Cameron Bailey on the changing possibilities of Indian cinema

Cameron Bailey, artistic director at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), is not unfamiliar with contemporary Indian cinema. Curating Indian films for TIFF from 2005, Bailey has, over the last decade, successfully tracked the pulse of the country’s filmmaking scene and introduced some fine Indian directors to a wider audience abroad.

I meet Bailey, who is on the jury of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, at an empty bar in the J.W. Marriott hotel, in Juhu. Interviewing Bailey is like watching an introvert come out of his shell. At the beginning of the conversation, he has an air of formality around him: He avoids eye contact while speaking, and his answers are articulate but brief. However, as he begins opening up about his journey, the movies in general, and Indian cinema in particular, Bailey looks much relaxed: he starts laughing easily and frequently, making eye contact, and sharing his thoughts on where Indian cinema is right now and where it is possibly headed.

Excerpts from the interview:

You were a movie critic before becoming a film programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Did your experience of being a critic help you at TIFF?

The jobs were similar but they were different in important ways. Being a critic taught me how to analyze films, how history of cinema influences every film that is made, how directors are responding to each other when they make new films. That was important, but I think the crucial difference between being a critic and a programmer is that as latter your job’s responsibility is not towards your readership or a film or even a filmmaker but towards your audience. The programmer is responsible, in a way, for the audience members’ time. And you try to do the best you can to present films that will engage them in some way.

What are some of the qualities of a good film programmer?

Last year, I was teaching a course at the University of Toronto on curation and programming to cinema studies students who have a pretty good understanding of film history, theory, and criticism. But they had never thought about programming before, so I was forced to think about it too, and I think that there is a kind of advocacy that is very important for a job as a programmer. And empathy as well. A critic, or someone who studies and loves cinema, has often a very personal relationship with the movies. But a programmer has a broader job than that. The other thing that is important is that it’s your job to advocate for cinema that is beyond the mainstream. It is easy for people to find mainstream films; they are everywhere. There are advertisements for them. But I think programmers bring new perspectives to audiences that really no one else can.

You began programming Indian cinema at the Toronto International Film Festival from 2005. As an outsider, but who’s also uniquely intimate with the Indian filmmaking scene, how much do you think has Indian cinema changed in the last few years?

Enormously. When I first came here, I only had glancing familiarity with Indian cinema. I had studied some classics, and I had seen some contemporary movies, but really at that time [around a decade ago], there were only Bollywood and very high art cinema — films made by the great Bengali and Malayalam filmmakers. But in the last four to five years, there’s been a complete sea change. So filmmakers like Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, and Ritesh Batra have transformed the possibilities of Indian cinema by bridging that gap, by bringing independent sensibilities from outside India — sensibilities from art house cinema around the world — to commercial films. Almost insisting that there doesn’t need to be a divide between the marketplace and the art house, that there’s a cinema that can be truly independent, personal, and yet connect with the audiences. I think it is still a struggle; I think there’s still a long way to go; I think these filmmakers still have to battle, not just to make their films, but just to get to the audiences through distribution. But I am so pleased to see that evolution. It was something that Indian cinema much needed.

Indian independent cinema is slowly finding its feet, slowly finding its voice; now it has relatively more visibility and recognition at international film festivals abroad. But how do you think it should evolve — either in terms of filmmaking, distribution, or, in fact, anything else — from here on now?

I have been really impressed with what Indian filmmakers have done to advance the film culture in India. Now they are engaging with international cinema. When I first started coming here; it felt to me that Indian cinema was in a bubble. It was thriving inside its own space, but it had very little connections with films winning prizes at festivals around the world; it felt like there were two parallel systems. Now I think that has changed. The filmmakers are now travelling around the world. The huge, huge issue for me, still, when I come here is distribution and exhibition. Maybe I don’t know understand the industry here well enough, but I don’t understand why a film like Peddlers is getting a release two years after it was at a film festival.

Is it getting a theatrical release? Or is it only being screened at the [Mumbai Film] Festival?

My understanding was that it’s finally getting a release. But I maybe even wrong about that. I know that it’s playing at the festival. But the fact that these films, which are doing so well internationally and have very high standards, can’t get into theatres here is mystifying for me. This is the largest, most enthusiastic, film audience in the world who likes a wide variety of films, but there’s very little space in the marketplace for films that are not purely commercial, and I don’t understand why even one or two or three screens at a massive multiplex can’t be devoted to this kind of cinema all across the country. I don’t know why there’s no equivalent of the Sundance Cinemas or the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, in the U.S. That is the next step I would like to see, because I think the filmmakers are there. 

A few years ago, you had said that Indian filmmakers should try to understand their audience — they need to know that their films can cross the local markets, reach out to an audience that’s global. Do you believe some recent Indian films have been able to negotiate that hurdle well?

The most obvious example that has been discussed to death is The Lunchbox. And if you do look at The Lunchbox it tells you what exactly the audiences around the world are looking for. I think we have to remember that there is a divide here, because as steeped in Indian cinema nearly every Indian person is, most people outside India — ones of south Asian origins — don’t watch many Indian films. They may have not seen any; they might have seen one, or they might have seen Slumdog Millionaire as an Indian film, which is not an Indian film.

So, first of all, you are starting from a very low baseline. So all of the conventions and tropes, the things people are familiar with here, are not very well known So I think that’s the first thing Indian filmmakers need to understand; that people [outside their country] might not share a common language or vocabulary. Moreover, Indian commercial cinema, for long, had deep sincerity in storytelling and almost no irony, and North America, from the 1960s, made a shift into an ironic mode, so Hollywood art house films are ironic, pessimistic, and cynical. That’s something you have slowly begun seeing in Indian cinema, too, but it’s fairly new.

You came to Mumbai earlier this year in March to conduct a workshop with senior MAMI staff members on how to program a film festival. What did you advice them?      

I came with my colleague, Natalie Lue, who is the head of productions and operations at TIFF, and we spent four days with the MAMI team and talked about all aspects of putting a festival together: from the high philosophy behind why are we even doing it to what we want to achieve to programming. Also, how do we think through programming for specific audiences to very practical realities — for example, how to mount a festival in a city as huge and complex as Mumbai. We also discussed technical things like digital projection, which every festival has struggled with, the shift from 35mm to DCP [Digital Cinema Package] has meant that a lot of success of the festival now depends on computer — not just computer skills, but computer scheduling: the key codes used to unlock the digital packages, their availability, what do you do when there’s a shift in the schedule and you suddenly need a new key; all these things can cause chaos for a festival. And we went through those ourselves, maybe four to five years ago, when the shift was first beginning to happen. So we discussed those kinds of things; we also talked about marketing, sponsorship — all the different elements that make a festival. When we first spoke to them earlier this year, they didn’t have sponsors on board, they didn’t know where the funding was going to come from, but they have been tremendously successful in doing that, so I have been very impressed from what I have seen so far.

At the moment, the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is quite young; it’s begun attracting the attention of cinephiles only in the last six to seven years, sourcing acclaimed films from all the major film festivals around the world. What would it take for MAMI to become a big player on its own?

I have been very impressed with their programming this year because they have managed to bring many top films, which played at other international festivals. I was also impressed with the fact that films that were premiered just a few weeks ago — either at our festival, or Telluride or Venice — are here already. And I know it is not easy to get those films. Because people are very protective when the films are brand new — movies like Charlie Kauffman’s Anamolisa and Room. So I think that’s a very good sign for the future. The next steps would be to get some of those films first. That will be a big step.

In our case, we, TIFF, are 40 years old. We had some early advocates — like Roger Ebert, a very influential film critic, wrote about our festival in glowing terms, called us the most important film festival in the world at a certain point; that helped. We did tributes in our early years, and we had people like Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty as their subjects, and they would come in, and that attracted other people. You know, festivals are kind of confidence game in a way — in the sense that if you want to get people in films that are high profile and of great promise to your festival, it helps if you have done it before [laughs]. In a way it is a bit of a vicious cycle, but you have to start somewhere and use what successes you have to get to the next level.

TIFF’s “City to City” program in 2012 concentrated on the city of Mumbai and Indian filmmakers. What makes you excited about Indian cinema right now?

I think the creativity, the passion, the volume, the force of cinema in India is as strong as any around the world — and maybe stronger in some senses because it is more central to the culture here than anywhere else, and that gives its artists incredible opportunity. I think if they can harness and channel that energy, that dynamism, and, in some cases, that money [laughs], they will be able to achieve a lot. And I think they have begun doing some of that. I think one of the key things that were missing before in terms of international success was that successful Indian filmmakers didn’t need to care about the international audience. They had a massive domestic audience that would be plenty to satisfy their needs commercially — in terms of reputation and everything else.

Now there are filmmakers who are channeling the energy that comes from Indian film culture but also seeing what’s happening in South Korea, what’s happening in Argentina, what’s happening in France, or the U.S., or Scandinavia, and taking influences or inspirations from them. And then you have even stronger films, then you have the possibility for a whole generation of filmmakers, not just one or two here and there, but a whole generation of filmmakers to really change international cinema. I think it’s possible.

Slumdog Millionaire was going straight to DVD before it got picked up at TIFF, got a thundering response at the festival, and went on to become one of the most acclaimed films of the year. Similarly, what are some other films that you are particularly proud of having screened at TIFF?

If you go back to our history, pre-Slumdog Millionaire, there have been other films that had similar kind of arcs. I think American Beauty was one; it was the first film by DreamWorks that was not purely commercial, and they really didn’t know what to do with it, didn’t know whether they had an art house or a commercial film. And at that time Kevin Spacey was not the star that he became, so that was also a risk. We saw the film, liked it a lot; that film also won our audience prize and went on to win the Best Picture success at the Oscars. Whale Rider from New Zealand was another film where similar thing happened: it went from being an obscure, little film, which also won the audience prize, and then went on to the Oscars to be nominated in the Foreign Language category. So those kinds of things can happen when an audience finds a film that even the people who made it aren’t sure about.

This year, we premiered The Martian in Toronto, and this is a film by Ridley Scott film, who is a legendary filmmaker but the critical response to his last few films has been up and down. This film was made on a significant budget by a studio [20th Century Fox], and I think they knew the commercial potential of the film, but I don’t think they were 100 percent sure about the critical reaction, and the audience reaction — a film festival audience reaction, which is very different from a commercial audience. So brining that film to Toronto really helped establish it not just as a commercial player but also as a film that would get critical respect, and respect from audiences who are very sophisticated.

I also remember 12 years a Slave. At the time we showed the film, it was only its second public screening, and the film is so challenging, as there are so few films about transatlantic slave trade, and slave trade in America, and it is such a sensitive topic in the U.S., especially, that I think people didn’t know how to react. They didn’t know how to talk about it. In the course that I teach, I showed the press conference from Toronto after its screening. We have Steve McQueen, the whole cast of the film, and we have a room full of journalists who almost don’t know what questions to ask. And even the moderator is very awkward and uncomfortable, and ends up saying the wrong thing, and Steve McQueen gets upset, but by the end of the press conference, people have figured out how to talk about the film, and that is what a festival can do.

TIFF is also known for predicting success at the Oscars. What do you think about this uniquely distinguishing feature of the festival?

People started paying attention to our festival in that way probably with Chariots of Fire, in 1980, so it was quite a while ago, but then it was very spotty. Because there were many years without any relevance to the award season, and award season didn’t matter then like it does now. It wasn’t such a phenomenon. So that’s really evolved, and that’s really a product for me, the age of the internet, the age of awards, bloggers — that kind of a thing — which means that there’s a constant cycle of just chatter online, about what’s going to win and trying to choose picks for the Oscars. American Beauty, in 1999, was another big one, but I think things took off in a significant way with Slumdog Millionaire, because it was such an unlikely contender as well. So the fact that a film went from almost near obscurity to the Best Picture winner at the Oscars through the path of a film festival was something that really mattered to me. But we try paying not too much to attention to that, because it can really become a burden. We are not out there in spring and summer, looking at films and wondering, “Is this going to be nominated, or that going to be nominated? Should we invite it… ?” So, you can drive yourself crazy, trying to do that. Instead what we can do is champion the films that we really love, that people may not be paying attention to.

An edited version of this piece was first published in FirstPost

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