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heartland ffI was pleased to again be a part of the 22nd Annual Heartland Film Festival. I saw some really great films this past year and was once again bowled over by what a great event this is. Congratulations to the folks who put this festival on and the filmmakers who were lucky enough to show their films to an engaged audience in Indianapolis.  Over the course of the next week or so, I will detail that six films that I was fortunate enough to see. The first of these films is the delightful Hank and Asha, directed by James E. Duff.

hank and asha - posterWhen you first look at the premise of James E. Duff‘s Hank and Asha, one wonders how quickly it’s main conceit of telling its story through video letters can last before it turns off the viewer. But as I glided through the budding love story between Hank (Andrew Pastides) and Asha (the exquisite Mahira Kakkar), I became entranced by the way the story was being told. Duff made a smart choice to keep the film relatively short by most narrative feature’s standards at just 73 minutes. The film has a decidedly modern flair to it, not just in its usage of video letters as the means to deliver the story, but the global nature of connection made between Hank and Asha.

Commitment to love, locked away forever.

Commitment to love, locked away forever.

The films opens with Asha describing how a short documentary film made by Hank made her feel. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’re connected and not in terms of technology, but in terms of meaningful impact. A lifelong connection between two people or a connection that lasts only for a moment, just one dance on the dance floor. Which has more beauty in it?” As she narrates this, we see many many padlocks locked to the bars of a bridge in Prague, Czech Republic. These locks symbolize everlasting love, put there by lovers who have committed themselves to one another.  Asha is from India, but is a film student studying in Prague. She saw Hank’s film at a film festival and was taken enough with his film to reach out to him. Hank chooses to respond, and quite awkwardly detailing the life of the film up to the present that Asha saw and, curiosity piqued, asks her name.  The two communicate back and forth, giving small snippets about each others’ personal lives, careful not to disclose too much (at least in Asha’s case). Hank seems more in need of connection than Asha and this comes out over the course of the correspondence. So, as we embark on this journey with Hank and Asha, we are immediately asked from the outset of the film, will this be a lifelong connection between the two of them, or only one dance?Hank telling his story.

Hank telling his story.

After a few goofy and charming letters, including my favorite of Asha trying Czech beer (immediately making me think of the hilarious line from Noah Baumbach‘s Kicking and Screaming,”How bad American beer is thing…”) and one of Hank serenading her, Asha gives Hank a virtual tour of her house, telling him that he’s the first boy she’s ever brought home, an escalation in what seems like a textbook budding romance (save for the extreme distance between the two and the means by which they communicate). And then she goes up in the Petřín Tower, which is very similar to Eiffel Tower in Paris. She muses, “I’ve always wanted to go to Paris, but how could Paris possibly be more beautiful than [Prague]?” The ante is upped even further as Asha takes her camera to bed with her, bring Hank with her (virtually speaking) in a step that looms quite large.

I wonder what's in this package?

I wonder what’s in this package?

Hank is uncharacteristically absent, but when he comes back with his next letter, it’s one that’s been sent via mail, not video. In it contains a ticket for Asha to meet him in Paris and we can see that she is excited and scared (as she’s recording when she opens the letter), but she is also hesitant. And for good reason. About midway through the film, we learn that Asha is engaged, via arranged marriage, and her stint at film school in Prague was something she negotiated as part of the arrangement. So, obviously this throws a wrench in the machinery of this love story. The two jockey back and forth about their stations in life as they still plan on meeting in Paris, but will the weight of Asha’s marital situation collapse this relationship into one dance on the dance floor? Or will they overcome this dilemma and turn this situation into a lifelong connection? I’d hate to spoil the details of this film, so I guess you’ll have to watch to see how it all turns out.

hank and asha - beerLike I said at the beginning of the post,  I wasn’t sure how the main conceit of this film was going to play out – would it sustain or devolve into something laughable? A long distance love affair that develops over video chat didn’t strike me as story that could be supported, even over a short period of time. I would like to say that I was wrong about that notion. The writers of the film did such a good job not to have the letters be too long or stray into the melodramatic. Deft directing kept the locations shifting throughout Prague and New York City rather than have the two protagonists stuck in their apartments. That kept these letters fresh, exciting and helped gives us snapshots of both Hank and Asha in their element. What we see here is a romance as it blossoms at its most basic levels without the two paramours ever being in the same space together. Hank is a good mix of hopeless romantic and astonished realist. Asha really charms and I can’t speak enough of Mahira Kakkar‘s performance. I was really enamored of her and she reminded me very much of Parminder Nagra. This film has won several awards already, including the Audience Award at the prestigious Slamdance Film Festival this year. It has some heat behind and I truly hope it stays that way. I am happy that I was surprised by this film, because those moments are few and far between. I hope that everyone has the same reaction to it that I did. This is a film that is deserving of its accolades and I wish the filmmakers the best. Creating a truly engaging film such as this is no small task. Hank and Asha is a fun and insightful film that turns the romantic film on its head. That’s hard to do in this day and age when we are peppered with the same recycled story and themes over and over again in search of box office gold.

Here is the trailer: