Around four months ago, a new series of ads began appearing in multiplexes, minutes before the start of a feature film. The adverts included some of the most well known Bollywood filmmakers and actors — Karan Johar, Ranbir Kapoor, Rajkumar Hirani, Alia Bhatt, among notable others — who were appealing to, mostly first-time, Indian directors to submit their films to the Mumbai Film Festival. Among the mélange of stars in those videos, one face was relatively unknown. “I applied to MAMI in 2014, and I had a fantastic experience,” he said. A small title card on the screen read: “Chaitanya Tamhane. Winner MAMI, 2014.” Tamhane’s debut, Court, won the best film in the international competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival last year. Although Court had premiered, and won two major awards, at the Venice Film Festival a month ago, it was the movie’s Indian premiere that helped build anticipation for its theatrical release, helped find its audience.
Over the last few years, many promising directors — Anand Gandhi, Nagraj Manjule, Avinash Arun — have had Indian premieres of their films at the Mumbai Film Festival. But this year, especially with respect to Indian films, the JIO MAMI Mumbai Film Festival has further upped its game. The festival opens, only the second time in its 17-year-old history, with an Indian film Aligarh. This edition of the festival also offers, in addition to India Gold (the competitive section for Indian films), a new non-competitive category called India Story, which features 18 Indian films, including six documentaries. Both the India Gold and the India Story sections, promising to showcase the best of contemporary Indian cinema, have been curated by Bina Paul — a film editor and an Artistic Director of the International Film Festival of Kerala — and Deepti DCunha, a film programmer who, for the last seven years, has been curating Indian films for several film festivals around the world.
Paul and DCunha began curating films for the two sections some seven months ago. “This year, I was very conscious of the fact that we didn’t want to work as a selection committee, but as a curating committee,” says Paul. “We were saying, ‘Let’s look at the palette. Let’s look at regional cinema; let’s look at the work of a filmmaker.’” Paul and her team’s focus on regional cinema, which included two members responsible for sourcing regional films — Arup Samajdar, a journalist and film scholar from Kolkata, and Sruti Hari, a director and theatre artist from Tamil Nadu — is clearly evident. India Gold, for example, features films in 14 Indian languages, including Wancho, Bodo, Harayanvi and Chattisgarhi. “Also, MAMI takes place in Mumbai, which is typically perceived as a space for Hindi cinema, and I wanted to break that notion. We were conscious of that fact; we didn’t want to appear as a space for Hindi cinema but Indian cinema.”
Indian filmmakers responded enthusiastically to MAMI’s “call for entries” pitch; they submitted 248 films. As Paul and DCunha began sifting through the submissions, they graded them on a scale of A to D, wrote detailed comments on their merits and flaws, and met every few weeks to discuss their findings. When their views markedly differed on a film, they sought out third and fourth opinions, which came from festival director Anupama Chopra and creative director Smriti Kiran.
During the initial phase of curation, DCunha thought she would receive only “six to seven good enough films — ones that can stand the test of being in a festival”, and, if that was indeed the case, she didn’t want to just “fill in the slots”. But the final result surprised her. “From the entries we got, surprisingly, very good and diverse cinema came out,” she says. India Gold has 13 films competing for the Golden Gate Trophy and a cash prize of Rs 25 lakh.
India Story, a new separate section that also showcases Indian films, may look similar to India Gold at a cursory glance. But according to DCunha, some crucial differences set the two apart. India Gold “includes films that can work internationally as well”, while the India Story “is more curative — in the sense that it not only looks at the film, but also, very importantly, at what it is trying to say,” she says. “Whereas India Gold is just about the film; it’s looking at its craft and execution. On the other hand, India Story also looks to fill in the gaps of different kinds of filmmaking.” The six documentaries in India Story — “ones that blur the line between fiction and reality” — exemplify that diversity well.
The true state of contemporary Indian cinema can be gauged by not only the 31 films that will be played in India Gold and India Story, but also the rest 217 — ones that didn’t make the cut, for the commonalities of failures can be often more instructive than isolated achievements. “Today, a lot of people are making films; they are much more savvy with the visual media, and it’s definitely got to do with digital,” says Paul. “But, at the same time, many filmmakers are also caught between making films for YouTube and the big screen. That scale up is not happening, because it’s not the same thing.”
DCunha believes Indian filmmaking has to “mature in terms of how it’s being made”. “Out of the 248 films that we saw, I can confidently say that the audience for 80 to 90 films will be Bina, me, and the filmmakers’ family members,” she says. “So independent cinema in the country — in terms of filmmaking and production — is still immature. They [directors] don’t really think the whole process through; it’s still very much a project of passion.”
However, well-made films, especially in terms of the range of their narratives, pushed the extent of the India Story section. The initial plan was to select 14 movies for both India Gold and India Story, but, due to the quality of submissions, the latter finally came to accommodate 18 films. DCunha, however, feels even that number could have gone higher. “I would have been happy if four to five more films would have come in India Story.”
Paul and DCunha have done their work, which primarily comprised of analyzing, judging and debating, now their picks will be screened in five Mumbai theatres over the course of next eight days. They are, for a change, on the other side now, hoping that their choices and decisions strike a chord with the audiences, that they also find similar joys and truths in those 31 Indian films that left them impressed, kept them occupied.
This piece was first published in FirstPost