While diversity has become the mantra for the Hollywood majors, a couple of new releases offer a reminder that the indies are already ahead of the game.
MarVista Entertainment premiered Ravi Kapoor’s “Miss India America” this past week, while Monterey Media’s “Of Mind and Music” bows in digital release today.
Kapoor said many distributors passed on his film because of the “all-brown cast. That was a non-starter; they said it had a limited audience. But MarVista recognized it plays to a wider, younger audience, as well as women and South Asians.” The distributor also realized, as many others in the industry are discovering, that there is a huge audience of Indian people in the U.S. who are hungry for films. MarVista, which is generally known more for its genre releases like horror and action, plans a roll-out for its film after premiering it last week in Santa Monica.
The Richie Adams-directed “Music” centers on four African-Americans, one Irish-Ethiopian, one Portuguese guy and a Caucasian woman (Sharon Lawrence). Jere Rae-Mansfield, CFO and managing partner of Monterey Media, acquired the film after seeing it at the Sedona fest earlier this year, praising the study of aging and Alzheimer’s as “lyrical.” She added, “The cast is completely color blind. No one was cast for their race, religion. There is a universal aging problem that doesn’t pay any attention to race, religion, spans various decades. We all have to unite to take care of these people, our people. I love the mixture of the cast.”
“Miss India America” screened in about 25 fests in the past year. MarVista CEO Fernando Szew said the film “fits very well with the type of story we like to be associated with, teenage stories, coming of age and within that is the mindset of an Indian-American teen. It’s a wonderful story — universal but with an insider perspective to those in that (South Asian) community.” The film was written by Kapoor and his wife, Meera Simhan, with a cast that includes Hannah Simone (“New Girl” on Fox).
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“Miss India America” centers around a high school valedictorian whose life plans are derailed when her boyfriend dumps her for a beauty pageant queen. In order to win him back and continue with her plans, she enters the competition.
Adams’ “Of Mind and Music” is also a festival veteran, starting with Newport Beach last year, where it won the audience award. Based on Nicolas Bazan’s “Una Vida,” the New Orleans-set film stars Aunjanue Ellis as a singer with Alzheimer’s. “From the get-go our casting director came on as a producer,” Adams said. “It’s a tough one. You’ve got an elderly lead, African-American lead.
“We knew that it was important to stick to what was right for the movie and right for the characters,” Adams said. Although one character was changed from the book to be African-American in the movie, he said, “I thought it seemed to be more true to what I had seen growing up in and around New Orleans that that character be African-American.”
For Kapoor finding a seasoned cast was important as well. “There’s lots of great talent, the South Asian talent is off the charts,” he said. “The other point is, we do feel the film is not just made for South Asians, but for general audiences, one everyone can relate. It’s not even about boyfriend, but her relationship with winning, it’s not everything. And there’s some more growth for her.”
He’s hoping also for some success overseas pointing to such films as “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Monsoon Wedding,” which enjoyed success in the U.S. and overseas, including the U.K. and India. A recent UCLA study found that films with diverse casts performed better at the global box office.
“It’s a case of us making the film and the industry getting behind the films,” Kapoor said. “And it’s up to audience to start to watch, and that’s hard unless they know (films are) out there.”