Watch a Scene From ‘Ashes,’ Ajay Naidu’s Ode to the East Village, Playing Tonight

Scene contains strong language that may not be safe for work. Courtesy of Frontstoop Films.

Ajay Naidu uses his St. Marks Place apartment for more than just people-watching: It’s prominently featured in the actor’s directorial debut, “Ashes,” which screens tonight at the New York International Latino Film Festival. The walk-up (Mr. Naidu’s home since 1995) is where the character he plays, Ashes, tends to his schizophrenic brother, Kartik (played by Faran Tahir of “Iron Man” notoriety) and where Kartik awkwardly courts a similarly troubled woman, Bettina (played by another East Village resident, Piper Perabo).

Mr. Naidu said that he decided to set “Ashes” in the East Village circa 2006, in part because at the time “there was a vast dichotomy of wealth distribution that made it possible for people to slip through the cracks.”

Add to that, the character of the neighborhood: “There was a more personal feeling to the Village,” said Mr. Naidu. “It felt more like a neighborhood as opposed to a place where a bunch of young rich people came and bought a piece of the charm.”

In an early scene, Kartik’s doctor is played by Jeremiah Clancy IV, owner of Mama’s Food Shop. The East Third Street fixture isn’t in the movie, but Mr. Naidu did shoot in a couple of Indian restaurants, including Haveli on Second Avenue, and Sonali, which has since closed. The latter is where the girlfriend of Ashes, Chandini (played by Reena Shah) works as a waitress. While Chandini’s father tries to hook him into the family business, Ashes falls into drug dealing under the stewardship of another paternalistic Indian, Pinky, played by Firdous Bamji. (Mr. Naidu’s real-life fiancée, Heather Burns, plays Pinky’s love interest in the film, which she co-wrote and executive produced.)

Ashes isn’t the first denizen of St. Marks to believe that “employment is an exploitation,” but his struggle to support his brother and his flirtations with the deadly double-crossings of the drug trade are uniquely colored by culture: At one point, in bed with Chandini, he says he doesn’t want to be “some workaday Asian.”

In the exclusive clip above, you may recognize St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church on Avenue B. Mr. Naidu said that while the scene was being shot, Dustin Hoffman happened to walk by. “He stayed and watched the scene as opposed to scurrying off,” said Mr. Naidu, adding that the actor even asked what camera was being used. “It was great because I thought so much about ‘Midnight Cowboy’ when I was making the movie.”

The church scene perhaps best illustrates Mr. Naidu’s perception of the East Village when he first moved here. “It was really decrepit but very beautiful,” he said. “That kind of squalor is hard to come by now – it costs a lot of money now to make something look poor.”

“Ashes” at AMC Empire 14 (234 W. 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues), August 18 at 8:30 p.m.