Kids Corner

Film/Stage

Charkha Spins in Toronto

by Nicola Mooney Ph.D.

Do you think that not enough of the films you watch feature Sikhs in them? Are you tired of the ways that Sikhs are (mis)represented in the Bollywood movies you see? Do you want to see people whose lives you are interested in and who reflect something of your experience up there on the silver screen? Then be sure to check out the Spinning Wheel Festival: A Celebration of Sikh Films!

A highly successful endeavour begun in Toronto in 2003, this fantastic annual assemblage of films produced by, for and about Sikhs, is now going global, with festivals in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, and soon-to-be festivals in London and Delhi. This charkha spins out a rich tapestry of films in which the stories and experiences of Sikhs around the globe are celebrated and offered up for inspiration. It is also an important venue at which community joys and sorrows can be shared, and the humanitarian, social justice, human rights, and global peace concerns of Sikhs and Sikhi promoted.

The 2006 Toronto festival was very well-attended, with a near capacity crowd for many of the film screenings. The mainly Sikh audience seemed to love the films, and the theatre lobby pulsed with excitement as people continued to discuss the films at breaks, often making new friends in the process. The opening night gala, which was at capacity, saw a crush of people thoroughly energized with the anticipation of what the weekend would offer. This evening featured the sardonic and pointed comedy of Hardeep Singh Kohli as Master of Ceremonies. This sardar from Glasgow was piped in, wearing a fetching red pagg that matched his kilt, while his sporran bore a cheeky skull and crossbones emblem. His film, Hardeep Does Race, an examination of identity, origin and assimilation in the UK, was one of the opening night features of the festival. The second film, Kylie Boltin's Wedding Sari Showdown, took a sadly humorous look at the politics of the family endured by an Australian Sikh bride and her Rajasthani Hindu groom. The crowds were also treated to a fine musical performance by Gurdev Singh on sarod, Harbhajan Singh on sitar, and Navinder Singh on tabla, who together performed a Sitar Sarod Jugalbandi. Topping off this evening of great entertainment was a delicious buffet feast held at the nearby Gardiner Museum, to which the audience walked accompanied by the compelling beats of two local dholis.

The festival collects its films widely and programs them broadly. Reflecting its origins in the Sikh diaspora, the festival includes films of global reach, featuring the work of film-makers in Canada, the US, the UK, Malaysia, Australia, and of course South Asia. The films and programs are diverse in their content, and include feature films, documentaries, and shorts. Even if you were to attend only one or two screenings at Spinning Wheel, you would still come away with quite a well-rounded impression of contemporary Sikh film-making, and the issues that interest Sikh film-makers and others producing films on Sikhs.

The 2006 festival featured over 28 films, variously about weddings, bhangra, kirtan, gatka, sant-sipahis, Sikhs and Sikhism in the diaspora in places as diverse as Southall, Melbourne, East Africa and southern Ontario, and Sikh celebrities such as Gurinder Chadha, Meera Syal and Monty Panesar. As well, a number of films focused on important social issues such as the various plights of Punjabi farmers, illegal migrants, and girl children.

A very good work in progress/preview, Warrior Saints by Kevin Lee, looks at the lives of three diverse Khalsa Sikhs, including a Sikh victim of a post-9/11 hate crime, a woman and a white Sikh. Lee, a Chinese-American film-maker, came to Sikh film-making as a member of a minority who like the Sikhs of his film had personally suffered social and racial marginalization. A couple of films, both the gala evening's Hardeep Does Race, and Sartaj Singh Dhami's The Sikh on the Street, questioned non-Sikhs about their knowledge of Sikh origins and ethno-racial identity in both the UK and the USA, with unsettling results. The film Mission Aceh: Global Sikhs portrayed the valiant efforts of Malaysian Sikhs to assist with tsunami relief efforts. This provided a valuable educational portrait of a Sikh community that is not particularly well known to Sikhs of the North American diaspora. Another view of the Sikh diaspora, this time from small town Ontario, was provided by the film Harmony, which is a biographical portrait of the devout and funny Dr. Onkar Singh, naturopath, family man, and raagi of local renown for performing kirtan and explaining Gurbani in English so that diasporic children might better appreciate the virtues of Sikhi.


An exceptionally well-produced assemblage of BBC arts programming from a series called Desi DNA showcased a number of pieces of interest to Sikhs and South Asians, including a piece on Maharaja Duleep Singh, and a retrospective on Sholay, which met a highly enthusiastic response from the audience. And Jeeta Jatt, a hilarious parody of the Punjabi masala films of the 70s & 80s, provided some welcome comic relief. Sunday's children's program featured a screening of Mitra Sen's The Peace Tree, perhaps the only film at the festival that did not feature Sikh characters, but nevertheless a Sikh film in its message of a universal and peaceable humanitarianism. Following this film, children and adults alike were captivated by the storytelling talents and charisma of Yorkshire's Roop Singh, a festival favourite. A few of the films were especially moving and profound. The Saturday night feature, Kavi Raz' The Gold Bracelet, is a troubling film about the tragic effects of September 11th on a Sikh American family. This is not only a Sikh film but also very much an American film, in the way that Gurinder Chadha's films have mainstream appeal as British films. It deserves a wide theatrical release, and to become part of the catalogue of films dealing with the aftermaths of 9/11.

Similarly, Sunday night's The Widow Colony, by Harpreet Kaur, featured women widowed and children orphaned in Delhi during Nov84, and their still unresolved struggle for justice and restitution. This talented and sensitive documentarian is working on several other issue-based films on the crisis of agriculture in Punjab, and the issue of female foeticide, which promise to be just as powerful. Definitely something to watch for at future Spinning Wheels...

The festival's diverse films and programs, which encourage their audiences to question their own identities and roles vis-à-vis the issues presented, are thought-provoking in nature. Very importantly, the festival tries to bring directors, producers, and sometimes featured actors from each of the films to answer questions and speak to the audience about their filmic visions. At the 2006 festival, a good number of the people involved in making or starring in the films shown were at hand to talk to the public, answer their questions and share their viewpoints. Many of the film-makers were there for much of the weekend and, perhaps especially fitting at a Sikh event, were very approachable and interested in chatting with the audience as individuals.

The question and answer sessions, as well as the conversations that continued in the lobby, were very interesting. The films provoked a wide variety of questions, from perhaps predictable inquiries about scenes featuring alcohol, to more profound questions of truth and equality in Sikh identity. The films also inspired introspection and consciousness-raising. For instance, there was great audience concern over the appropriate responses to traumatic events such as Nov84 and 9/11. The festival, by screening issue-based films, and providing a civic venue in which they can be discussed, thus provides an important public forum for concerned Sikhs to discuss social justice and other issues which are important to the community.

Importantly, the festival has organized a Sikh Film Foundation which gives grants to assist film-makers working on Sikh films. Although several of the film-makers on hand were able to use the event to raise support towards completing works-in-progress, it was sad to learn that production on several significant films is stalled for lack of money. These films are truly labours of love for the film-makers.

The festival is becoming something of a magnet for the provocations of other artistic and literary ventures as well. Attached to it are visual arts and literature competitions, with entries in the visual arts being offered to the community by silent auction during the festival. As well, a number of prolific community artists and activists attend the festival, such as Amrit and Rabindra, the Singh Twins, in 2005, and in 2006 Vishavjit Singh of SikhToons fame, and Roma Kaur, founder of Sikh women's magazine Kaurs.

There was truly something for everyone at the 2006 Spinning Wheel. One frequently witnessed "uncles" and "aunties" being greeted in the lobby, and the festival for many was a family affair. It was nice to see the urbane, professional young Sikhs of the festival's organizing committee, who yearly devote a great deal of their free time to the seva of running this world-class event, honoured by their parents at Sunday's closing.

All of the films shown at the festival had high production values, were visually rich, and culturally rewarding. The Spinning Wheel demonstrates well that the time has come for Sikhs and their stories, values and concerns to be showcased.

So, rather than suffer the nakli sardarjis of mainstream film, why not enjoy the rewarding offerings of the Spinning Wheel Film Festival? Join in this celebration of Sikh Films, and be in cinematic chardi kalaa!

About the Author:

When she is not watching films (and observing the people that watch them), Nicola Mooney is a researcher, instructor, and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Mount Allison University. She is currently putting together a collection of scholarly essays about Sikhs in film. Her book Rural Nostalgias and Transnational Dreams: Identity and Modernity among Jat Sikhs is to be published by the University of Toronto Press in 2007.

Conversation about this article

1: Gurjeet Singh Matharu (Pune, India), October 02, 2008, 5:59 AM.

It is amazing and I appreciate the efforts put into it. Please accept my heartfelt wishes for your success, and God Bless. Sadaa chardiaan kalan vich raho !

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