Vietnam Diaries: Hanoi and Halong Bay

The capital city of any country always has a unique charm, and Hanoi is certainly the cultural capital of Vietnam. From traditional water puppet shows and elaborate opera productions to the distinct European influence in the French Quarter, Hanoi is filled with endless opportunities and avenues to explore and get to know arts, culture, and history of Vietnam. Check out the top attractions in this happening Southeast Asian capital!

Thang Long Water Puppet Theater 

Water puppetry is one of the widely sought after activities among tourists who visit Hanoi. The origins of water puppet theater come from farming in the rice paddy fields, where farmers used bamboo rods on makeshift puppets to entertain one another during monsoons. This village tradition has developed into a professional art form that is now performed in theaters all over the country. Water puppet shows generally have live music accompaniment, and the content featured is a mix of Vietnamese folk tales and stories about the harvest. The highlights of this show were the intricate formations, fancy lights, and melodious music and sound effects!

Hoan Kiem Lake

The central, bustling area of Hanoi surrounds the Hoan Kiem Lake. This part of town is filled with shops, restaurants, and street vendors, and on weekends, expect to be surprised with a random live music band or Tinikling (Filipino folk dance using bamboo sticks) lining the cobblestone path around the lake. If you’re looking for a classy dinner out in this area, Pizza 4P’s offers gourmet Italian fare with excellent service. The best part about Hoan Kiem Lake is that it is a walking-only area with no cars or motorbikes. A tourist’s paradise for getting to know Hanoi by night!

Halong Bay

To escape from the urban vibe of Hanoi, take a mini getaway trip into Halong Bay, which features one of the greatest natural landscapes in Vietnam. A three-hour drive from Hanoi, Halong Bay is home to about 1900 islands and caves. Legend has it that centuries ago, when Vietnam was at war, the Vietnamese people prayed to Buddha, who sent a dragon down to help the people. The dragon was said to have spit out many pearls scattered all over the bay. These pearls combined with the water to form hundreds of tiny islands, which ultimately confused enemy ships and caused them to lose their way when approaching the eastern port of Vietnam.

There are many options for cruising in Halong Bay, with the overnight cruise being the most popular. Due to limited time, we opted for a day cruise consisting of a five-hour boat ride in the bay, including a one-hour walking tour of one of the caves. The inside of the cave is cooler in temperature and filled with stalactites and stalagmites in its three chambers. Regardless of which cruise option you choose, the views and picturesque scenery in the bay are to die for! It’s no surprise that Halong Bay has been declared one of the new natural wonders of the world.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral 

Known for its French influence, Hanoi features a replica of the famous Notre Dame de Paris. Vietnam was colonized by France in the 19th century, during which time settlers recreated architectural landmarks in what was then French Indochina. St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi is a replica of the Notre Dame de Paris, and its location in Hanoi’s French Quarter neighborhood allows tourists to travel back in time to visualize a Vietnam under French rule.

Hanoi Opera House

Like St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi Opera House too was constructed during the French occupation of Vietnam. Centuries ago it featured primarily European artists and productions performing in front of elite audiences; however, today a mix of European and Vietnamese operas and orchestras perform regularly at the Hanoi Opera House.

Temple of Literature 

Being the capital city, Hanoi was one of the first places in the country to offer institutions of higher education. The Temple of Literature is home to the Imperial Academy, which was Vietnam’s first national university. It is both a place of worship and an educational institution. The temple honors Confucius and other inspirational scholars who were committed to the acquisition of knowledge in a sacred space. The complex contains displays of diplomas carved on single blocks of stone and is occasionally home to ceremonies and rituals.

Jagga Jasoos: An Eccentric Experience

Jagga Jasoos is a film that has been in the making for nearly five years now so it’s no surprise that it opened to viewers eagerly waiting to see Anurag Basu’s next production on celluloid. The film follows the story of Jagga (Ranbir Kapoor), starting from the beginning of his life in a hospital to his hostel days. We hear about his relationship with Bagchi (Saswata Chatterjee), a father figure who plays a prominent role in shaping Jagga throughout his childhood and adolescent years then suddenly vanishes. The latter half of the film focuses on Jagga’s adventure with journalist Shruti Sengupta (Katrina Kaif) to uncover the mystery of the missing Bagchi.

Compared to other films of this era, Jagga Jasoos is certainly an eccentric experiment in which director Anurag Basu slowly pushes the boundaries of cinema in this dramedy (drama + comedy) flick. The fact that the movie is a musical makes it all the more entertaining, with short, energetic bursts of song and dance every now and then when Jagga uncovers truths in his mystery-laden journey. The choreography for every song in Jagga Jasoos has its own incredibly unique style; my personal favorites are Ullu Ka Pattha and Galti Se Mistake.

Script-wise, there is not a dull moment in Anurag Basu’s writing. At any given point, there is something subtle or extravagant happening onscreen, whether it is nostalgic flashbacks of Jagga’s time with Bagchi or his developing friendship with Shruti. The interweaving of political intrigue and illegal arms trade provides an interesting backdrop for putting pieces together in this puzzle. Visually, Ravi Varman’s cinematography and Akiv Ali’s editing superbly integrate the past and present effortlessly into a single frame onscreen. The scenery of North Africa and Eastern India are particularly picturesque and colorful.

Although quite a bit is covered in this three-hour film, I wish there was more depth into the characters’ emotions and relationships with one another. The father-son connection between Bagchi and Jagga, though heartwarming, seems minimized by the chase and action sequences, which seem to form the bulk of the second half. As a psychologist, I was curious to learn more about abandonment and attachment dynamics playing out in Jagga’s inner life. There are also some moments where we witness Shruti’s vulnerability too; yet, these are just fleeting glimpses into her states of being.

All things considered, the entire cast has done justice to their given roles in this film, especially Ranbir Kapoor, who has the most screen time but probably the least dialogues. Special mention must be given to Saravajeet Tiwari, who played young Jagga beautifully. As usual, Saurabh Shukla shines in his role as an officer, and music director Pritam steps outside his comfort zone to deliver an appropriate soundtrack for this vibrant musical.

Final Verdict: Jagga Jasoos is quirky and very different for a film of 2017. Despite the strange, anticlimactic ending and somewhat confusing plot twists in the second half, the combination of comedy, mystery, and kid-friendliness makes this Disney venture appealing to all ages.

Vietnam Diaries: Hoi An River Town

When people think of Vietnam, a host of associations, misconceptions, and stereotypes often accompany their thinking. After spending about a week in different parts of this country, I have learned that there is so much more to this diverse nation than the dominant war-stricken tale narrated in history textbooks.

Hoi An (an hour drive from the major city Da Nang) is a river town located on the banks of the Thu Bon River. It’s in the central part of Vietnam and provides a nice getaway from large, populated cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The main attractions in Hoi An revolve around the Ancient Town area and water-based activities.

Ancient Town

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ancient Town is the most happening area in Hoi An river town. Lined with shopkeeper’s stalls, spas, cafes, and cute eateries, Ancient Town is also home to assembly halls, temples, museums, and communal houses preserved from over hundreds of years ago. Purchasing a ticket allows visitors entrance into 5 different preserved structures. Because of the heat, Ancient Town is often crowded after sunset, when both locals and tourists come out to experience the vibrant night life of Hoi An.

Going on a boat ride in the Ancient Town area is a must, especially during sunset! There’s even the opportunity to set candles afloat in the river as an offering to departed souls.

An Bang Beach

In addition to being situated on the banks of a river, Hoi An is also on the coast of Vietnam, which places it in close proximity to beaches! An Bang is a premium, luxurious beach with soft sand and clear water. It is primarily filled with tourists, as locals tend to flock to Da Nang Beach. The water temperature is so perfect that getting out of the ocean (especially in the heat) is not a favorable option. This beach is a great way to cool down and relax for hydrophilic vacationers!

Thanh Ha Pottery Village

A boat ride in the main Thu Bon River typically includes a trip to the Thanh Ha Pottery Village, located about 30 minutes south of Ancient Town on the river. It is a collaborative living community where everyone in the village contributes in some way to the pottery process (from collecting mud to painting the final product). The highlight of the visit was witnessing a 94-year-old woman create perfect vases and other items on the pottery wheel. Check it out!

Cooking Tour

Although we didn’t have a chance to do a cooking tour, it is advertised as being one of the more popular activities, not just in Hoi An but in all of Vietnam. The tourists and the cooking instructor go to the market to purchase all the required ingredients before making a traditional Vietnamese dish. Definitely one of the more organic ways of cooking and tasting local Vietnamese food!

Spa-Massage

Getting a massage in Hoi An is a must, especially after all the walking and shopping in the heat. The best and often cheapest option is a 30-minute foot massage, which is typically followed by a five-minute neck and shoulder rub at the end. While massages can be a hit or miss anywhere in the world, a traditional Vietnamese foot massage is just what you need at the end of a long day.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Baahubali 2: A Conclusion with Pomp and Circumstance

Baahubali 2 is easily one of the most highly anticipated films of India. This multilingual franchise has become a national event for Indians worldwide, who are all dying to know the answer to one important question: Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali? Discover this and much more in SS Rajamouli’s grand epic Baahubali 2: The Conclusion.

The film picks up where part 1 leaves off, continuing to narrate the history of Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas), this time, focusing on his adventures with Kattappa (Sathya Raj) and his romance with Devasena (Anushka Shetty). Also in this tale of  treason and betrayal are Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan), Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati), and Bijjaladeva (Nassar), who each have their own complexities and responsibilities in royal family politics.

In all its grandeur and glory, Baahubali 2 bears similarities to several popular epics, including The Lion King, Jodhaa Akbar, and Mahabharata (particularly with the cousins rivalry trope). Filled with conspiracy theories and the struggle between justice and injustice, SS Rajamouli takes us on a three-hour journey into the world and internal dynamics of Mahishmati (Magizhmati) and beyond. Baahubali 2 seems like a fairytale, with all the special visual effects, yet at its core it is a film about humanity in the face of greed, power, love, and loyalty.

One of the major strengths in this film is definitely its strong female characters. Anushka Shetty and Ramya Krishnan deliver power-packed performances as Devasena and Sivagami (respectively), who are two fiercely loyal, determined women faced with insurmountable difficulties and circumstances in a manipulative kingdom. With ease, Ramya Krishnan simultaneously embodies a compassionate, concerned mother and a righteous, commanding leader. Although Anushka’s stunts and action sequences in the first part of the film are brilliant, the cherry on top would have been seeing her in full form fighting off villains in the latter half. Nevertheless, as Devasena, she sticks to her tenacious principles and maintains a confident attitude throughout.

K.K. Senthil Kumar’s fantastic cinematography, combined with MM Kreem’s haunting, melodious music and background score, only enhance this epic conclusion. The occasional visual throwbacks to this film’s precursor, particularly in the end, make it more holistic and integrated for viewers of both films. The grandeur of the sets and costume design are visually appealing and appropriate to the development of the plot. I also appreciated the interspersion of pure Sanskrit words and phrases here and there; it definitely gives Baahubali 2 more of a historical context.

Another highlight of this saga is the bromance and bonding between Kattappa and Amarendra Baahubali, whose relationship is characterized by respect, teasing, and mutual trust. It is truly heartbreaking to witness the moment where Kattappa does the deed and we are faced with the reality why it happened. Rana Daggubati and Nassar too stay true to their roles as the neglected ones who are determined to rule and rise to power.

Final Verdict: Baahubali 2 is not just a film. It is an experience filled with romance and revenge, comedy and conspiracy, treason and triumph. Brace yourself for gory violence, some lighthearted moments, and a lot of intensity.

Kalki’s Awakening: When World Politics Meets Hindu Spirituality

The time has come for Kalki to arrive and save us all…

As a young Indian-American attending Chinmaya Mission and learning Bharatanatyam and Sanskrit, I was repeatedly exposed to the stories of the 10 avatars of Lord Vishnu from Hindu mythology, with particularly vague mentions of the last avatar Kalki – the one that is yet to come, the savior of humanity from the impending destruction in Kali Yuga. Tradition holds that Kalki is supposed to arrive on a horse to rescue the world and protect us all. That’s pretty much the extent of what I got when learning about Kalki as a child.

In the last few months as things have taken an increasingly dark turn in the political, racial, social, and cultural dynamics of America and beyond, I have come to realize something. Maybe the Kalki we are supposedly waiting for is not some divine external force from an unknown distant land. Perhaps, just like Brahman, there lies a Kalki within each one of us, waiting to awaken, time after time, life after life – to defend truth, to uphold justice, to address issues that have long been lying dormant or silenced in history, herstory, theirstory. Embracing my identity as a spiritual warrior and an advocate for social change, I stand by my fellow community members through these tumultuous times in solidarity, service, sacrifice, and strength.

Alive, awake, aware – a Kalki is born in me.

Bollywood Music: On the Curse of Remakes

In the last five years or so, Bollywood music has become increasingly unoriginal, with melodies being repeated in the same genres of “romance”, “party/club/EDM”, or “sad/emotional” over and over again. With the exception of some great albums of recent times (Mirzya, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Befikre), there has been a trend towards remaking/remixing/remastering old classics (mainstream and indie/pop) from earlier decades. Here are a few just from the last year…

Haseeno Ka Deewana (Kaabil)

Tamma Tamma Again (Badrinath Ki Dulhania)

The Humma Song (OK Jaanu)

Kala Chashma (Baar Baar Dekho)

Dil Ke Paas (Wajah Tum Ho)

Laila Main Laila (Raees)

Hare Krishna Hare Ram (Commando 2)

O Jaaniya/Kaate Nahin Kat The (Force 2)

Love them, hate them, don’t care about them – your choice. For me, these are some of the questions that come up and are left unanswered:

Have Bollywood music composers lost their originality?

What does this trend mean for the future of the Indian film music industry?

Where is the identity of music composers today?

Most importantly, are music composers working on their craft as artists?

I understand if a remake of a song is related to the film’s theme (like “Yeh Mera Dil” in Don, for example), but this trend is starting to make me wonder about the purpose of recreating a random song and inserting it into an unrelated film with no relevance to the original song.

Old is gold but perhaps the new re-polished gold may only be for a few.

Indonesia Diaries: Lombok – Paradise of Islands!

One year later and I am back in Southeast Asia’s wonderfully diverse country, Indonesia, with even more travels, rich adventures, and memorable experiences. I got to spend this past Christmas weekend with beloved family on the island of Lombok, which is part of the West Nusa Tenggara province. Like other islands of the Indonesian archipelago, Lombok is home to many beaches and picturesque landscapes that will make you feel at peace and one with nature.

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Here are some of the top attractions to check out during a getaway to this popular tourist island!

Kuta Beach

Our first stop in Lombok was Kuta Beach, which is one of the more well-known beaches in the southern part of Lombok. Many restaurants and hotels are conveniently located in the town of Kuta, allowing for easy access to the water and other attractions in south Lombok. There is a rocky overlook that you can cross the water to reach but brace yourself, for the path to get there is somewhat treacherous and slippery.

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Tanjung A’an Beach

Unlike many of the beaches in and around Lombok, Tanjung A’an is one of the few that actually has soft sand without rocks or broken pieces of shells strewn on the shore. There is a hilly plateau at Tanjung A’an beach where you can see a view of Lombok and the vast Indian Ocean. Because of the rough waves, this beach is also great for surfing, and we were able to see many brave surfers test their skills in the water.

Sasak Village

The local tribe in Lombok is called the Sasak and tourists can visit their village to learn more about their culture and lifestyle. This living community is characterized by homes made of cement and bamboo with layers of thatched roofs. They even have separate huts for the sole purpose of storing rice during the monsoon season. An interesting tidbit we learned was that if there is not enough rice to feed everyone, no weddings will happen in the village.

Weaving Village

Weaving is one of the main activities for traditional Sasak women. In fact, since women are only eligible for marriage if they know how to weave, girls start learning and perfecting this skill as early as nine years of age. At the weaving village, I had the opportunity to try my hand at this task and manual weaving is not as easy as it seems! Take a look at one of the resident expert weavers showing us how it is done.

Gili Trawangan

Off the coast of Lombok are several smaller islands, called gilis, which have become popular tourist destinations for anyone who visits Lombok. Gili Trawangan is the largest and most popular gili, located a 15 minute boat ride away from the Teluk Nara port in Lombok. On the gili, there is no motor transportation so the only ways to get around are by foot, bicycle, or horse-driven carts. There is quite a bit to do on Gili Trawangan, from water sports like snorkeling and diving to seeing the turtle conservatory. One thing that is not to be missed is the over-the-water swings at Ombok Sunset Hotel. For Bollywood aficionados like me who fantasize about swinging above water, this is the place to fulfill that dream! Gili Trawangan is also known for its night life, with several bars and lounges around the island. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay to see the sunset but that is also worth checking out if possible.

Malimbu Hills

Malimbu Hills Sunset Point has one of the most breathtaking views of Bali Sea and the gilis off the coast of Lombok. Fortunately, the sun cooperated and we were able to see the glistening shades of blue and aqua on the water against the dark green mountains and coconut trees. Indulging in a quick bite with some corn on the cob garnished with salt and other spices as you enjoy a sunset at this picturesque point is the perfect end to a long day of sightseeing.

Mount Rinjani

Since we only stayed for about 2-3 days in Lombok, there was not nearly enough time to cover everything and Mount Rinjani is one of those attractions I need to return to the island to visit. Rinjani is the second highest active volcano in Indonesia, and it is located in the northern part of Lombok within Gunung Rinjani National Park. Like Ngorongoro National Park in Tanzania, Rinjani is a caldera consisting of a crater lake and hot springs. Tourists can trek up to Mount Rinjani for a great view of what lies within.

gunungrinjanilombok

Dear Zindagi: Frustration, Contemplation, Reconciliation

4 teasers, 3 songs, and several behind-the-scenes videos later, Gauri Shinde’s most awaited flick Dear Zindagi finally hit movie theaters worldwide. Dear Zindagi follows the story of Kaira (Alia Bhatt), a cinematographer and aspiring filmmaker who goes on a journey of self-discovery with the help of her therapist Dr. Jehangir Khan aka Jug (Shah Rukh Khan) amidst the gorgeous scenery of Goa. The result is a series of revelations connecting Kaira’s past and present interactions and relationship patterns.

dear-zindagi-kaira-alia-bhatt

At its core, Dear Zindagi is a film about relationships – starting, continuing, and ending them. From romantic and familial to personal and professional, we see Kaira struggling with the balancing act of managing all the relationships in her life while trying to stay sane and accept herself for who she is. The narrative’s power, however, lies in the complex yet powerful therapeutic relationship between Kaira and Jug. Shinde plays with the stereotypes of counseling and mental health, with references to the impact of childhood trauma and neglect, while challenging and breaking through stigmas associated with seeing a therapist.

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Coming from the exalted filmmaker of English Vinglish fame, the expectations for Dear Zindagi are high – perhaps a bit too high that Shinde is unable to live up to the bar she set for herself. The fact that Dear Zindagi conveys a powerful message about increasing awareness of mental health in Indian society is a major leap forward for (relatively) mainstream Bollywood cinema. While the message is clear, the process of communicating it is a long-winded, two-hour journey that could have been shortened significantly, particularly in the first half. What this film lacks in effective plot and pacing Gauri Shinde makes up with Jug’s profound dialogues that leave viewers with something to ponder even after leaving the cinema hall.

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Dear Zindagi is an out-and-out Alia Bhatt film, and she is a natural onscreen as the spoiled confused rich girl Kaira. Needless to say, Shah Rukh Khan is excellent as Jug, effortlessly embodying the role of a therapist who self-discloses more than a typical counselor with the intention of drawing Kaira out of her shell. Amit Trivedi’s music is not particularly unique and gets rather repetitive. Laxman Utekar’s cinematography of picturesque Goa makes the visuals of this drama highly appealing and attractive. It was nice to see Kunal Kapoor and Ali Zafar onscreen after quite a while as two of Kaira’s paramours.

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Final Verdict: Dear Zindagi is not excellent as per Shinde’s prior track record but it’ll make you shed a few tears towards the end. It presents a fresh concept and relationship not previously explored in Bollywood cinema in a stereotypical yet non-stereotypical way. A poignant film that leaves you thinking and reflecting!

Khoya: Loss, Belonging, Meaning

Khoya. Lost. The word lends itself to feelings of sadness and abandonment. Experience all these emotions and more in Sami Khan’s poignant drama Khoya, which follows the journey of Roger (Rupak Ginn) as he sets off from his hometown in Canada to find his birth family in India.

roger-subhash

Khoya is a deeply evocative film that takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster with Roger through India. From encountering the consequences of corruption firsthand to traversing the road with nothing but the clothes on his back, Roger goes through significant trials and tribulations in his quest for family and belonging. As an audience member, I felt an immense amount of sympathy for Roger as he,a brown-skinned foreigner with a linguistic barrier, experiences in India for the first time. Issues of forged adoption papers and child trafficking bring in social messages about serious matters that are seldom spoken about but nevertheless plague the adoption industry worldwide.

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Metaphors and symbolism are galore in this profound film, particularly with subtle subtextual references to different religious and spiritual traditions. The cinematography by Kevin Wong beautifully captures realistic imagery of India in ways that are unlike the colorful over-the-top visuals often portrayed onscreen in mainstream cinema.

khoya

There is a lot to unpack in Khoya, from Roger’s identity struggles as an Indo-Canadian unaware of his Indian roots to his feelings of shame about being adopted. The film’s pace is mellow and contemplative, seeming slow at times, but it intentionally flows with the protagonist’s internal struggles throughout his journey. Contributing to the reflective vibe of the film, there are minimum dialogues so much of the story moves forward in silence through body language. Needless to say, Rupak Ginn has done an excellent job essaying the role of Roger. The directorial technique of flashback to introduce bits and pieces of Roger’s past is an interesting touch that adds more dimension to this ruminative drama.

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Final Verdict: Khoya is a film that requires more than 100% of your attention while watching. Because there is so much to absorb, a thorough understanding and analysis of the film can only emerge from multiple watches. Visually grey and hazy with thought-provoking and reflective content!

Venue: 3rd i South Asian Film Festival (San Francisco, CA)

The World of Goopi and Bagha (Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya)

Based on Satyajit Ray’s film written by Upendra Kishore Roychowdury, The World of Goopi and Bagha (Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya) is an animation comedy musical directed by Shilpa Ranade that follows the tale of two musicians – Goopi the singer (Rajeev Raj) and Bagha the percussionist (Manish Bhawan). The film begins with them getting thrown out of their respective villages due to their horrendous musical renderings. After encountering an evil ghost who grants them four boons, the rest of the film follows their journey towards achieving musical harmony involving two rival brother kings, a sinister commander-in-chief and his sidekick wizard, and a princess’ hand to win in marriage.

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The film has a very old school animation feel to it, with caricatured hand-drawn depictions of the characters. It communicates a universal message of peace and brotherhood that is very applicable in light of current political dynamics in the western part of the world. As in most kid-friendly animation flicks, the typical good versus evil trope appears, with Goopi and Bagha coming to the rescue with their music.

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The highlight of this film is its dialogues and music. At its core, The World of Goopi and Bagha is a musical, with several songs interspersed to carry the plot forward. Narayan Parshuram’s music composition weaves different musical styles, including Indian classical and regional folk elements. The integration of Hindi, Sanskrit, and Urdu words in Rohit Gahlowt’s dialogues contributes to the all-inclusive view in which Indian society is portrayed in the film. The rib-tickling lyrics are charming and add even more lightness to the movie.

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Final Verdict: Despite the corny jokes and some over-the-top silly moments, Goopi Gawaiya Bagha Bajaiya is an animation that is for both kids and adults. If you are familiar with Satyajit Ray’s original work, it is likely you will enjoy this adaptation even more. For a change, immerse yourself in art that is light-hearted, positive, and enjoyable!

Venue: 3rd i South Asian Film Festival (San Francisco, CA)