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Italian Connection

Selvaggio Velo founded the River to River Florence India Film Festival in 2001.

Written by Sankhayan Ghosh |
March 21, 2015 12:59:15 am
Selvaggia Velo’s love affair with Indian cinema started with an exhibition of hand-painted Indian film posters she had organised in Florence in 1998. Selvaggia Velo’s love affair with Indian cinema started with an exhibition of hand-painted Indian film posters she had organised in Florence in 1998.

There are many who are fascinated by India and its cinema but few take it seriously enough to do something about it.

Selvaggio Velo founded the River to River Florence India Film Festival in 2001, one of the festivals outside India that is solely dedicated to films from and about the country.

“I was fascinated by India and cinema. And I decided to put the two together,” says Velo, seated in a cafe at Kala Ghoda on a sultry afternoon. Velo is in Mumbai for her annual trip where she selects films for the next edition of River to River .

This visit also marks the launch of the festival’s India chapter. On Saturday, Velo will showcase short films that have won honours at her festival. “We cannot replicate the entire festival here. But I believe the time has arrived to show a small part of it. It is a glimpse of River to River, a seed that we are planting,” says Velo, who has organised the event in collaboration with Pocket Films and will be held at Blue Frog, Lower Parel.

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With no real connection with India, Velo was an art enthusiast fresh out of the University of Bologna, when she organised an exhibition of hand-painted posters of Indian films in Florence in 1998.

The following year, she invited the same artists from India for a live street performance where they hand-painted four great Italian films such as Ovosodo, Il ciclone, Nirvana and La vita è bella.

“I like the cross pollination of ideas, experimenting with different cultures. The event helped people relate to the performance because Italians had very little idea about Indian cinema,” says Velo, who was intrigued by the country after a couple of visits as a tourist.

In the wake of the new millennium, with Lagaan knocking the doors at the Oscars and Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding winning at the Venice Film Festival, Indian cinema was getting global recognition. Velo felt it was the perfect time to take the plunge and explore Indian cinema deeply.

“Our first year was a free event. So many people came in that it turned into an anarchic space,” she recalls. “It was like an internship, a naive attempt. We made so many mistakes. For example, we chose a venue that was unfit for screening 35 mm films,” she says.

But in the last 14 years, the festival has grown from strength to strength — some of the guests in attendance over the years have included Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Anurag Kashyap and Irrfan. It now takes place in Odeon, a beautiful art nouveau theatre in the heart of Florence and this year, it will be held at the venue in December.

The average Italians’ interest in Indian cinema has increased but it’s still perceived as kitsch and exotic, laments Velo. This is partly true for Velo as well, who was curious to explore Indian cinema beyond Satyajit Ray. Now, she is a self-proclaimed fan of Guru Dutt.

According to her, the language acts as a barrier where subtitled movies do not find a theatrical release in Italy. That makes the role of the festival even more important.

Velo handpicks films which are “special and unique” and show “a 360-degree view of India, in all its parts and themes”.

“I rely on word-of-mouth, especially in case of shorts and documentaries. The best discovery is often a film made by the boyfriend of your friend’s neighbour,” she says.

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