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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Curtain to rise on Mumbai Film Festival after all

Curtain to rise on Mumbai Film Festival after all

The festival had been dithering for funds after the loss of its only sponsor, Reliance Entertainment, earlier this year

The 15th edition of the Mumbai film festival in September 2013. Photo: Hindustan TimesPremium
The 15th edition of the Mumbai film festival in September 2013. Photo: Hindustan Times

Mumbai: After several weeks of suspense, drama and hand-wringing comes the crowd-pleasing climax: the Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) is back from the brink, and will take place as scheduled between October 14 and 21. Organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI), the festival had been dithering for funds after the loss of its only sponsor, Reliance Entertainment, earlier this year, and until as recently as Saturday, it appeared that all was lost and that the annual showcase of international and Indian cinema would have to step off the calendar for at least one year, if not more.

“I had even written out a note saying that the festival could not be held due to unavoidable circumstances, but Srinivasan Narayanan (the festival director) persuaded me to hold off till Monday," said filmmaker and MAMI chairperson Shyam Benegal. “There has been a lot of rallying around, and this has been most heartening." Among the angels who have floated into view following a series of news reports and comments shaming the Mumbai film industry for failing to show its support is producer and director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who announced a contribution of Rs11 lakh and who is drumming up support among his peers for the event. Many more celebrities have elected to place money in the vicinity of the mouth—among them producer Manish Mundra (Rs50 lakh) and industrialist and self-declared cinephile Anand Mahindra, who has pledged Rs60 lakh through the company Cinestaan Film Company that he promotes along with Rohit Khattar. “Anand (Mahindra) & I believe that a Festival as important as this should not belong to one Sponsor or Studio," stated Rohit Khattar, chairperson of Cinestaan Film Company, in a press release issued by MAMI. “As the youngest Film Studio, we would appeal to the larger Studios, Production Houses and, in fact, to all film lovers in Mumbai to take joint ownership. This is OUR Festival and even the smallest contribution would help fulfill our mission."

Other names mentioned in the press release are PK director Rajkumar Hirani, Fandry producers Vivek Kajaria and Nilesh Navlakha, Shahid director Hansal Mehta and film critic Anupama Chopra. Mundra, among the filmmakers who responded swiftly to the desperate Twitter-led calls to “save" the festival, said that the city that is synonymous with filmmaking could not afford to let go of its only international festival. “Indian films are known all over, and it would be a shame if the world learns that you were unable to do the event," said Mundra, whose films include Rajat Kapoor’s Aankhon Dekhi and the upcoming anthology X The Film. “People were sending out messages to go out and support the festival, so I decided to go ahead and do just that, but I hope others will step in as well." The website will continue to exist for whoever else wishes to contribute to the fund.

The scramble for the sum of Rs5 crore—which covers screening fees of international titles, hospitality for invited directors, curators, programmers and journalists, venue costs and prize money totalling up to Rs1 crore and 15 lakh—assumed some urgency over the last few months after one potential sponsor after another, including industrial giants, cosmetic companies, multinationals, banks and media houses, refused to be associated with the event, citing the absence of a “brand fit" and immediate prospects of a return on investment. The organisation has not maintained a corpus, and has always relied on private sponsorship. The Maharashtra government gives the MFF Rs10 lakh, and prefers to give upto Rs1 crore to the Pune International Film Festival, which takes place every January. Reliance Entertainment had been the title sponsor between 2009 and 2013, but it withdrew support this year for various reasons, some internal (the company has rolled out many big-budget flops over the past several months) and some external (Reliance didn’t think it was getting any value from lending its name to the event). Sanjeev Lamba, the Chief Executive Officer of Reliance Entertainment, declined to be interviewed.

“Film festivals around the world are funded by the government, so the Mumbai Film Festival was unique in that sense," said Amit Khanna, a MAMI founding member and trustee. “A film festival is not seen to deliver any immediate returnable value to an advertiser—it is not like the Oscars or various awards functions. At best, you get a few news reports (during the event), which don’t guarantee value to the advertisers, so it remains a philanthropic act at best." Companies prefer to spend on concrete social responsibility programmes rather than extend money for the more abstract idea of cultivating a taste for cinema, Khanna added. “There is tremendous emotional support for the festival, but no real financial support from most quarters."

The two other significant such events in India are funded and run by the government. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry underwrites the International Film Festival of India that takes place in Goa, while the Kerala government funds the International Film Festival of Kerala held in Thiruvanthapuram. Osian’s-Cinefan, the only other important privately funded film festival in the country, went belly up in 2012 because of the financial troubles of Osian’s founder Neville Tuli.

Some of the anxiety over MFF’s fate resulted from the various elements that needed to be locked into place—conformations on the international films, including a selection of Arab cinema, and jury members and guests, including French acting legend Catherine Deneuve, Hong Kong director Johnny To and South Korean enfant terrible Kim Ki Duk.

The money tunnel that has been unearthed this year leads to Bollywood, which will pose a separate set of challenges for the festival organisers. The Mumbai Academy’s trustees are Hindi film professionals, but the festival has maintained a distance from both the government and the movie business. The non-profit trust that was founded by director Hrishikesh Mukherjee in 1997 and has such trustees as Karan Johar, Farhan Akhtar, Jaya Bachchan and Anurag Kashyap has mostly desisted from wooing big-bucks Bollywood. The selection and programming at MFF, which has raised its stature in discerning film circles, has mostly focused on international films and independent Indian cinema. Celebrities from the A-list would show up at the inaugural and closing functions, but they would prefer to premiere their films on foreign shores.

The festival has faced numerous logistical issues in recent years, and its hunt for the perfect venue took it to the south of the city a few years ago. However, the bulk of Bollywood’s citizenry resides in the north, and the festival will need to relocate to north Mumbai if it has to attract the support of the trade, said a film professional who is working backroom to increase support for the festival, and who wished to stay anonymous. “The movie business has changed a lot—there is so much mainstream interest in things that are things not strictly mainstream any more," the industry professional said. “Geographical location is key, and you can’t have it in south Bombay and expect the industry to show up. Also, the festival needs to have the right mixture of great movies and great glamour, just like it is at Cannes and other places."

One of MAMI’s goals, as per its mission statement, is to “celebrate cinema by hosting an international film festival in Mumbai (birth place of Indian Cinema), India’s film and entertainment capital", and the organisation has stuck closely to this stated aim. The MFF was the only event on the MAMI calendar—as soon as one edition ended, planning started for the next one.

In some circles, especially those with powerful broadband connections and a disregard for copyright laws, the idea of paying a small fee to watch films chosen by a panel of experts by on a big screen seems to be an old-fashioned idea, but cinephiles and film scholars uphold the importance of the film festival as a petri dish for cultivating taste and discernment. “There is no substitution for good projection and a well-selected programme, it is ideal," pointed out Suresh Chabria, former film studies professor and ex-director of the National Film Archive of India. The anxiety over film festivals is related to the near absence of cinemas dedicated to the screening of arthouse cinemas in our cities, he added. “If we had arthouse cinemas, we would have a constant stream of films from everywhere, and festivals would have been able to occupy a curatorial niche and show films that regular multiplexes and cinemas didn’t show," Chabria said. “The root of the problem is that the arthouse movement never took off, so there is too much pressure" on the film festival to represent all kinds of filmmaking strains from around the world, he added.

The Mumbai Film Festival started off in a modest way in 1997, and ran into a wall the very next year—it had to be cancelled because of the absence of a money pipeline. “We had the same problem around ten years ago, and this if the year when we will consolidate the financial issue so that we don’t get into this position again," Benegal said.

The MFF returned in 1999, and has since rolled out international films from, emerging global talent, retrospectives of cinema from such countries as Japan and Spain and restored versions of popular and arthouse classics. Over the years, the festival has ballooned in size and scope—a little over 230 films and documentaries were screened last year—and the costs have kept step. Theatre rentals alone costs close to Rs50 lakh. Manish Mundra suggested, as have several filmmakers privately, that it might be time to scale down ambitions and organise a smaller and more affordable event this year. “The amount can be brought down to between three and three and a half crore, and this might create some positivity," he suggested. “The onus is now on both sides."

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Published: 01 Sep 2014, 02:00 PM IST
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