If one person understands the importance of cinema and how it unites us, it’s Arshad Khan, the Festival Director for Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival (MISAFF). After noticing an explosion of brilliant Indian films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2012, Khan and Festival Advisory Board member Anya Mckenzie felt inspired to increase South Asian cinema exposure in Mississauga.

Now entering its ninth year, MISAFF boasts a fantastic slate of South Asian films in a hybrid format — viewers can watch online while also attending in person. 

I had the privilege of chatting with Arshad about MISAFF’s journey, why it’s essential to keep movies in theaters, the future of the film festival and more. 

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This interview is condensed for clarity.

Melody McCune: Let’s talk about the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival’s journey. Can you tell me about the festival’s origins and how you got involved?

Arshad Khan: I went to the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University, graduating in 2012. I live in Montreal, but I’m from Mississauga, and in Mississauga, my family runs the Mosaic Festival of South Asian Heritage and Art. 

In 2012, my friend Anya Mckenzie and I went to the Toronto International Film Festival, spotlighting Mumbai. We noticed so many great films coming out of India, and none of them got any exposure in Mississauga.

We thought, “Okay, we need to up the ante, and we need to re-educate our public about South Asian cinema.” There’s so much being created in the UK, India, the USA and especially Canada, but there’s no platform for these voices.

Also, because we’re filmmakers, we wanted to bring a good platform for these excellent films in the suburbs. We created MISAFF, the Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival. This year is the ninth edition of the festival. Every year, we’ve grown by leaps and bounds. Because of COVID-19 last year, we had the festival pivot online, which was successful.

We have a hybrid festival from December 1 to December 5 online on the Digital Fifth platform this year. We had a world premiere red-carpet gala and TIFF Bell Lightbox with Donkeyhead, directed by Agam Darshi and produced by Anand Ramayya and Kelly Balon.

We’re fortunate to have this Canadian film produced with the help of Telefilm Canada. Telefilm Canada is one of our sponsors. We’re lucky that Canada, the Province of Ontario, City of Mississauga, support our endeavors to bring underrepresented voices to the big screen and your home.

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MM: This year’s theme is about connection and belonging, “cinema that unites us.” Why was this theme chosen?

AK: I feel COVID has drifted people apart — created a lot of friction in families and stress. The pandemic is hard enough on people, but what’s come to our rescue is cinema and television. Streaming platforms and watching from home have helped people cope with the pandemic.

Staying home is the safest thing to do, and people have been good at keeping that going, and cinema has been integral to that. But now we have the vaccines so you can come together. If you’re vaccinated, you can watch films with your bubble and your family in a safe way.

Cinema has this magic of bringing people together, and, of course, nothing can beat the in-theater experience, but you can also gather at home. Cinema brings us together in the sense that we have access to films from all over the world.

Poster for MISAFF, Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival

MM: You mentioned last year’s MISAFF pivoted to an online format because of COVID. This year, you’re doing a hybrid structure. Is hybrid something you’re willing to continue for future events? Do you find this broadens accessibility to MISSAF?

AK: Film should be viewed in a cinema, and because we’re also filmmakers, we want people to come to the cinema and watch movies.

Streaming is a job for streaming platforms. We want to leave it to the platforms to stream or for filmmakers to sell their work there. Ideally, we don’t want to stream because we feel people should enjoy films the way they’re meant to be seen, with good sound, good image and in a cinema.

That said, let’s see how things pan out next year. We want people to enjoy the film festival experience, where you meet the filmmakers and rub elbows with famous people and stars.

There’s a whole culture around the film festival experience, and we don’t want to lose that.

For example, MISAFF has a brunch where filmmakers and film financiers get together, enjoy brunch, discuss filmmaking and how to finance their films. That’s not taking place right now because of COVID. The in-person experience, nothing can beat that.  

Our filmmakers deserve to be appreciated and spoiled a little bit and enjoy our town. Mississauga needs to be represented. People need to see the hospitality that Mississauga offers and the delicious food.

MM: As you mentioned, Donkeyhead by Agam Darshi is your centerpiece film for the festival. Can you tell me what it’s about and why you chose it as the centerpiece?

AK: Donkeyhead is one of the best films of the year. We’re fortunate that it was a good time for them to premiere the film. It’s authentic storytelling by South Asian filmmakers and primarily South Asian stars. It’s about a daughter’s struggle with her father and her family. She’s the black sheep of the family, taking care of her ailing father and facing the judgment surrounding women and children who don’t pick the traditional route.

It’s a very personal story for Agam. She’s written, directed and acted in it, and it’s brilliantly made. We felt it was a fantastic film for MISAFF to celebrate. The TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema is one of the best theaters in Canada. 

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MM: What are your hopes for MISAFF’s future?

AK: MISAFF is there for all Canadians to enjoy South Asian cinema. We hope to continue this tradition.

We hope to highlight our talent this year with the MISAFF Star. This year, the MISAFF Star is Ganesh Thava, and he’s an excellent writer, director and actor. 

We hope to encourage Canadian filmmakers, engage them with the mainstream and get a dialogue going. Get them talking to each other and get people talking about these films that deserve our attention, respect and love.

MM: You’re also a filmmaker and film educator with 15 years of industry experience. How have your experiences influenced your work with MISAFF?

AK: I’m the winner of the Outstanding Overall Achievement in the Film Production Program Award at Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. I’ve been curating film festivals, and I have made films. I have worked with a production designer and art director on several films, including Midnight’s Children and Case Closed

I have also worked on film sets in other capacities. My feature film, Abu, was seen across Canada and cinemas. It’s on CBC Television, and it’s gone to 75 film festivals and won 17 awards. So, I’m in the unique position of being on both sides — the curating and the filmmaking sides.

I have a special love for and understanding of the filmmaker’s struggle. That’s why, with my unique experience, I’m able to curate a festival gearing itself toward filmmakers. We take care of our filmmakers.

MM: Do you have advice for aspiring filmmakers looking to break into the entertainment industry?

AK: The filmmakers who want to break into entertainment need to watch movies. They need to go to film festivals. They need to have conversations with filmmakers and actors, and they need to start experimenting and get engaged. That’s the most important thing. That’s where you’re learning; throw yourself in entirely, immerse yourself. That’s how you grow.

Poster for MISAFF, Mosaic International South Asian Film Festival

MM: Have you watched anything interesting lately?

AK: I saw the new Lady Gaga film, House of Gucci. It was entertaining, and Lady Gaga is an excellent actress. You cannot take your eyes off her. It’s hard to watch every time she’s not in the frame because it’s not the best directed or written film.

I also saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and I thought that was brilliant.

It’s entertaining, engaging and “edge of your seat.” Very funny, action-packed and enjoyable. I watched No Time To Die, and I’m not a 007 fan, but I thought it was well done. I thought the performances were great and the special effects were outstanding. It was excellent filmmaking with sharp cinematography and sound design. 

MM: Name your favorite films on this year’s MISAFF roster.

AK: Bittersweet by Anant Mahadevan is a film about women’s struggle in sugarcane fields. Very moving film. The Salt in Our Waters by Rezwan Shahriar Sumit is one of my favorite films of the year. It’s a Bangladeshi film about climate change. 

Another film, Rehana by Abdullah Mohammad Saad, is an excellent film, which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival, is about the Me Too Movement. The difficulty one faces when one has to report one’s superior and this woman’s difficult choices to make.

We have Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, which has a lot of Oscar buzz. That’s a film about an Afghan refugee. It was at Sundance and TIFF, and it’s an outstanding piece of cinema.

We’re showing WOMB (Women of My Billion) by Ajitesh Sharma, about a woman in India fed up with everything happening in India regarding the murder and rape of children and women. She starts walking across the country and starts this education program to help empower women and change lives globally, starting with India. 

I was on a film festival jury, and I also saw other influential films I thought were very engaging and exciting. Because I’m a filmmaker, I consume a lot of cinema. I watch a lot of movies.

MM: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Arshad! Congratulations on everything, and good luck with this year’s festival!

AK: Thank you very much!

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You can follow MISAFF on Twitter (@mosaic_misaff) and Instagram (@mosaic_misaff). Be sure to check out their website to keep abreast of all things MISAFF. 

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