Festivals grow slowly and you build credibility every year: Smriti Kiran
At exactly eight in the evening, when I message her for a scheduled interview, she instantly replies that she is wrapping up a meeting. In less than five minutes, we are engaged in a deep conversation about MAMI 2016. After speaking for an hour, we hang up the phone just two minutes before nine, for she has another meeting to attend.
Therefore, when Smriti Kiran, the Creative Director of MAMI Mumbai Film Festival says that she hasn’t ‘slept in ages’, you can visualise the magnitude of the festival and its ongoing preparations. The impressive lineup of Mumbai’s most revered film festival shows how Smriti and her team have meticulously planned every tiny aspect. Here is a freewheeling chat about anything and everything related to the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival with Star.
2015 was the first year that the new committee officially took over and put forth a spectacular festival. What are your learnings from last year that worked as key pointers this time round?
I’m a journalist, producer and creative director. Anupama (Chopra, festival director) is also a journalist and an author. So we had never organised a film festival but only covered it. For us, last year was a huge learning. As we had not done something like this earlier, we were quite fearful and terrified. It was not just about putting the festival together but our reputation was on the line. We were conscious about the fact that ‘what would happen if we fail’? But after last year, the first feeling was that of relief. Now that we had done it, we needed to focus on other aspects of it. The first thing we realised was that we needed a bigger team, because any festival is only as good as its team.
This is not a commercial enterprise and we are a non-profit organisation that has genuine sponsors. Therefore we wanted people who are very committed and would do it for the love of it. This made us handpick a team. Another thing we realised was that you cannot do a festival once a year and then disappear. You need to serve the community, be relevant to film lovers and give them more to come back. So this year we started the MAMI Film Club where we do one event a month and plan to keep increasing the frequency of events so that MAMI has a year round presence.
The idea is to improve every year. And we have to look at incremental improvement. Putting a festival together is not an easy job because there is so much to do. I haven’t slept in ages. (laughs) And the one thing that I want people to understand is that we do this festival at one-third of the budget as compared to international festivals. We need to realise that we don’t have that money right now, but maybe we will, in the future. We are aiming to build a space, which creates value for the city and the country.
A film doesn’t have to be male or female-oriented but has to be story-oriented
In such a case, will it be right to say that when there is a shortage of funds and resources, creativity and passion come forth in abundance?
It does! I have become a very good beggar and now have an alternate career in begging. (laughs) People have also been very generous to us. There are lots of people who do many things for us for free. For instance, our campaign films are directed by four boys who are now working as directors and writers in the film industry.
This year introduces several new segments and awards too. Was there a particular focus area?
This year we really wanted to serve the filmmakers as well as delegates. For delegates, we are ensuring that our organisation is better and their experience is nice. Another responsibility that we have taken upon ourselves is to make sure that the filmmakers are facilitated by us. When you constitute an award, the award money that the deserving talent gets is a big thing. It is life-altering because this money can be put into their next project or used to run their home, while they are pursuing their passion. And these are all young filmmakers who are winning awards for excellence.
One of the two awards that we have constituted this year is the award for Best Film on Gender Equality. Oxfam India has instituted this award for 10 lakh rupees in partnership with the festival. The second is the MasterCard Best Indian Female Filmmaker 2016 award for 15 lakh rupees. Both these awards are for Indian films and women because we would want to strengthen our own women.
But is there still a need to recognise women separately and make them conscious of their gender? How important is it to specially recognise and encourage women and women-oriented films?
In MAMI, women comprise 80% of the workforce. The participation of women (in films) has increased but we still have a long way to go because it is about providing opportunities and strengthening them. We would love for a time to come where there is no need to create an award for gender equality. But we both know the truth. Cricket and films are two things that people crazily follow in India. Films have a huge influence and if a message is sent out through them, people will understand and connect with it.
But at the same time, I would say that a film has to be engaging. A film doesn’t have to be male or female-oriented but has to be story-oriented. If the story is compelling enough then whether the protagonist is a man or woman, it doesn’t matter. Kahaani was a very compelling story. One never looked at it as a female-oriented film. For me, it is important that engaging stories are told. And if those engaging stories have women at the heart of it, then it is amazing.
We are aiming to build a space, which creates value for the city and the country
How many people are involved in the scouting of such engaging stories? What is the selection procedure?
For our competition and non-competitive section, we put out a call for entries around March or April every year. We tell filmmakers about the sections to which we are inviting films. A very good team of curators and programmers watch all the entries that come in. We have around 10 to 12 people in our programming team. They travel to festivals and keep an eye out for good movies. The selections are made on the basis of shortlisted films and a lot of debate goes into it. This year we have over 175 films from about 54 countries including India.
Are there any new countries that have sent their entries for the first time to MAMI?
That is a very interesting thing to ask. Our benchmark is always quality but we are also inclusive. If there is any country where people don’t know about the filmmaking culture, we would like to include them. I think Ghana and Saudi Arabia are the two countries that will join MAMI for the first time. I’m not sure if they have earlier been part of the festival but we surely didn’t have them last year.
The Word to Screen market is our way of creating a dialogue between the literary and the filmmaking world
You must have seen most of the films by now. Any movies that you consider as the greatest catches of the year?
No! No! I can’t pick favourites. It is very difficult to choose between your babies. I’m not being diplomatic but I’m just saying that we have ourselves chosen every film. So it would be unfair for me to make a choice.
Ok, then tell us about what do you expect will become talk of the town?
One would definitely be the Word to Screen market. It is one of those things that we really wanted to do from last year itself. The Word to Screen market is basically our way of creating a dialogue between the literary and the filmmaking world – the content creators. The West already has a well-formed relationship. But in India, while people do pick up literature/books to convert them into movies, TV series, etc., it is not a relationship that has been explored to the hilt. I think it is a marriage, which is waiting to happen. It is very important to know that we have called it the ‘Word to Screen’ market and not the ‘Book to Screen’ market because we want any book, manuscript or the final script to be picked by a content creator and turned into a movie, short film or web series.
It is a one-day market that will happen at JW Marriott on October 26. Delhi-based Arpita Das is the curator who has shortlisted books that should be pitched at this market. And the brand ambassador of this market is Sonam Kapoor. The selection committee has film editor Jabin Merchant and director Abhishek Kapoor who are looking at the shortlists and are culling it down further. They will come up with 10-12 books to pitch at this room filled with production companies, studios, digital creators etc. We have sent out invites to at least 100 content creators of all kinds.
Our benchmark is always quality but we are also inclusive
Is it similar to what is done at NFDC Film Bazaar?
No, I don’t think that this has ever happened in India on the scale that we are doing it. Mumbai is the epicenter of films in India. As all the industry people are based here, it is easy for them to come to this market. And they are all very excited about it. At the end of the day, around 12 manuscripts will be created and pitched to content creators, which means that they’ll get ready stories. For us, it is about creating this culture and slowly helping this culture grow.
It is very important to expose children to different kinds of cinema to develop their tastes
In fact, you’ve also expanded the Book Award which recognises excellence in writing on cinema.
Yes! It is for journalists, authors or anyone who wants to write on cinema. We felt that people who love to read about films and are encouraged to write about them, must have this category. Last year we constituted an award for five lakhs for the Best Book that one could find on cinema. This year we have extended it to Hindi as well. We have the same jury who will access English as well as Hindi books. It is an award that we feel very deeply about. If we can strengthen films from everywhere – critiquing, watching, making and the business; then you create an ecosystem that goes from A to Z.
Country in Focus is another addition that comes to my mind. Why is it important to focus on one country? What can people look forward to in this section?
Country in Focus always existed in MAMI. We couldn’t do it last year but have re-introduced it. We chose Turkey because it has a very interesting culture and filmmakers such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Also, Turkish filmmaker Reha Erdem is head of the India Gold jury this year. The whole idea of Country in Focus is to give people a taste of that country and its culture. The reason that we wanted to begin with Turkey is because it is a very interesting time in the filmmaking history of Turkey.
The ten films that we have put together comprise a mix of their commercial and offbeat cinema and their talent that is travelling here. Their contingent has about 35 people that consist of television content creators, filmmakers, actors, tourism officials and government officials who run film offices. So it is an eclectic bunch of people. It is the gateway to a country’s filmmaking cultures as far as our delegates our concerned. We have tried to show the diversity that exists in Turkish cinema. And we have deliberately kept the number of films small as compared to earlier, where around 35 films were programmed. We feel that it’s better to keep the list short so that people actually get to watch everything.
Another thing that caught my attention was the opening of the Half Ticket segment, which was earlier only for children and is now for the public as well.
We want to catch them young and show them such films in the beginning so that they always register for MAMI. (laughs) Earlier we would get only schools to watch these films. But now, the people who register for MAMI can bring their children too. Content for kids just doesn’t exist in India. Our aim is that we should have around six days in MAMI for children’s content. The delegates should be able to make their children watch these movies because amazing content is being made across the world. It is about shaping the philosophy and giving a window to every child. Children are very impressionable and see things far more than you and I do. It is very important to expose them to different kinds of cinema to develop their tastes.
If we’re not able to create a world-class festival in the next six years, then why are we burning our blood?
Last year, a team from TIFF conducted a workshop with your new management team and shared pointers on creating a new blueprint for the festival. Did you conduct anything similar this year as well?
I went to Toronto in July 2016 for a festival residency with them. They opened their doors to me and I sat in all their meetings, got to know how they work, programme, function etc. It was two weeks of unlimited access to TIFF. There were certain things that we were doing absolutely right as I could see them doing the same things. It was a wonderful experience. Our love affair with TIFF continues.
We want to increase the engagement of people from outside Mumbai as well
The festival has definitely become bigger and more exciting. Are you satisfied with how things have shaped up this year?
I’m quite satisfied as we are in a better position than what we were last year. I have always seen this as a ten-year plan because festivals grow slowly and you build credibility every year. You need to have a long view on a festival. Just like you have a long view on any enterprise that you start. And we have improved tremendously. For example, last year, we chased a lot of international and Indian talent to come to the festival. The critically acclaimed filmmaker Ava Duvernay was the head of our international jury. So, as you build your credibility, you slowly start getting names from the Western world.
You build your festival in such a way that people themselves get intrigued about it. We come from a very result-oriented work ethic. If we’re not able to create a world-class festival in the next six years, then why are we burning our blood?
Is there still something that you really wanted but haven’t been able to accommodate this year?
We have increased the number of venues but we want to increase them even further. Mumbai is a city that is governed by geography. If someone stays in town, he won’t spend two hours to just go and watch a movie. So, we would want to increase our footprint even more and be present all across the city so that everyone could plug into it.
And despite all the hard work, what are the challenges and hurdles that MAMI still faces?
I think budgets would be one of the challenges. Slowly, we want bigger budgets because when you scale up a property, you need money for it. We are raising funds all the time. And we aren’t doing it because we want more money for ourselves but because we have hired a bigger team, included a new market, are doing year-round events etc.
The other challenge is that we are constantly creating awareness about the festival, through the MAMI Film Club, outreach programme etc. We had a great outreach programme this year and therefore there are so many restaurants that will provide discounts to MAMI delegates. We also have hotels on board so that people who want to come to the festival get easy and cheap accommodation. We want to increase the engagement of people from outside Mumbai as well. These are challenges but we are working towards them and year-by-year we’ll surely improve.