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#BFI: South Asian Cinema at the London Film Festival 2014

With nearly 250 films screening, his year's 58th BFI London Film Festival is set to be the biggest yet.  And it's a bumper year for South Asian cinema with films from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka joining features from the UK.

Here are the main highlights.  (Click on film titles for venues and timings).

Margarita, with a Straw

Based on a true-story, this compelling drama explores disability in India through the story of a young Punjabi girl suffering from cerebral palsy.  The gifted Kalki Koechlin plays the central role of Laila, a university student, writer, lyricist and musician who is confined to a wheelchair.  After winning a scholarship to New York University, Laila moves to Manhattan with her mother (played by the veteran south Indian actress and activist Revathi).  In the city that never sleeps, Laila falls in love with Sayani Gupta's fiery young activist Khanum: a love that threatens chaos for Laila and her family.  Writer, producer and director Shonali Bose is no stranger to tackling difficult subjects.  Her 2005 feature debut 'Amu' - based on her novel of the same name - was a skilfully crafted exploration of the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres in Delhi through the eyes of a young Indian American girl.  'Margarita, with a Straw' had its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month and received an extended standing ovation with some critics drawing parallels between Koechlin's performance and Daniel Day Lewis' Oscar-winning turn as cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown in 'My Left Foot'.

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VIDEO: ‘Lakshmi’ is my most important film to-date – Nagesh Kukunoor

You can immediately tell Nagesh Kukunoor is a storyteller.

Walking along London's Southbank, Kukunoor is relentlessly curious, chatting to random people and exploring the minutiae of everything: the consummate observer.

It's a trait that's stood him in good stead over a filmmaking career spanning nearly two decades and marked out his unique brand of cinema above the flotsam that Bollywood usually churns out.

Kukunoor's breakout, self-financed debut feature 'Hyderabad Blues' was a lovingly-crafted observation of his own identity struggles as an Non Resident Indian. 2001's 'Bollywood Calling' was an hilarious look at the inanities of Bollywood whilst 'Iqbal' was a subtle exploration on the attitude towards disability in India.

His latest offering, 'Lakshmi' is arguably his most perceptive and most important film since he gave up a lucrative career as an environmental engineer in the United States to enter the unpredictable and often mystifying business of cinema.

Based on real-life events, the film is a hard-hitting look at the horrors of child-trafficking in India where thousands of young girls are abducted and sold into prostitution.

The film is written, produced and directed by Kukunoor, 47, who also stars in the role of 'Chinna', the brutal pimp who manages a notorious Hyderabad brothel.

'Lakshmi' opened the 2014 London Asian Film Festival where Kukunoor was interviewed by the UKAsian's editor-in-chief Viji Alles.

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#INSPIRED: Hansal Mehta to create film about India’s gay community

Acclaimed filmmaker Hansal Mehta is to direct a film about the struggles faced by the gay community in India.

Mehta is renowned for films about those on the margins of Indian society and said the inspiration came from an email he received from a young gay Indian woman.

"It's a story that was mailed to me by a girl called Ishani Banerji.  It just blew my mind.  I have to tell this story because marginalised people in our society always interest me", Mehta said.

Mehta added he intends to cast Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the film. 

"I need an older actor to play the gay character.  The story takes the character through a very wide chronological arc.  Nawaz is more suited to the character."

Mehta's upcoming film will be about another ostracized community in India: the rural migrants who flock to the big cities in search of work.

'City Lights' is reportedly adapted from the critically-acclaimed British-Filipino production 'Metro Manila' and stars the director's regular collaborator Rajkummar Rao, who won the National Award for Best Actor for his turn as the murdered Muslim lawyer and human rights campaigner Shahid Azmi in Mehta's powerful biopic 'Shahid'. 

'City Lights' tells the story of an impoverished young couple who move to Mumbai and become lost among the countless, anonymous millions forced to subsist on the margins of society.

"We've stopped seeing these nameless migrants in the cities. Their lives never concerned us. Now they've become invisible", Mehta continued.

Rao will star alongside his rumoured real-life girlfriend Patralekha in the film. 

Both actors were deliberately placed in what Mehta describes as "harsh" conditions to help them get into character. 

"My producers Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt were willing to provide all the comforts required for shooting.  However, I deliberately made them shoot under gruelling conditions. No make-up van, no luxuries were allowed."

There is already a steady buzz about the film and in particular about Rao's acting with Mehta's long-term editor Apurva Asrani describing Rao as "sensational" in the role.

The 29-year-old star is arguably the most respected young acting talent in Bollywood and has been steadily building a fabulous body of work, from Dibakar Banerjee's 'Love Sex Aur Dhoka' through Anurag Kashyap's 'Gangs of Wasseypur' and 'Kai Po Che' to his acclaimed role in 'Shahid'.

'City Lights' is certain to be yet another memorable addition to his filmography and it certainly won't stop there.

Rao is reportedly working with Mehta on a lavish "biographical" film set in the glamorous Bollywood of the 1950's.

Official theatrical trailer of 'City Lights':

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