Jitin Hingorani, a self-declared serial entrepreneur, began the Dallas-Fort Worth South Asian Film Festival (SAFF) five years ago after noticing a lack of South Asian storytelling in the Dallas media market. He's one of the people who made my interview with Vikas Khanna possible at the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF), which is how he and I met. We reconnected nearly a month after DIFF to discuss his rise as a businessman and media mogul, SAFF's fifth anniversary, and why it's important to have a film festival centered around South Asians in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
LT: I wasn't able to find much information about you online and I want to know more about your background. Have you always been interested in film and entertainment or was it a recent development?
JH: Well, you know, I started watching films, Bollywood films, growing up in Bombay and Dubai when I was a kid. Films have always been my passion. I used to actually want to be an actor in films. I have these embarrassing photoshoots that I've done as a child and my friends make fun of me for it because there are all these crazy pictures of me modeling as a kid because I really, really wanted to get into Indian films. Well, that desire left because I went to school and I started working in television. I was on TV for many years as an entertainment reporter covering these red carpet events and all of these films. I then started doing PR and quickly after began my own PR company in New York. So I started doing the publicity for the New York Indian Film Festival and that's really how I got my foot in the door and the whole film festival circuit. So when I started coming to Dallas and seeing this area, I realized that we're the only major media market in the country that doesn't have a South Asian Film Festival. So, five years ago I thought, "Well, I'm coming here so often. Why don't I just start one?" I had some contacts, I knew some sponsors, I had worked on PR for many years prior to that in New York so I kind of just put together a board here in Dallas of these go-getters, the who's-who of the South Asian community if you will, and we started our very first festival five years ago. And here we are, five years later, and SAFF has become a staple in Dallas. People plan their vacations around our film festival now, the people who come to us. It's such a good feeling. This year, Toyota stood up and took notice. They're our title sponsor this year, which is great. I just feel like it's only going to grow bigger and better from here.
LT: That said, I wanted to know: did you have this idea and sit on it for a while or were you like, "This needs to be done now"?
JH: I'm not one to sit on ideas. If I have an idea and I feel like it's good, even though it's a risk and it might fail, I'm one to implement. I'm one to implement and I'm one to see it all the way through. And I have, you know. I'm a serial entrepreneur. I have six businesses and some of them have failed along the way. That's okay. I feel like I want to do everything in this one lifetime that I'm passionate about, whether it's film, arts, entertainment, fashion, news, PR—you know, all of these things combined. I try to do all of it. I have a luxury travel brand, I have a men's accessories line that I co-founded, I have an arts collective, I have a film festival, I have a PR firm, I'm a TV reporter still. I try to do all of these things because I feel like I have this one life and I want to make the most of it.
LT: I love that. Yeah, I had no idea you managed all of these other businesses. You are very multifaceted.
JH: Started and managed these other businesses, too. It's funny because my family, we're called Sindhis. Sindhis are notorious for being business people. And I always kind of shunned it. I was like, "Oh, I'm going to work for corporate America. I'm going to work my way up the ladder." Finally I was so done with corporate America and I was like, "Let me just start my own company." So in 2010 in New York, almost ten years ago, I started my PR firm and all of these companies have come since. It's my firm's tenth anniversary next year.
LT: That's amazing. And now SAFF is at five years.
JH: We've been curating it for about six months now. We have North American premieres, U.S. premieres, the world premiere. We have a lot of great programming this year. We have 21 shorts, docs, and features and we have some incredible segmentation. We have LGBTQ programming, men's programming, arts programming, women's programming, children's programming.
LT: With the DFW demographic being 50% white, were you ever worried or intimidated by the task of curating and marketing the festival to begin with?
JH: Not at all. You know why? The market is growing with so many South Asians here. When you look at the 2020 census, which is going to come out in the next year, you will see that our population from 2010 has more than doubled in the DFW metroplex. I would venture to say that there are more than 500,000 South Asians living and working in DFW. That's half a million people. So we definitely have a market for this kind of programming. And not to mention, this is not Bollywood. This is not content that you're seeing in theaters that's got the song and dance. These are all independent, realistic art cinema, cinéma vérité. It's all independent programming. Back in the day, we called them art house films and people used to shun them, roll their eyes at art house films. Now, art house films are the wave of what people are consuming. You look at all the programming on Netflix, Hulu, and all the major platforms, they're all art house. You're not seeing any Bollywood programming on these networks, on these over-the-top (OTT) platforms. So, I think people are starting to gravitate towards real stories and real people and real cinéma vérité, you know, truth in filmmaking.
LT: I was actually a Film and Media Studies major at UC Santa Barbara and the general discussion around art house and independent films back in the day was, "Why are they trying so hard? They're not these big blockbusters. There's not a lot of action going on." But with the democratization of media landscape, like the film Tangerine that was filmed entirely on an iPhone and made it to Sundance, I think that's only improved accessibility and now you have more inclusive narratives reaching people.
JH: Absolutely, and I also think that people are tired of escapist cinema. I think people, especially the Non-Resident Indians (NRI) who live anywhere outside of India—whether it's the States or Australia or Dubai or middle of America—they don't relate to that song and dance and escapist cinema. They want to see real stories of people from their land that they can relate to, and that's where independent programming has become so successful for the NRI community specifically. That's the community I'm targeting in DFW: the Non-Resident Indians who live and work here and have an affection and affiliation with the homeland but are not necessarily there all the time and don't relate anymore to that kind of song and dance and mele, if you will.
I left our conversation feeling that much more grateful for the existence and growth of SAFF, precisely because it addresses the audience living with dual identities. As an Indian American, Jitin navigates a peculiar in-between space, where he is considered too white for his homeland and too "other" for the U.S. This film festival pays homage to that very demographic and it provides people who don't quite fall into the category with insight as to what that experience is like.
Films I'm excited to see include Chippa, Khejdi, Lovesick, Malai, Nanu Aur Main, Pagg, That Man In The Picture, The Homestay, and The Layover. SAFF begins Thursday, May 16, and you can purchase tickets here.