Deepti DCunha on Curating the ‘Best Mini-Archive of Filmmaking’ of 2015
Having programmed for Rome International Film Festival and Chicago South Asian Festival, in addition to having been the Indian consultant to Venice Film Festival (the oldest film festival in the world) — suffice to say that the stellar Indian selection of films at Jio MAMI 2015 is the result of Deepti D’Cunha’s discerning taste in films.
More recently, she was instrumental in the serendipitous encounter that resulted in Chaitanya Tamhane and Vivek Gomber’s ‘Court’ being acquired by the prestigious French agency Memento Films International’s Artscope Label, that went on to sell the film in West Asia, Hong Kong, Greece and France.
The tastemaker took some time out for Pandolin, so we could pick her brain on programming for Jio MAMI 2015, and the steady infiltration of Indian films into the international film festival circuit.
“Having been a film programmer and consultant for Indian cinema for over five years now, I have personally been witness to several Indian films being very well-received at international film festivals lately, especially in the past one year,” Deepti shares with us. “The establishment of a very strong Indian film market by NFDC Film Bazaar in the past seven years has been a big part of this; international festival directors and festival programmers who are invited to India from all three sections from Cannes, Venice, Rome, Locarno and other important festivals have been getting exposure to focused Indian and South Asian content at their various stages, from inception to completion.”
Several of the films featuring at these international film festivals have been seen and picked up from the NFDC Film Bazaar itself, she explains. Initiatives such as the various script labs have allowed filmmakers to be able to find support in terms of international co-producers and world sales agents at early stages of the projects. These film partners go on to guide the filmmakers and chart out their festival journey once the film is complete and represent them in top festivals across Europe and US. “I would also give credit to some Indian creative producers who have taken the risk and produced films with strong content, and worked hard at promoting the films.
“And, of course, my fellow programmers who work as consultants at international festivals take quality Indian cinema to the festivals they program for. All this infrastructure has helped independent cinema in India reach international film circuits.”
Deepti is certain that this year, several Indian films having their world premiere at Jio MAMI will be ‘discovered’ by the international film festival circuit.
We had to ask, though — is it a myth that ‘film festival films’ don’t do particularly well at the box office?
“It is not a myth,” Deepti accedes. “Indian box-office successes are still driven by having a ‘superstar’ as the lead actor, which sells the tickets. Majority of Indian audiences are still attracted to personalities and the career graphs of stars, and we watch a film for its ‘acting’ and pay less attention to other aspects of filmmaking. Most Indian audiences are made up of ‘fans’ and there is incredible ‘fan loyalty’.
“Also, the biggest marketing tool for a film is its music, since in India, the mainstream film industry is also the mainstream music industry.”
An independent film, on the other hand, is usually a small-budget film and has to compete tooth-and-nail with the marketing of a mainstream film. She goes on to explain that a ‘film-festival film’ is usually in a festival not because of its ‘star’ value or music, but purely because of its content. “This kind of film from India is usually a personal project of passion by a young filmmaker, who has probably borrowed money from very generous family members, and there is no money left for publicity, marketing, distribution for a theatrical release, which costs 3-4 times the entire budget of the film; mainstream media for publicity is super-expensive.
“Even the few films that do release, have no ‘hook’ for marketing as the Indian audience needs to be enticed by more than the promise of a good script to pay the high price of a multiplex ticket. Hence, it is a challenge to get audiences into the theatres for these films, resulting in disappointing box-office collections, which very rarely cover the costs of the film and promotion.”
This is where film festivals make an entrance; they play a huge role by bringing the best of international content as well as curated Indian content together on one platform, with the aim of creating sensitive audiences in the future. If you’ve been a follower of independent cinema, it’s likely you’ve been exposed to film festivals before — that much more reason to show up for the 17th edition of Mumbai’s largest film festival.
Lately, several Indian filmmakers have been making waves recently in the international film festival circuit, so we probed Deepti about what has really changed — how are these meaningful films getting a platform today?
“I believe we have always had talented filmmakers but very less infrastructure support,” she explains. “Hence, the meaningful films which were made back in the day did not get enough visibility. Today, thanks to social networks and film blogs, the films that travel internationally and are appreciated do get noticed, blogged and tweeted about, even if our mainstream print media couldn’t care less. Many of the filmmakers who are bridging the gap between Bollywood and mainstream media have been assistant directors and worked with Bollywood, or have been consumers of Bollywood as well as world cinema, thanks to DVDs, Internet, film festivals etc.”
She concludes that their sensibilities are able to incorporate both styles and come up with a cinematic style that appeals to both kinds of audiences, to bring out elements which are very Indian but in a very contemporary manner that is cognizant of international standards. Many of these filmmakers also take cinema seriously; they have had a film education or worked in a film environment prior to making their first film.
“I remember Mani Kaul, the respected filmmaker and festival director I worked with, had a very beautiful term for this kind of cinema,” she recalls fondly. “‘NewStream’ cinema i.e. it is a new stream which finds its origins in the Mainstream, but takes a different direction.”
As for the selection process at MAMI this year, “The selection process was super-hectic and super-exciting. Going by experience, I was pretty sure that we would get a maximum of 130-140 films as entries.
“What we did not expect was an overwhelming 248 feature film submissions! 100 of which just came on the very last day. (We clearly do not believe in submitting early.) The programming team watched all the films, reviewed them, graded them, discussed them, and I must say it was a very tough selection process.”
When Deepti initially joined the festival, she had cautioned Festival Director Anupama Chopra and Creative Director Smriti Kiran that even if they managed to get 5 to 6 strong Indian films, they should consider it a success. Little did she know that by the end of it, after programming 31 films, she would still feel bad for the 5 or 6 films which could not make the cut for want of space. “What I cherished the most from this experience of selections was co-programming with Bina Paul, and learning from her vast film festival experience. There were ‘final’ lists and ‘final-final’ lists. Films were removed from the list and put back again, because we realised we missed those titles. A lot of to-and-fro, a lot of sleeping over the selections and seeing if we felt the same the next day.”
Post film-watching, she remembers that they had a good two weeks of daily discussions to finalise the ‘India Gold’ and ‘India Story’ sections, and she emphasises that throughout, the focus was always on quality.
“What is amazing is that almost 98% from the selection are Indian films that are going to be screened for the very first time at Jio MAMI, and audiences at the festival will be watching 18 strong Indian debuts! I am confident that the films in the selection will have very good journeys with the support of the audiences.”
When quizzed about some of the qualities she looks out for in a film that make them tick, she says, “I try to see what it is that the filmmaker is trying to say, but more importantly how he/she chooses to say it. Cinema is still a fairly new medium, as compared to the other arts and there is still a lot to explore. I look at the filmmaker’s understanding of the medium, and his/her ability to use the medium in the best way possible. The film should be engrossing, engaging and memorable. But most of all, it should demand visibility.”
She shares that she is always conscious, as a programmer watching the film on a small screen, that she will be choosing the film that should do justice to a big cinema-screen. “It has to be a cinematic experience. So it’s not just about a good script or good performances, but about a good, well-directed film, overall. The film should create a desire to share the experience with someone else. In rare cases, there are films that are pure cinema (an absolute treat for a cinephile), but most are very good attempts at cinema. While curating for film festivals, there is also a focus on the film being contemporary, as the brief is to program the best from the past calendar year. The overall selection is literally an mini-archive of best filmmaking from that year.”
Winding up, we ask her, her thoughts on the future of film festivals in India, “Anyone working in the space of film festivals will tell you how difficult it is to sustain a film festival. By its very nature, it is monetarily a non-profit and most often, a loss-making enterprise. But most of all, it’s a huge — albeit expensive — celebration of cinema.”
Since film festivals grow organically, they can only be sustained through consistent and continuous state funding, government money or really passionate individuals who are ready to fund it.
“It’s great that Jio MAMI is a true example of pure passion for cinema where people from Mumbai, because of their love for cinema, have actually contributed to this cause. I have been part of great festivals which have shut down suddenly, so one can never say; I am keeping my fingers crossed for my city’s festival.”
Deepti concludes saying that if the Indian government takes cinema seriously, considers the medium truly important, recognizes and respects the passion that we, as Indians, have for it and allocates funds to festivals — only then can there be a long-term plan, and true hope for the future of Indian film festivals.
“At the moment, we should thank those who have put their might behind Jio MAMI and made it possible, and hope many other cities and towns across India also get a chance at this mass celebration of an incredible art form,” she signs off.
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