For the first time in India, a Sikh film festival brought together diverse voices through short films and documentaries. From understanding the meaning of god through gurbani and the contribution of Sikh soliders in World War I, to issues of farmers, the festival, which closed yesterday, hosted many a young talent. This platform was made available by Bicky Singh, who set up the SikhLens Foundation in California more than 25 years ago.
As a young man, Singh went on to study engineering, first in India and then in the US, because he didn’t have the courage to tell his parents that his heart was in the arts. So his foundation today supports young filmmakers and students to follow their dreams. He began with small endeavours such as art exhibitions, heritage calendars, lectures and interfaith programmes and has now expanded to professional training programmes and scholarships for young filmmakers, modules in schools and colleges on the craft of filmmaking. Their flagship enterprise though is the annual Sikh Arts and Film Festival in California that features films, documentaries, literary and art exhibits.
“The festival is a platform for filmmakers from across the world to share stories and showcase the talent and spirit of the Sikh community, instilling in them a sense of pride and awareness. Sikhs currently have minimal or no representation in the global mainstream, digital media or journalism and it is our mission to change that. Our first festival here in India is aimed at reaching wider audiences, creating new platforms for stories to be told from the country and encouraging new talent,” says Singh.
As many as 15 curated Sikh-centric short films and documentaries from around the world were screened at the festival, which according to Singh, will travel to a new city in India every year. The films focused on ordinary people with extraordinary talents. There were stories around history, politics, architecture, environment, conflict, and events that impacted the world. It has prominent segments dedicated to poetry, art exhibitions, and performances. “The first edition of the festival was nearly 13 years ago. We decided to launch the festival post 9/11 to increase the awareness of Sikhs among mainstream Americans because our identity was at stake. Over the 150 years that we have been here, we have built many gurudwaras. But how do you get people to enter the four walls and how do we introduce them to our culture, life and philosophy. Films, we felt, were an ideal way to show our ethos and work. For me, the philosophy is simple, content is king, and so the story or the subject of the film is most important. It could come from anyone around the world. We have produced more than 200 films. While funding is always a challenge, we continue to widen our horizons and build bridges,” says Singh.
Over the last seven years, the foundation has collaborated with Chapman University, working extensively with the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, through ‘Project S’ (S for Sikh). In this, undergraduate film students travel abroad to film Sikh-themed films. Another programme, ‘Destination S’ allows graduates and alumni of Dodge to travel the world to make films. “We are now providing digital voice training for our youth, where they learn the basics of filmmaking. The future is digital and in a few years, they will be heading many television and film establishments. All of our programmes have met with much enthusiasm and success. Our recent trips abroad include the UK, Italy, Spain, France, Malawi, Kenya, Malaysia, Thailand and Nepal. Through each of these experiences, we move closer to our goal of creating awareness and exposing people to our unique heritage.”
The foundation is also working with Chapman Libraries to expand Sikh collections of books and artefacts. It is also sponsoring a performing arts scholarship with the Center of Performing Arts to provide students a chance to learn Sikh music. “‘SikhLens In A Box’ is our travelling festival, where we showcased our films across the US, Canada, and the UK. In India, we have begun with Chandigarh. Our next stop will be Delhi, and then other cities in India. We hope this festival inspires ideas for more stories. In addition to seeking Sikh-centric content, SikhLens is also looking for young filmmakers and artists with stories about mainstream topics or social issues. We want to preserve these stories and build an archive. It is our goal to expand to major film schools across the world,” he says.
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