Why Kiran Rao wants to focus on Indian cinema rather than international films at Mumbai festival

July 6, 2015

Handout still of Kiran Rao
For an event that once made little impact on the international circuit, the Mumbai Film Festival has come a long way. Last year, after the main sponsor Reliance Entertainment pulled out, the festival relied on contributions from individuals. This year, after a revamp and the addition of a new sponsor (the other Reliance, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries), the festival seems to be on firmer footing. Re-christened Jio MAMI (after the Reliance brand which is the main sponsor), the festival has a new committee and a new chairperson – film-maker Kiran Rao.

Rao, 41, a long-time champion of indie cinema in India, spoke to Reuters about her plans for the festival, why she wants to focus on Indian cinema rather than international films, and what went wrong with her earlier pet project, Filmbay.

Q: Can you talk about what will be different at the Mumbai Film Festival this year?
A:  We are really excited about the festival this year and we have inherited a festival that has a reputation of showing excellent cinema, and we intend to fulfill on that promise and expectation. So there will be great films, but we hope to take it to another level by increasing the audience. We are hoping to engage them by events and programmes and master classes so that more people are encouraged to watch independent cinema and sample the diverse kind of cinema that exists in the world.

Q: Sponsorship was a problem in past editions of the festival, but now that you have a sponsor on board, what are the other problems you see?
A:  This year we were fortunate that we found our sponsors, and Jio and Star have come on board with the right attitude to make this festival strong. Actually, the onus is now on us. But we’ve struggled on many other levels. I think it’s important for a festival to have some kind of a focus and a long-term vision and goal, and I think this time we sat down and really chalked that out. It can’t just be an annual screening of films. It has to be something that will have a longer lasting impact on the film fraternity and on how films are made in the long run. I think it should be a celebration of cinema that the city engages with and really takes ownership of. So those struggles we hope to overcome through some of the things we have planned.

Q: Were you involved with the festival before this, in any way?
A:  Six to eight months before last year’s edition was when Mr (Shyam) Benegal had asked me to be part of the board. It was a telephonic conversation and I was never called to a meeting – I am not sure they had any. The next thing I heard four-five months later was that they didn’t have the funds to pull off the festival that year, and that is when I kind of got involved. Anu (Author and film critic Anupama Chopra) and I tried to raise funds.

Q:  What will your main focus with Jio MAMI be?
A: I think the funding was just one thing that was lacking. I think the one big focus that I have and the entire team has is to make this festival a gateway to Indian cinema. (It should) be the place where Indian films can be well showcased… Showing international films is great and of course very useful and essential for cine fans, but unless we do something for our own film-making community, it will just be one more film club exercise where everyone comes and watches films. We would definitely want to be a place where Indian films are discovered, celebrated and slowly find a way that film makers can possibly get distribution and exhibition in India and across the world. We can hopefully build it into a market for independent films.

Q: NFDC’s Film Bazaar has been doing that quite successfully at the Goa festival. What do you hope to do differently?
A: They are doing an amazing job and it wouldn’t make sense to replicate them. They are a co-productions market and they start at the stage of script and part funding before you finish the film. But we are looking at more the distribution and exhibition end of it because that’s the space we lack in India – a place where independent films can find distribution easily.

Q: Can you talk about what went wrong with “Filmbay”, the indie space centre in Mumbai that you were supposed to head for NFDC?
A: Actually I rather not. If you don’t mind. It’s a conversation we can have separately.
It’s also a much longer conversation. I can only say that it was very disappointing for me that it did not work out. I had worked very hard many years previous to finding the venue. It was a big letdown for me, but I haven’t given up my hopes of doing this and creating a space for exhibition and I will have to start at the very beginning. I hope NFDC is able to use that space. We had made full designs for that space and hopefully they will use those designs and make something good for the city.

Q: Did that experience make you wary of working with government agencies, or with partners on such projects in general?
A: I think I have learnt a lot of lessons. The problem is that film is a space which is both creative and commercial. For some people the focus is purely creative, some people are more interested in how it can become a commercial venture. I will be definitely be more wary while choosing partners in the future, be it government or anybody. I was doing this out of passion. I truly wanted to do it. This was something I had truly worked to do for very long and giving it up was very, very hard. But yes, I have learnt some lessons and I have grown up a little bit.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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