Chicago director’s Indian feature garners international acclaim

Chicago filmmaker Satish Menon walked across a stage in New York a few weeks ago and received an award from fellow Indian expatriate Salman Rushdie. The renowned novelist had selected Menon’s debut feature film, “Bhavum ? The Emotions of Being,” for the Indian Diaspora Award from the Indo- American Arts Council Film Festival.

This was just the latest in a string of accolades “Bhavum” has garnered in its months on the festival circuit. The picture received critical and fest awards in the Indian state of Kerala, where it was shot in August 2002. It has screened at international fests from Cairo to Hawaii.

“The two smallest festivals I screened at got me the most exposure,” said Menon, referring to the Indo- American fest and the Indian Film Festival in Los Angeles. “The festival in Los Angeles got me a Variety review and a distribution offer.”

Robert Koehler wrote in Variety that “this portrait of a middle-class man caught in his own multi-layered ethical drama raises ‘Bhavum’ a few notches above the standard Indian drama.”

Menon turned down that first distribution offer. “The problem with being a first time filmmaker, especially with what they consider a foreign film, is that it’s rare to get something upfront,” he said. “If they don’t have anything invested in it, what incentive do they have to do something with the film? When I initially got the offer I was on top of the world, but when I started reading the fine print I realized I wasn’t going to be better off than I was without a deal. In fact I’d lose access to my film.”

Menon is now in negotiations with a couple of small distributors, but insists he’ll choose self-distribution if he doesn’t see the right marketing plan in the offers he’s fielding.

Drawing inspiration from “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Crime and Punishment,” Bhavum tells the story of a journalist facing parallel temptations of corruption at his newspaper and his attraction to his sister-in-law, a suspect in the death of her abusive husband.

“For the past ten years India has been going through a lot of changes with globalization and the liberalization of economic policies,” Menon said. “With Western influences coming in, we’ve seen more of an emergence of a middle class, consumer-oriented society and a changing urban landscape. This film is an exploration of how those external influences impact family relationships.”

Menon self-financed the 35mm film for less than $100,000, a small fraction of what it would cost to make a comparable project in the U.S. “The caliber of technicians I was able to work with in India, I wouldn’t have been able to afford here,” Menon said.

Menon is in early stages of production on a documentary, “Survival on the Domestic Front?Immigrant Women’s Stories.” He’s also developing a second narrative feature, this one set in Chicago.

Bhavum screens Wednesday, Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. at Facets Multimedia, 1517 W. Fullerton, as part of the IFP/Chicago Facets Film Series. Menon will attend the screening.

See — by Ed M. Koziarski,