Festival films roam South Asia and beyond

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“Liar’s Dice” is the opening night feature of the Chicago South Asian Film Festival.

By Bill Stamets/For Sun-Times Media

Road movies are all over the map at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, starting Thursday. Dramas and documentaries take viewers from Himalayan highs and Mumbai traffic jams, to Stockholm chess matches and Jerusalem suicide bombers.

Although the lineup lacks India’s summer hit “Kick” and the upcoming “Bang Bang!” this 16-feature fest boasts “the very best in South Asia’s most fiercely original, daring and exciting cinema.” That hype, however, overstates the styles of the accessible dramas and documentaries presented by Zee Cinema, “the ultimate Hindi movie destination on TV.”

The opening night film, “Liar’s Dice” (7 p.m. Thursday), is a very strong first feature by Geetu Mohandas that played at the Sundance Film Festival. Setting out from a tiny village by the Indo-Tibet border, a young mother, her 4-year-old girl and their little pet goat undertake a trek to find her husband at a construction site in New Delhi.

Five months have passed since his last message. A hustler on the run with a gun offers to help. “This film is dedicated for the vast multitude of nameless people who are recognized only as a mere statistic,” states the director, who collaborates here with her cinematographer husband Rajeev Ravi.

It’s at Showplace Icon, as are the other films reviewed here unless otherwise noted.

Ravishing mountain terrain is also traversed in the slicker, shallower “M Cream” (8:30 p.m. Friday), a trippy road trip with four Delhi University students seeking the title hashish in the literal high country. NYU grad Agneya Singh partakes of the apolitical angst of his onscreen peers.

CHICAGO SOUTH ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL When: Thursday through Sunday Where: Showplace Icon, 150 W. Roosevelt; Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., Evanston Tickets: $15-$35 (festival pass $125) Info: csaff.org

For its Cinema Conversation Culture program, the festival includes two Israeli films. One is “Present Continuous” (4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Evanston Public Library), an inner odyssey in Jerusalem. After surviving the 2002 suicide bombing in Mahne Yehuda Market, a mother locks her family inside their apartment for an odd domestic intervention. Director Aner Preminger, a film prof at Hebrew University, ends by stating: “Dedicated to 4.5 million Palestinian and Israeli mothers.”

“Hit the Road India” (6:30 p.m. Friday) is like a reality-TV segment. Co-directors Gor Baghdasaryan and Mushegh Baghdasaryan track two friends – Chicagoan Ric Gazarian and Canadian Keith King – during a 12-day rickshaw race. The culturally insensitive and incompetent competitors label themselves “retarded.”

A far better documentary is “Algorithms” (2:30 p.m. Saturday), Ian McDonald’s insightful chronicle of three boys competing in the All-India Chess Federation for the Blind. This U.K. director, who also shot this black-and-white documentary, will appear. Most fest screenings include moderated discussions afterward.

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