Kiran Rao, filmmaker and chairperson MAMI festival, talks to Outlook about the journey of Mumbai’s most-loved film-festival since she took over and challenges and achievements along the way. MAMI is on from October 12-18 at multiple venues in Mumbai showcasing the best of world cinema and Indian films.
What is the newest, biggest announcement coming from MAMI 2017?
We have developed an online market. We have created a portal call MAMI Movie Mandi for Indian films. It’s a meeting place or a market place for people who are looking for content, including ready films. So we are selecting the films and the selection goes back many years because there are several great films that were made but not released. Or a film may have released but not had a digital distributor. We feel films have longer shelf life than theatrical releases. Filmmakers can earn from multiplicity of sources. So it’s like matchmaking between sales agents and filmmakers. It allows a sales agent from anywhere in the world to access Indian films. For example, you can be in south America and want to program an Indian film. It will be revolutionary.
From no funds to an all-year programming, MAMI has been growing since 2014 when you took over?
As an independent filmmaker, I always felt there was a lack of opportunity to get together, meet and discuss films, apart from the infrastructure problems that we face. MAMI used to be that one event in the year when you get together with actors and filmmakers and people, who were interested in this kind of cinema. In 2014 when I was made the part of the board when the festival was on the verge of closing down for lack of funds, so that year we just scrambled to get funds and get it going but once that was over, and I took over as chair from Shyam Benegal, Anu (Anupama Chopra) and I and the core team realised we need a solid plan to keep it going. Creating and running a film festival year on year is a very difficult enterprise in any case, and especially in this city. Infrastructure wise things are tougher because it is so spread out and funding for this kind of film activity is not there. When people are not interested in putting money into making of such films, forget about them being interested in showcasing it. Year one, the learning curve was very steep. We didn’t know if we could do until Star came on board. Then came Jio. They literally resurrected the festival. It has been very fulfilling and exciting because we have seen the energy that the festival manages to generate year on year.
Has the focus changed/shifted since it became this big?
When we first started, there were two key points. One was to be the gateway to Indian cinema because we felt that the festival had become only about showcasing the best of world cinema – winners from Cannes, Toronto and Venice film festivals. We felt that would not be adding to our landscape in long term. We could be of use if we pushed cinema from across the country. As film-goers, we don’t get a chance to watch films from our own country in different languages.
All along we showed Indian cinema by which included regional languages but it wasn’t given as prime a place as three years ago. Now we have two sections India Gold and India Story. Four or five films from MAMI selection won national awards last year.
Second, was to not just be a week-long festival once a year but to have a continuing engagement with the audience. Year one, we didn’t have the team or the finances but this year we managed and it has been incredibly rewarding.
As an academy we can go much further, we have lot more work to do. When MAMI was set up 19 years ago by Shyam Benegal and Sippy and Manmohan Shetty, the idea was to create a better environment for filmmaking and I hope we are doing that.
Now that you have a big sponsor, do commercial requirements override any creative plans? Like you have a Golmaal Returns team do an event. What’s a non-negotiable for you?
The idea is to be of value to the film-going people, who have varied tastes. We held the Toronto Film Festival as our benchmark, which is a very audience-friendly festival. It is not only for the industry like Cannes is. For that we would like diversity in our offering every year.
Also, the red carpet is a very important event to bring eyeballs to the festival, however serious it is. It also lends that much-needed heft to a small film. This happens world-wide. The well-recognised stars – actors, directors, producers – come out on the red carpet to support good cinema.
The important thing is quality-control in our programming. We do not programme films that are not good. In order to promote that good film content, we invite support of friends from the mainstream. It goes a long way to show that everybody is interested in good cinema being showcased and being watched.
Is explosion of digital content making the festival a bit redundant, I mean people are already watching foreign films, documentaries etc…
No I don’t think so. We get the best programming. I would say this year’s line-up is one of the best in the world. People are not going to do that kind of filtering by themselves online. We have dedicated filmmakers, visiting film festivals around the world, liaising with sales agents, getting the best films in their city for highly affordable price. You are not going to be able to sift through 235 films. We have films from 49 countries and languages that you may not have heard of.
Plus we have specially curated sections like New Medium that looks at history of craft and technology. So we have the most cutting edge cinema, documentaries. Then there is half ticket for children. We also started a new vertical Marathi Talkies and it went really well because all of us believe there is such great content, like a renaissance of sorts over the past few years. We also have a vertical called play that looks at digital content, and we have another one that looks at television.
Filmmakers from far corners of India are really pushing the envelope.
People are making films against incredible odds. Last year we had Lady of the Lake, a Manipuri film. It opens your eyes to life in different parts of the country. When you seen that, you can tell how difficult it must have been to make a film like that. We really value those filmmakers and try to bring as many of them as possible because all of us want to do the same thing.
You were also trying to bring publishers and filmmakers together.
The word to screen market was to bring together the publishing and the content creating industries because we feel there is such great content that could be adapted to screen. The reason our films don’t do well is because isn’t regarded as good a light is because of quality of writing, we struggle to improve, we don’t have good writing programs for screenwriters and ultimately the script is the starting point. You can’t make a good film without a good script. And here we have decades-old publishing industry publishing great Indian writers and new kinds of writing in India. So we felt it was a natural progression.
We are looking at MAMI the academy. As an academy we need to invest our time and energies in improving what we feel in lacking in cinema landscape, the ecosystem of cinema. So writing and showcasing we are already doing but one of my pet projects is distribution.
That’s the worst challenge for independent films, the cost of distribution is the same or higher than making of the film…
Yes, I am trying to something internationally and nationally because even if they are made on small budgets they are unable to recover even that. It’s prohibitive then your film sits in cans and it’s frustrating for the filmmakers. Luckily, even the team at MAMI agrees and believes that we must create some sort of outlet for these films. So in the first year we created something called the movie market, where we handpicked 20 films and put them before different kinds of distribution platforms but it wasn’t successful because it was a pitching session. You have to give time and nurture which film bazaar has done very well. So we have developed something new. I am the most excited about this.
Amidst all this, are you making your next film?
This is it. I have given three years. I am already writing. I am also desperate. This takes a lot of creative energy and I also produce. As a writer, you need to cut off from everything. I genuinely feel this has fed me so much, but it’s in a good place, stable position now and I can focus on my film too.
Indie cinema is influencing the mainstream nowadays. What role does a festival play?
All kinds of film craft can be seen at the festivals. This is a big learning opportunity to watch the kind of stories that are being told. For all of us, who are working in films, it is important to engage with what is happening around the world. Even those in the commercial industry are interested in making better films. Lots of mainstream directors watch these films, because this is the chance to watch Cannes winner on big screen.
You are also focused on children and their cinema.
We have had Half Ticket from the beginning. We want them to start young. As for mainstream, the content for kids is abysmal. Either you have the big ticket animation films or nothing; there is no alternative to that. But worldwide incredibly beautiful content is being created. And children and young people are ready for it. They lap it up, they even respond to the non-narrative films because they are open to it. Earlier we did a workshop called Do You Speak Cinema? for children, to introduce them to the language of cinema. It will make them demand better cinema, enjoy the variety that is available to them.
Earlier MAMI had attendance from small towns of Maharashtra. With the festival becoming so big, have you been able to retain that audience? Is reaching out a challenge?
It is a big challenge reaching the audience you would imagine this festival would have. We have expanded the space, we are literally present from Colaba to Thane. But really the world has changed in the last five years. People’s attention span has reduced. Even to get people to register that the festival is from this date to this date is an uphill challenge for someone who doesn’t have marketing budgets.
So we are the same festival. Our registrations are the highest that have ever been. But there are too many things vying for people’s attention. The only way we can stay in people’s consciousness is through our year-round programmes. So people are aware and are getting updates. But because of budget restrictions, we are not able to reach out to that volume of people.
People also have preconceived notions that festival will have high-brow stuff and it’s not for them. We have tried a little bit but the biggest tool in marketing is word of mouth. And we are hoping that the converts are telling other people.