Midway through the opening night party for the Indie Meme Film Festival, founder and co-organizer Alka Bhanot attempts to make her way through the crowd. Swarmed by congratulatory friends, family and festival-goers, she takes over ten minutes to reach the microphone.
In 2013, Bhanot founded Indie Meme, a nonprofit dedicated to showcasing independent South Asian films that would otherwise garner little attention in the U.S., if they are shown here at all. While the word “meme” is now synonymous with viral Internet photos and videos, Bhanot said she is interested in returning to the original definition of the word: “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” In this case, Bhanot is spreading films, which she said have resonated with the South Asian community in Austin, a tight-knit network that encouraged her to grow Indie Meme.
“It’s a very, very supportive community,” Bhanot said. “I think it’s a vibrant community, a very involved community. They do a lot for each other. This community is helping us in more ways than you could ever imagine. It’s not just showing up at events but generally supporting you, saying, ‘Let’s see how you can do better.’”
After several years of organizing individual screenings, Bhanot said she and her team decided it was time to put on a festival.
“These are the kinds of films you don’t really see anywhere else,” Bhanot said. “I had a lot of friends in Mumbai who were making interesting cinema, and I didn’t have access to it here, so I felt like if I was able to somehow bring those films here, maybe there would be more people like me who enjoy watching them. That’s how it started. It was going to be something small, but the community in Austin was ready for more.”
The festival, which took place April 15–17, featured films out of India and Pakistan, as well as the work of homegrown talent such as Rasika Mathur, a UT alumna and a former star of MTV’s hit series “Wild ’N Out.”
Mathur, who stars in the short documentary, “Rasika Mathur: Truth Teller,” said the festival’s additional focus on strong female characters from South Asia — roughly 80 percent of the lineup featured female leads — filled a gap that she felt in her own childhood.
“I noticed that I never really had any female heroines in movies,” Mathur said. “I was always like, ‘I wanna see the Chevy Chase movie’ or whatever Steve Martin and Martin Short were doing. I didn’t really have anybody to look up to who looked like me in the movies, and I was not a fan of Bollywood movies at all.”
Economics senior Ayush Dahiya also premiered his first short film, “Jaal,” over the weekend. The film offers a searing portrait of a young girl as she attempts to escape a life of human trafficking.
“I’ve just always had a passion for exploring social issues, just knowing about the evils of this world and that they exist while we’re here safe,” Dahiya said. “I realized I could spread that through cinema.”
Dahiya said his goal with the film was to bridge the gap between the realities of America and South Asia.
“I feel like there are so many South Asian people here, so showing a side of that world to a group of people and raising awareness of their social issues and culture is very important,” Dahiya said. “Fusing both of those worlds together is what I tried to do with my film.”