Indian cinema: At home and in the world
Baradwaj Rangan, critic with the online film content platform, Film Companion
Amit Masurkar, director of Newton, which was selected for the Forum section at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival
Meenakshi Shedde, critic, festival curator and South Asia consultant to the Berlin and Dubai film festivals
Smriti Kiran, creative director, Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival
Vikramaditya Motwane, director and co-founder, Phantom Films. His first film, Udaan, was selected for the Un Certain Regard section at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival
Radhika Apte, actor in Madly and Parched, which played at the Tribeca and Toronto film festivals, respectively
What does it mean to be a “hot” film-making country? This vague honour is bestowed—invariably by tastemakers in the West—on countries as disparate as Iran and South Korea, Hungary and Mexico. For one reason or another, India never seems to be part of this conversation.
It’s been years since an Indian film made the competition section at a major international festival, even though there has been a steady trickle of titles to parallel sections in Cannes, Berlin and Venice. The 2017 Cannes Film Festival concluded on 28 May, and no Indian film—save Payal Kapadia’s short Afternoon Clouds—was shown there.
Over brunch at It Happened in New York, the bar and bistro, in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood, we asked our panellists, all of whom are intimately familiar with the festival scene, about India’s standing in world cinema. Edited excerpts:
Do you think India’s stock on the world scene has fallen, risen or stayed the same over the last decade?
Shedde: It has risen a lot. Indian cinema, mainstream and indie, is growing in different directions and has more diversity than before. But I do suspect sheer industrial economics plays a part. A lot of festivals are paying attention to the fact that India and China are big markets.
Kiran: It is unfortunate that in the last four-five years there hasn’t been a single Indian film that has been programmed in the competition sections at Berlin or Cannes or Venice. That is something we should look at. I know some people at the Cannes press conference asked why there weren’t films from India, but it isn’t incumbent on any festival (to select Indian films). We just have to make better films that get selected on merit.
Rangan: I disagree a little with that, because I think festival line-ups also have a lot do with big names. I watched almost all the competition films in Cannes this time, and I was frankly surprised at some of the movies that were there. The Arnaud Desplechin movie (Ismael’s Ghosts) is hard to justify as a choice, but it has Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg, so it brings a certain glamour to the red carpet.
I don’t mean to be conspiratorial about it, but there is a club and certain countries haven’t made it there yet.
How They Lounge
There’s this idea in world cinema of a “country of interest”—once it was Iran, then South Korea, now perhaps Hungary. Can India grow in that direction?
Motwane: The problem is that even though we make three-four movies a year which can potentially get selected at festivals, we rarely get to the stage of distribution beyond festivals: in movie theatres and on DVD. I’ve had my own films taken by the studio to festivals—people there say “great film” and nothing happens.
When you talk about countries in focus, it’s about a group. Whether it’s Chinese cinema in the late 1980s or Mexican cinema later—with Cuarón and Iñárritu and Del Toro (Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu)—there were always three-four film-makers who came together. Here, it is not happening. His studio is different, my studio is different…
Do you think we’re making better films than we were a decade earlier?
Masurkar: I don’t really know, because everything works together. We aren’t making better music or choosing better politicians. So how do you expect cinema to be any different? I really don’t think we are making world-class films which should be in competition.
Apte: I agree—very few films here match the kind of world cinema we’re now able to watch. I can speak as an actor when I say that there are some really good scripts that come along, but they never get made. There is so much compromise.
Kiran: I read a scary article in which Pahlaj Nihalani said that Indian film-makers are sneaking films outside to festivals and they should be censored. I am just saying that in this toxic environment, how do you encourage anyone to go and break form?
Is there a home-grown audience for a more challenging kind of cinema?
Apte: The kind of films we want to make, we don’t have the audience for them.
Shedde: People who dream of making films for their own people—that’s something that attracts me. As programmers, we can smell a film that’s made with a festival in mind a mile away, and we will never touch it.
Rangan: India is a very complex country, unlike, say, South Korea, where tastes are more uniform. Telugu cinema is very different from Tamil cinema. Some of the best mainstream cinema today is in Malayalam, but nobody knows about it because they’re happy releasing in their own state. It’s very difficult to make a pan-India film. This is only possible when you are working in a Baahubali grammar, where you have a mythological base level.
Masurkar: I’ve never understood how one can assume what an audience wants. We’ve been showing people posters of Newton recently. They all say, I like it, but mass won’t like it. We all like to think we’re class, not mass.
Is the absence of a year-round cinephile culture a concern?
Masurkar: With the Internet, you can sit anywhere and watch any film. My assistant for Newton is from Raipur—he knows all about Korean cinema. But there’s no offline community, no physical group. At the end of the day, people thrive on each other’s energies.
Kiran: We started the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) year-round programme because of this. Right now we just have screenings, but we want to have curatorial programmes, film-maker forums.
Shedde: I think developing audience tastes year round—through critics, curators, programmes—is key. But it’s also about doing things like 15-minute Q&As after screenings at the Berlin (International) Film Festival—it’s within the time slot, requires zero investment, and the audience is happy that the stars have answered their question.
The selection of Netflix films in competition at Cannes this time was a major signal to the film community. Does this excite you or make you wary?
Rangan: (Martin) Scorsese is a big name among cinephiles, but studios won’t touch him unless he works with a (Leonardo) DiCaprio. So when Netflix is putting up $100 million, it’s his opportunity to have a cut with minimum interference. The cost he is paying is that he will not get an international release.
Motwane: I am just thrilled that sitting here in India, I get to watch Okja or Scorsese’s next film on the same day as the rest of the world. Why would I complain?
(Steven) Spielberg had said some years ago that in the future, we are going to have only tent-pole movies in theatres. The theatre experience will become the big-screen spectacle, and that’s totally fine.
So you think the big-screen experience for indie or art- house cinema is on its way out?
Motwane: People romanticize the dark hall, and I love to see my movies played there, but if I look at where I have discovered most films, it’s at home on DVD or the computer. Trapped can’t compete with an Alia-Varun film in its second week. I don’t mind if my film releases on Netflix, so people can watch it when and how they want. But I also think going to the movies isn’t a fun experience anymore.
Apte: Yes! Whenever I go to Europe I make sure I watch as many films as I can in theatres, because there’s no interval, no talking.
In terms of India raising its profile in world cinema, what do you think needs to happen?
Apte: We need to have a festival here with its own identity.
Kiran: I think we need to reach a point where our film-makers would prefer to premiere a film here rather than at a festival abroad. We don’t have a world-class film festival identity yet which is what we are trying to do with MAMI.
Rangan: The Dubai (International) Film Festival has become a good hub for Egyptian films, for Arab cinema. Similarly, we can become a good hub for Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan cinema. We could then say, if you want the best of South Asian cinema, come here.
Berlin, Cannes, Venice—80% of their programming is what one might call “white films”. There’ll be a bit of Asian representation, maybe a couple of films from the Middle East, but mostly it’s all the known auteurs. Hubs like these can redress the imbalance.
Shedde: That Asian connect is missing. When I am looking at Indian films for pre-selection at Berlin or Dubai, I pitch them in comparison to other Asian films.
We haven’t been able to develop a Busan. All the programmers who can’t visit Mumbai or Bangkok come to Busan as a one-stop shop for Asian films.
In conversation with Uday Bhatia and Sankhayan Ghosh.