All good film festivals have one thing in common — continuity. Can the Mumbai Film Festival get there and hold its own?
Great film festivals have legends associated with them. Cannes regulars never tire of chewing your ear off with several anecdotes, and this is the one I now happily re-tell too, having seen it with my own eyes: the ushers that stand at the entrances to all the venues (the screening theatres, the always-crowded media centre, the country pavilions with the flags fluttering in the May breeze, the cavernous film market) are the same, year after year. And when they leave, the understudy who steps up, remains unchanged. When you come back the next year, you will find the same person in the same place.
It is remarkable, and what it points to is continuity, which is crucial to the smooth functioning of an event of such scale. The glamorous filmstars on the red carpet, the films, the events, all change, but the people who put together the nuts and bolts of the most dazzling film festival in the world stay constant.
That is what gives all the best film festivals — Berlin, Toronto, Venice when it was at its full glory, and now, increasingly, Busan — that special cachet. You know that there will be a base minimum standard all round — films (which are naturally at the top of the pile), markets, events, and yes, the mad whirl of parties and after parties where much of the networking and business is conducted.
And that brings us to India with its rocky history of film festivals. The government-run India International Film Festival (IFFI) moved base to Goa nearly a decade ago (2004), and still remains a work in progress. The one in Thiruvananthapuram created a mark with its selection of films aimed at the knowledgeable film buff, instead of pandering to political and bureaucratic idiosyncrasies, but is now struggling to maintain those standards. State capitals have their own film festivals, and while they all have something for the film community at large, not one has emerged as the absolute go-to place. Not yet.
The vacuum created in Delhi, after IFFI moved away to Goa with the stated intention of becoming the Cannes of India, was filled most capably by the Osian’s Film Festival. It started with a striking focus on Asian cinema, and then expanded to include cinemas from Africa, Latin America, and the rest of the world. It became the high point of the film calendar in the capital till it, tragically, shut down.
That leaves us with the 17-year-old Mumbai Film Festival (MFF), organised by MAMI (Mumbai Academy Of Moving Image). Last year, it almost did not happen because it ran into a serious cash crunch, its sponsors/ partners having withdrawn. In a last minute bid to save it, several benefactors got together, and managed to pull it off, pretty much on a wing and a prayer.
One of those was Anupama Chopra, film critic and author, who jumped into the fray and badgered and begged “everyone she knew” to get involved and contribute, in cash or kind. The “everyone she knew” turned out to be quite an array of Bollywood personalities, and the stars showed up in solidarity. Some money came in. It was slapdash, but it held together on sheer goodwill. This year, Chopra is formally the festival director, and she and her team have been working with well-regarded consultants to get the festival up and going.
As fellow critics and colleagues on the same beat, we’ve bumped into each other here and there over the years. Film critics have a specific mandate with which they view cinema: to head a festival, you need to turn into a curator-cum-manager-cum holder-of-begging-bowl-cum everything else that I can’t quite think of. Intrigued at her change of role, I catch Chopra for a quick quiz over the phone.
Fund-raising has been the biggest challenge, she says. “How do you convince a donor about an ROI (return on investment)? It is about shaping a cinematic sensibility and a cultural landscape. How can you put a price on that?” Chopra had to learn, she says with a giggle, to “pitch and make power point presentations” to potential partners (Star Network and Reliance Jio are on board, as well as a bunch of others).
The challenge, she knows, will also be to sustain the momentum, and to scale up to include non-traditional festival goers in MFF’s ambit. The programme, which has been an MFF strong point, is looking exciting, as do the sidebars. What could also be quite a challenge is to strike the right balance between Bollywood glitz and arthouse cinema gravitas, given the industry’s proximity.
Will MFF get there? And, more importantly, stay there?