J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

MIAAC ’10: Ashes

Indo-Americans seem to be under-represented in New York’s seedy drug world. This is a good thing. However, one son of Indian immigrants tries to earn a quick crooked buck while caring for his emotionally unstable older brother. As one would expect, something has to give in Ajay Naidu’s Ashes (trailer here), which had its New York premiere last night at the 2010 Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival.

Ashes is in major denial. He insists his drug dealing is temporary and only “herbal” in nature. Yet, he just helped broker a major deal to facilitate the distribution of opium imported from India, almost inadvertently. Like it or not he is up to his neck in some serious business. At the same time, his chemically unbalanced older brother Kartik shows signs of relapsing. However, with major power plays going down, he reluctantly accepts his brother’s less than persuasive assurances. He is also neglecting his own girlfriend, suspiciously paying more attention to the machinations his patron’s mercenary lover Jasmine (played by Naidu’s fiancé producer Heather Burns).

Naidu seems to be going for an early Scorsese-style street-level morality tale customized to reflect the Indo-American experience. It doesn’t quite get there, but it gets the grittiness right. Frankly, the brother’s keeper drama is surprisingly strong, with Naidu and Faran Tahir looking and acting quite convincing as the second generation brothers, Ashes and Kartik respectively. In contrast, the intentionally murky criminal subplot does not work as well, as various gangsters wash in and out of the film without effectively establishing an identity or their place in the underworld hierarchy.

An intense screen presence, Naidu really outshines most of his cast. As director, he makes the most of his BKLN locations, without overdoing the Coney Island backdrops. Frankly, it has an evocative pre-Giuliani vibe of ever present menace and hopelessness. Yes indeed, times are changing.

While imperfect, Ashes is a promising directorial debut, rough around the edges in an old school New York kind of way. Those who dig indie crime drama should find its spirit to their liking. A somewhat outside-the-box selection for MIAAC, Ashes goes global with its UK premiere this coming March as the closing night film of the London Asian Film Festival. Here in New York, the MIAAC Film Festival continues this weekend with official selections screening at the SVA Theatre and the Smita Patil sidebar underway at the Walter Reade.

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