By Ashley Riegle and Matt Hamilton
Director Shivangi Ranawat is used to wowing audiences in India, but she was nervous about how her two short films, Alchemy and Little Gypsy would be received in Hollywood, on her first trip to the United States. To ease her anxiety, Ranawat, 28, brought her mom along on the trip to the Indian Film Festival in Los Angeles, the cradle of the American film industry.
Ranawat need not have worried. The young film-maker, who co-directed the films as part of a Mumbai-based art collective was on the team that took home the Grand Jury Prize for short films, and more importantly, gained a foothold in Hollywood.
L.A.’s Indian Film Festival, which closed this week, is one of the few annual forums for up-and-coming Indian film-makers to rub shoulders with U.S. entertainment industry’s power players. And the festival’s small scale helps newcomers like Ranawat to not feel intimidated.
“We formed a close connection with the film-makers, directors, producers and representatives,” Ranawat said. “It is like my new family.”
But while many niche film festivals often cater to narrow audiences, the Indian festival, now in its 12th year, draws corporate sponsorship from top brands, like Walt Disney Studios and Sony Pictures. This year, premium cable channel HBO — known for hit series like Game of Thrones and Sex and the City— joined the roster, and even sponsored the shorts program that Ranawat won.
For Ranawat, HBO’s support is, “encouraging,” she said. For HBO, helping emerging artists serves its long-term strategy. “These festivals really act as a magnet for independent voices early on in their careers,” said HBO’s vice president of corporate social responsibility, Dennis Williams. “We’re interested in feeding the creative pipeline to ensure diverse voices are represented in our industry.”
But the diversity on offer isn’t the typical Bollywood fare. The 33 films selected for the festival whittled down from about 350 submissions that represent a broad swath of film-makers from Kolkata to Kerala to Mumbai. “The interest in regional cinema as opposed to Bollywood hits isn’t unusual”, said Andy Bird, chairman, Walt Disney International and a film festival board member. “India as a region is very diverse, so we’re trying to reflect that diversity. And at the end of the day, it comes down to the content, the quality of the storytelling and the films that the film-makers make,” added Bird.
Nitin Govil, a professor at the University of Southern California’s famed School of Cinematic Arts, believes that regional cinema has a, “narrative complexity” that Bollywood lacks. “But audiences are finding this complexity in regional cinema — with smaller budgets and less global name recognition, to be sure — but more aligned with international genres, stories, styles and performances,” Govil said. To be fair, the film festival doesn’t lack Hollywood panache. Opening the festival was two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson’s Sold, starring David Arquette and Gillian Anderson. And outside the screenings at the Arclight Hollywood — a stone’s throw from the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard that hosts the Academy Awards — the festival organised programs to unite film-makers and industry reps. The Screen Actor’s Guild collaborated with the festival for what’s called the SAG One-on-One, where festival directors meet individually with agents, studio executives and lawyers, often for the first time.”Business happens here. Introductions happen here. And definitely our film-makers begin or carry on to the next level of their career from here,” said the festival’s artistic director, Jasmine Jasinghani. She noted that in 2007, film-maker Richie Mehta met his current agent and lawyer through the one-on-one program. This year, his film, Siddarth, that depicts a mother and father searching for their 12-year-old son in Delhi, won the coveted audience choice award.
So what’s motivating executives like Walt Disney International’s chairman Andy Bird— a longtime supporter of the Indian Film Festival and a member of its advisory board?
Govil, the USC professor whose forthcoming book covers the relationship between Hollywood and Bollywood over the last century, attributed corporate interest to good business sense. “Hollywood hasn’t been able to crack into that double digit market share in India,” Govil said. In recent years, each country’s entertainment giants have purchased shares in the other: Gujarati-based Reliance nabbed a 50 per cent share in Dreamworks, while the Walt Disney Company acquired UTV through a subsidiary in 2012. Despite these high profile partnerships, indie flicks with little-covered perspectives took centerstage at the festival. Fandry — a critical portrait of the caste system by Marathi poet Nagraj Manjule — won the festival’s jury prize for feature length film. More than a handful of films tackled controversial social issues like human trafficking. And several films like Kush, that was shortlisted for an Academy Award this year have earned high marks for bringing minority storylines to the big screen.
Accelerations in technology have enabled this class of independent film-makers to emerge. Digital technology in particular and the ease of video sharing has had a democratising effect on film-making and distribution, according to David Chute, a film critic for trade publication Variety. “Whatever people say about the digital revolution, in terms of exhibitions for art films and ethnic cinema, it’s been nothing but good,” Chute said.
The short film program at the festival featured Hindi, Marathi, Ladaki, English, Russian and silent films. Among them, Ranawat’s award-winning short Alchemy blended drawings, spoken word and Indian drumbeats—a kaleidoscopic mixture that she said was a tribute to modern India. And the judges, who included HBO’s senior vice president Gena Desclos, praised the film as, “formally inventive,” offering, “a one-of-a kind film-going experience.”
For Ranawat, who had two films debut at the festival, the warm reception only reaffirmed her commitment to making films that take inspiration from her home country. “If you travel in India each place is very different. I feel I can make hundreds of films, which are really exciting,” said Ranawat.