except that there would be no real charkha. And instead of village women, there would be a gathering of filmmakers to be called the Spinning Wheel Film Festival. And at this festival, filmmakers and audiences would swap tales about the worldwide experiences of the Sikh diaspora.

As the organisers of the festival say, the Spinning Wheel Film Festival "celebrates the stories of Sikhs worldwide, and brings diverse interpretations of their traditions and their 500-year-old history to the screen.''

On Friday, the third edition of the three-day festival opened at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto where filmmakers from across the globe will discuss their work and screen their films about the Sikh global experience.

Among the many films being screened at the festival is the award-winning 'California Dreaming' which shows how marrying an NRI is the ultimate dream of every Punjabi girl in the Doaba region of Punjab. NRI grooms arrive at Christmas time to select a bride, receive hefty dowry and paid-for honeymoons only to disappear even as these 'phoren-crazy' young wives wait for the promised visa which never comes. 'Runaway Grooms' also tells the exploitative tales of these so-called NRI grooms.

The film `Divided We Fall: Americans in the (9/11) Aftermath' captures the hate crimes against the browns after 9/11 and the state of the victim communities four years on. 'Dastaar: Defending the Sikh Identity', 'Sikhs and Turban', 'The Sikh Next Door' and 'We Are Sikhs' are about the Sikh religion and the importance of its symbols. Of course, there is the award-winning 'Amu' which was premiered at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.

Even as Canadian health minister Ujjal Dosanjh opened the festival, T Sher Singh, who was the brain behind the festival, speaks to HindustanTimes.Com about the mission of the festival.

This man needs no introduction. Honoured with the Order of Canada in 2002 (the first turbaned Sikh), this country's highest civilian award, T Sher Singh is known to Canadians for taking former PM Brian Mulroney to court for appointing a 'tainted' former premier to the Senate in the early 1990s. He is a regular columnist for the Toronto Star and a TV show host. Excerpts:

How was the idea of this film festival born?
I have been a film buff for much of my life. Since I was seven years old in a boarding school in Patna, I was given a steady diet of two or more Hollywood films every week. And during my diverse career -- as a lawyer, writer and journalist -- in Canada, I have learnt the power of story-telling and the importance of having our stories told accurately and fully. A few years ago, I described my dream one morning over breakfast about a Festival of Sikh Films - that is, films by, about or for Sikhs the world over - to a friend in Toronto who is also a philanthropist: Dr Birender Singh Ahluwalia. He liked the idea and offered to provide the seed money to launch it. It is through his inspiration and encouragement, and the support of the larger Sikh-Canadian community, that the Spinning Wheel Film Festival was born and held its first Gala and Festival in 2003 at the Royal Ontartio Museum in Toronto.

How long did it take to get it off the ground?

From the moment Dr Ahluwalia gave me the go-ahead, it took a miraculous five months to the actual inaugural festival in September 2003. We had an incredible team of young professionals who took the project and ran with it: led by two husband/wife teams - Kulvir Singh and Birinder Kaur Gill, Sandy Kaur and Nav Singh Mangat. They were aided by over 60 volunteers from the community, and a band of dedicated professionals and businessmen and women who promptly -- and blindly -- lent financial and moral support to the project.

In what capacity are you now associated with the festival?

I am the founder and founding chair of the festival. I sit on its board of advisors, and also assist the Spinning Wheel in New York - which is a spin-off from the Toronto festival and which held its second annual Spinning Wheel Film Festival on Long Island recently on September 23 to 25, 2005. [We in Toronto package the festival so that it can play in other cities during the following 12 months. Thus the 2005 New York Festival stemmed from the line-up at the 2004 Toronto Festival].

How does your festival compare with other similar film festivals?

The films we show are of the highest quality. Many of them have competed in festivals around the world and collectively garnered hundreds of prestigious awards. For example: this years's gala night screening of 'Amu'. Last year, we opened with Ali Kazimi's 'Continuos Journey'. In our first year, we opened with Safina Kaur Uberoi's 'My Mother India'. Our location is the most prestigious in town. The attendees consist of a healthy mix of Sikhs and non-Sikh South Asians, as well as other Canadians.

As for the rest, it's all in the eye of the beholder. You have to take my appraisal of it with a pinch of salt. After all, it is my baby.

Any awards as part of the festival?

We are in the process of instituting awards. We do not want to rush into it. We hope to have the system in place by next year. We want to ensure objectivity and fairness through the highest quality of judging.

Any plans to take to other cities?

Our mandate is to help set up Spinning Wheel Festivals in major cities everywhere. Calgary has already started one. New York succesfully completed its Second Annual Festival in September this year. We are working on and expect to have similar festivals in place in Los Angeles and Miami by the next summer.

Future Plans?

Once LA and Miami are on their way, we hope to contentrate on setting up similar projects in Vancouver, London (England) and Chicago. Our ultimate goal is to have a Spinning Wheel in New Delhi, Amritsar and Chandigarh.
Our ultimate measure of success will be if we can help spawn a series of Hollywood films of the best quality - artistically and commercially - and encourage a similar move in Bollywood. Beyond the current phase of Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha films, which I should add are a step absolutely in the right direction.

First Published: Nov 02, 2005 14:43 IST