Bringing Indian cinema to the UK, and the man behind a major film festival

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The journey to the London Indian Film Festival, that’s now in its eleventh year, as told by festival director Cary Rajinder Sawhney MBE.

My early childhood in Kolkata somehow must have grounded the Indian in me, in spite of my being of mixed heritage, with a white English mother and Punjabi Indian father. My dad was a very practical man as an engineer and not interested in the arts. My mother named me after her favourite movie star, Cary Grant, so I suppose he had the biggest influence in terms of me following a career in film.

Growing up in the outer edge of London with no Asian people around, I didn’t have many role models to peg my obvious difference or mixed identity on. There was a lot of open racism. That difference once identified and claimed I guess became my strength.

Our only real connection with India growing up was my dad’s old Hindi film records, the wicker basket of Alfonso mangoes every summer that my aunt in India would send to us, and her occasional visits. I probably had a cock-eyed view of India with these and a few other reference points. Back at home in those days fathers didn’t really talk to their sons that much apart from instructional advice, and it was hard to get out of my dad where he was from and our shared time in India. I as an adult realised that as a Punjabi from Lahore, he was living the loss of partition and such memories were kept closed down.

Our upbringing was as per my mum’s style, very north London English, not especially religious Christian and part of a relatively large English country family with lots of cousins to play with. My mum’s fancy for old Hollywood stars and musicals probably rolled into the heart of her soon-to-realise-he-was-gay son and I spent hours consuming popular movies, learning all the words of Hollywood showtunes.


Over time, I slowly forged my own identity and love for escaping into cinema. Probably the most decisive cinematic and social references for my young life came watching Channel Four’s ‘Movie Mahal’ series, which connected me to an identity and culture I had been hungry for. It was the classic film Pakeezah that seemed to encapsulate many of my feelings and sense of belonging for some unknown reason. My mum encouraged my passion for film, supporting me to do a degree in photography, film and television, in those days pretty much off the beaten track of a normal stable career.

I was told at the interview by a rather elitist panel that I was too shy to be a filmmaker and should probably focus on photography. I took it on the chin and graduated as a photographer. I travelled solo down the entire River Ganges over nearly five months, taking photographs along the way. That was probably the most pivotal testing point of my life, as I proved to myself that if I could do that on my own, I could pretty much do anything. I sold my photographs when I got back to publishers and set off on a career as a pro-photographer.

During this time, still heavily in the closet and living at home, I used to slip off on weekend nights to gay clubs, too. I soon got in touch with an Asian gay and lesbian group called Shakti (one of the first Asian queer groups in the world). I got involved in activist queer and black civil rights politics, where I met many young black and Asian creative people. The great thing for me as a mixed race person was the feeling of being welcomed and at last that I fitted in.


My then decade as a photographer came to an end with changing economic times and I ended up using my experience to curate Asian arts and photography shows, the largest at Birmingham Museum & Arts Gallery, moving to the then National Museum of Photography Film and Television. There, I was tasked to organise its first black and Asian film festival. I came up with the catchy title – Bite The Mango – at 3am one morning, and as is typical with Yorkshire people the open-minded team loved it.

This was pretty much a dream come true and I managed to pull in filmmakers of different ethnicities from all over the country to attend the festival. This extended to setting up the museum’s first drag queen film evening, ‘Hair Spray and Attitude’, which slipped into folklore as it accidentally coincided with the same night as the Bradford riots. Thankfully no drag queens were harmed, but rescuing Marie Antoinette from a cashpoint in town is burned in my memory forever!

Bite The Mango was pulling in so many new titles from South Asia it got the attention of the British Film Institute. I was invited to be the South Asian programme adviser to the BFI London Film Festival, which I have loved working on for many years. Shortly after, I moved back down to London to head up the BFI’s Diversity Department. My job there was to create strategic change within the BFI and its partners, programming more diverse films and employing a wider range of people. While there, I also conceived two major BFI festivals, ImagineAsia and Black World.

I directed ImagineAsia, which grew into a colossus. Sixty-seven venues participated around the UK thanks to the BFI’s gravitas and our energetic young team’s verve. It became the BFI’s largest reach festival and the largest Asian film event ever to happen in Europe. It also forged bridges between Asian communities and cinemas across Britain, and strongly helped bring to the mainstream an appreciation of Indian cinema beyond Satyajit Ray for the first time. The short film competition initiated during ImagineAsia went on to be adopted by the Satyajit Ray Foundation, and it now lives in the London Indian Film Festival.

After ImagineAsia and my time at the BFI, I decided to go freelance and become a filmmaker amongst other things.

New Beginnings

After a few years, I decided to set up an Indian Film Festival. The London Film Festival being a globally facing event couldn’t take many South Asian films and many of the good films weren’t being shown in the UK at all. I set about gathering a group of like-minded passionate, hard-working people who either knew Indian cinema, or were lovers of Indian culture. What was evident from the first little six-feature festival in 2010 is that we had an audience of mainly Asian people out there who wanted to watch what we offered.

We grew year on year as luckily Indian indie cinema started to rise on the international festival circuit. Our first film was Love Sex Aur Dhoka, akin to Sex, Lies And Videotape, which got us headlines in the Evening Standard about new sexual openness in Indian cinema.

We rode a growing wave. As the festival audience quickly began to swell into the thousands, the BFI became a core funder and later the eminent Bagri Foundation became title sponsors. This allowed us to expand to other cities, and as the iteration of the festival in the Midlands – the Birmingham Indian Film Festival – showcased our carefully curated edgy programme of films, other cities followed. The annual Satyajit Ray Short Film Competition and Award has helped showcase new talent, and the festival has raised money for charities, bringing in audiences that would never come to cinemas, including survivors of domestic violence and women refugees.

2020 has of course knocked the whole world in the jaw and, like many other festivals, we have struggled to cope. Fortunately, having stable funding support, we were able to take a look at what we are doing and find creative solutions. We thus explored the creation of a digital solution as we saw much larger European festivals achieve. I guess given our journey we were less afraid of taking a risk and quickly developed our own platform – – which is already generating a good deal of interest globally, and takes us into the whole new hybrid actual and virtual film festival realm for the future.

As always, we are taking life and work as an exciting adventure into the realms of possibilities…


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