Visibility of Indian cinema has absolutely increased since IFFLA began, both due to efforts like ours, and the rise in accessibility of Indian cinema on platforms like Netflix and Amazon ~ Christina Marouda
IFFLA, The 2018 Indian Film Festival Of Los Angeles which will begin on Wednesday 11 April has become a mahor event for the Indian diaspora not just in Los Angeles but Indian Americans through out the USA.
This year’s lineup is a testament to the rich variety of genre, style and skill that exists within the Indian filmmaking community as well, with it’s opening film In the Shadows, starring Manoj Bajpayee who will be presenting or the Master class with The Big Bang Theory actor Kunal Nayyar.
We talk to the founders of the festival to understand their growth, changes in the festival and the audience and diaspora attending the festival.
Over the years, has there been any change in the film selection process since inception? For the unaware can you talk about the process?
Christina Marouda: The way we program the festival hasn’t changed. The industry has changed with the entrance of Netflix and Amazon that offer online distribution to films, a factor that we now have to take into account as we focus on bringing Indian films to Los Angeles audiences that would otherwise would not have an opportunity to watch them, at least prior to or right after the festival.
Mike Dougherty: We have a team of three main programmers, three screeners that helps us get through the 300+ submissions we receive, and the founder of the festival, Christina Marouda along with our advisor in India, Uma da Cunha are also involved in final decisions. The films we program need to tell their stories in an interesting way, and need to demonstrate a distinct filmmaking or storytelling style. We firmly believe in filmmaking as an art, and the artist behind the film should demonstrate both a superb control over the technical aspects of filmmaking as well as a unique voice. We like to focus on new, fresh voices, while acknowledging the work of some more established filmmakers. The majority of the films we select are first or second time works.
Have you seen any kind of evolution of how you present the festival and have you seen any kind of evolution in Indian cinema since IFFLA began?
Christina Marouda: IFFLA premiered in 2003 at ArcLight Hollywood presenting 20 films from or about India to almost 3,000 attendees. The 2017 festival included approximately 30 films attracting over 7,000 attendees. Additional programming included workshops, post-screening discussions, live music performances, and receptions, allowing festival attendees access to films never before screened in Los Angeles. Lastly, we now work with all the studios, including HBO, Netflix, Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Sony, Amazon, NBC Universal, and through our One-on-One program, we bring high-level executives to the festival to have brief meetings with our filmmakers.
The visibility of Indian cinema has absolutely increased since IFFLA began, both due to efforts like ours, and the rise in accessibility of Indian cinema on platforms like Netflix and Amazon. The rich and diverse catalog of Indian cinema used to be difficult for the average moviegoer in the U.S. to access, but now you can find a great number of films on streaming platforms. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a big improvement. The role of social media in film criticism and discourse and our new, 24-hour news cycle makes it far easier to spread the word about the great successes of Indian cinema, or current headlines. The surprise box office success of BAAHUBALI 2, or the controversy surrounding PADMAAVAT, or word-of-mouth on Ritesh Batra’s THE LUNCHBOX were all greatly aided by our “plugged-in” society and all spread beyond a strictly South Asian audience.
Has the diaspora evolved too? Has it become an important diaspora event of importance? Where all do your audience come from?
Christina Marouda: The Indian diaspora, and in particular the true cinephiles within the community as well as the younger, second generation Indian-Americans, have embraced the festival. Our core audience tends to be South Asian based in Los Angeles, but every year our audience has expanded to include film lovers of all stripes. Our reputation is such that we play high quality films from talented filmmakers, and film lovers from many different backgrounds want the chance to see those kinds of films in a theatrical setting. At least 60% of our audience now does not come from an Indian or South Asian background.
What’s special at IFFLA this year?
Christina Marouda: We’ll present a memorial tribute screening of CHANDNI to honour Sridevi. Bookending the festival are the Los Angeles premieres of IN THE SHADOWS with Manoj Bajpayee and director Dipesh Jain in person, and festival favourite VILLAGE ROCKSTARS with director Rima Das in attendance. We are hosting a world premiere of MERCURY starring the great Prahu Deva, with the director, Karthink Subbaraj, in attendance. We have filmmakers from almost every feature film visiting our festival, as well as several short film directors. We’re presenting the world premiere of Nagraj Manjule’s beautiful short film AN ESSAY OF THE RAIN, the North American premiere of Devashish Makhija’s intense thriller AJJI, we have two wonderful Malayalam language features: TAKE OFF starring Parvathy and Bash Mohammed’s PRAKASAN. We have three incredible documentaries all with female directors, and some more special events still to be announced.
Tell us about the special events during IFFLA?
Christina Marouda: Beyond what was mentioned above, we are hosting a master class with Kunal Nayyar, one of the stars of America’s highest- rated television comedy THE BIG BANG THEORY, who sits down to discuss the trajectory of his career and to offer advice to the next generation of artists.
The shorts & documentaries also form an important experience. Talk us through the selections?
Mike Dougherty: Our short films are an incredible opportunity to find up-and-coming talent, and to add lots of variety in genre, style and language to our program. We receive hundreds of shorts submissions, and are only able to program about a dozen per year, so the selection process becomes very competitive. We want our shorts program to reflect a wide variety of topics and experiences, to come from several regions of India (and also Indian filmmakers working outside of India), and to form a cohesive whole while still offering a rich, wide-ranging viewing experience. Managing to do all this with 12 short films is a task that requires meticulous viewing and a lot of deliberation, but we are always thrilled with the final lineup.
Documentaries are quite special to us as well, as the filmmakers usually go through such a difficult time to research, fund and execute their work. We treat these films as equal to our narrative features, though of course the experience of watching them can be quite different.
Indian Indies take pride in their IFFLA screening. What makes it special for them?
Mike Dougherty: I think it’s a combination of things. We have a lean, competitive program that we feel represents the best of the year in Indian cinema, so it’s a point of pride to be included in that. If the filmmaker is able to attend the festival, they get to present their work to an eager audience who not only appreciate the viewing experience, but also make the filmmaker feel welcome and accomplished, often cornering them after a screening to ask all the questions we couldn’t get to in our post-film Q&A. The number of filmmakers that attend IFFLA from all over India also rarely get the opportunity to meet with each other and form a close-knit filmmaking community while at home. We give them five days of togetherness – both filmmaking veterans and new filmmakers just starting out – to discuss their craft and get to know one another on equal footing.
What are your future plans with the festival?
Christina Marouda: After presenting IFFLA for 16 years, we believe we have found the sweet spot, meaning the right amount of days, films, filmmakers in attendance, events, industry opportunities for the filmmakers, and programming offerings. We have presented a variety of panel discussions, and right now are focusing on introducing a master class with an actor or director. We also always try to invite celebrities to attend, which sometimes works well and other times gets tricky due to scheduling and budgets. Overall, we are happy with the size and mix of films and special programs we present and our focus is to continue to present a high quality program and expand our audience while presenting education opportunities both for our filmmakers as well as our audience.