Many facets of the South Asian diaspora at Mustard Seed Film Festival
Carl(os) Roa chats with Hariprasad Kowtha and Natasha Cohen-Carroll, co-founders of the Mustard Seed Film Festival. Screening throughout the city August 16-19, Mustard Seed promotes socially engaged cinema that speaks to the rich diversity of the South Asian experience.


After meeting in a yoga class and having several run-ins around West Philly, Mustard Seed Film Festival co-founders Natasha Cohen-Carroll and Hariprasad Kowtha became friends and collaborators. One day, while attending a film festival at the University of Pennsylvania, they were inspired by a film from Bangladesh about working-class women. Kowtha sprouted the idea of curating a South Asian film festival, and asked if Cohen-Carroll would be interested in being part of the organizing effort.

Mustard Seed 2017 (Photo Credit to Kaltoum Alibhrahimi).
Mustard Seed 2017 (Photo Credit to Kaltoum Alibhrahimi).

“[The women in the film] were trying to find their voice through theatre – a medium that they had never experienced before,” said Kowtha. “It was only a fifteen minute film, but I was wondering why we don’t show more of these films here.”

Thus, the Mustard Seed Film Festival came into being. “We’re looking for socially engaged films that represent a diversity of experiences in terms of communities we might not normally see,” said Cohen-Carroll. “We’re trying to broaden what it means to be South Asian.”

Now in its third year, the festival seeks to increase the visibility and presence of South Asian cinema in Philadelphia, with a particular taste for social commentary in its selections. The festival also features an array of programming to compliment its mission, including a kickoff party and a South Asian drag night.

Diverse Approaches, Nuanced Stories

When I met with both organizers a week ago at the Last Drop Coffee House, they spoke with an ardent passion about some of the highlights of this year’s festival. Take for example Moko Jumbie, directed by Vashti Anderson. Moko Jumbie revolves around racial tensions between Indo- and Afro-Trinidadians, and the complex issue of anti-blackness in Caribbean culture.

“It’s just an incredible film,” said Cohen-Carroll. “On one hand, it’s a nuanced exploration of race relations between the black community and Indian community in Trinidad. It’s also a love story – a budding summer romance. And it’s also imbued with this mythological, folkloric, magical realism Those sound like three disparate movies, but somehow, Vashti Anderson has managed to turn it into a full movie that’s so rich.”

Of course, the films in Mustard Seed tackle a range of themes and styles – from interviews between mothers and daughters in India, to a community-created film, set in Madhya Pradesh and attributed to the Ektara Collective, and even an animated film depicting the coming out story of a young Bengali man. Red Sari, a short directed by Ruhi Radke, turned out to be Kowtha’s favorite.

“It’s about a couple who come from different religious backgrounds who are trying to take their engagement photos. I can imagine this couple when they get older, how they’ll communicate with each other. There’s a sweetness to their interactions, even in this coldness and these moments of turbulence. There’s a playfulness in the film, and it’s just so short – I love films that leave me wanting more,” said Kowtha.

Film Still from Red Sari by Ruhi Radke.
Film Still from Red Sari by Ruhi Radke.

The Mustard Seed Film Festival will screen in various locations in Philly from August 16-19, 2018. Tickets for a single feature are $8-$15 dollars, with passes for the entire festival at $95 dollars. The festival as a whole has changed considerably, and the festival’s organizers are excited to share their growth with their audience. Some of the through-lines of this year’s festival feel especially poignant. Natasha Cohen-Carroll had this to offer:

“Just by the nature of the festival, we’re seeing a lot of films about people who are searching, who feel in between two cultures and don’t know quite where to place themselves. I think that’s something that even people who are not from a South Asian background can connect to.”

The Mustard Seed Film Festival screens throughout Philly from August 16-19, 2018. For tickets or more information visit the festival website.


Hariprasad Kowtha, Madhya Pradesh, Mustard Seed Film Festival, Natasha Cohen-Carroll, Red Sari, Ruhi Radke, socially engaged cinema, South Asian film festival



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