With 16 films, of which 12 have never been screened in France, this year’s edition of Ete Indien or the Indian Summer Film and Arts Festival in Paris presents a rare and special treat for cine-goers and India lovers. Vaiju Naravane in conversation with Martine Armand, film curator.
The Guimet Museum of Asiatic Arts in the French capital is currently holding the ninth edition of Indian Summer, and the accent this year is on music and dance in film with a variety ranging from Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar — a perennial favourite in France — to Bollywood extravaganzas such as Chandralekha, Kalpana, Jhanak Jhanak Paayal Baje or the more recent Umrao Jaan and Taal. Martine Armand is one of France’s most authoritative voices on Indian cinema, and the work of Satyajit Ray in particular.
This is the ninth edition of Indian Summer. Why have you chosen to concentrate on music and dance in Indian cinema?
Yes, that is the theme this year and we started the festival with a projection of Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar. I think it was a fitting tribute since this marks the 20 anniversary of his death. I had programmed the full Ray retrospective at the Cinematheque Francaise and Ray was scheduled to attend. But unfortunately he died a few months earlier and today as we open the festival our thoughts are very much with this giant of world cinema. Also, where else can you see a stunning Begum Akhtar or a Bismillah Khan playing themselves — professional singers and musicians, in the same film? And then there is the perfect, unforgettable, unspeakably beautiful Kathak by Roshan Kumari.
Indian summer is not just a film festival in that you also have live performances by Indian artistes.
The festival is essentially about Indian cinema but you are right, it also features dance and music from India. When we started we were aware we were doing something different because it’s a thematic festival and the theme is different every year. For me, the idea was to show films from all over India, from different regional cinemas and from different times or periods, decades. So there are several faces of Indian cinema that get projected here all at once. In nine years we have screened 170 films of which three-quarters have never been released in France. We wish to open the horizon, challenge and stimulate the audience.
In France, Indian cinema started as cinema d’auteur and the recent Bollywood fashion has shadowed both regional cinema and small budget, independent films because only a tiny elite goes to festivals like Cannes. Since such films do not get easily distributed, most people have little access to them. This year three Indian films including Gangs of Wasseypur I and II and Miss Lovely were distributed after Cannes but that has not happened in the past. I wished to counter that Bollywood trend a bit. So the idea was to give the public access to the variety and richness of Indian films which have nurtured me these past three decades and I wished to share my excitement at the discovery of such varied cinema, including good popular films — and there are so many of them. The audience reaction has been wonderful. People come back year after year and we are sold out each year.
So what kind of mix do you have on offer this year?
In the past we showed only feature films but this year we have documentaries too. The idea is to show films that may have been distributed in other countries or shown at festivals here but never released commercially in France. And I try to give a perspective — sometimes even through seemingly clashing programming — so that the audience gets films from different genres, regional languages, different film makers. I want the audience to get a feeling of wonder but I also wish to provoke questions in them.
The festival should not just entertain and inform, it should make people think. It should create a desire to know more through books and literature, painting and the performing arts. And the mix is really eclectic. Where else would you be able to see cinema spanning six decades in the space of five weeks? We have films that are very rarely shown. For instance, Kumar Shahani’s Bhavantarana and Bamboo Flute, Satyajit Ray’s Bala, Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari and Dhrupad can be seen alongside S.S Vasan’s Chandralekha, Uday Shankar’s Kalpana or Shaji Karun’s Malayalam classic Vanaprastham, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Dance of the Enchantress, and Moner Manush by Goutam Ghosh, our closing film.
What is the profile of your audience and is it very difficult or expensive to attend?
It is sometimes difficult to attend because the theatre with 275 seats gets full. But students get concessions, as do retired people. It is free for people who have a Museum pass and for the unemployed. The films are shown at mid-day — an odd time, granted. But there are hundreds of cinephiles who set time aside, make a fixture of Indian Summer just to attend this festival and that in itself is wonderful.
Sometimes I feel sad that these films that come from so far away, from all parts of India and are so carefully and lovingly programmed will be shown here only once. We would not be able to get this festival off the ground without the help of the Embassy of India, the India Tourism office, Air India, the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. They have all proved to be sterling partners. I always try to be faithful to the joy and the wonder I felt, the exhilaration even, when I first discovered Indian cinema 30 years ago — I was at the FTII and the National Film Archive. And I wish to communicate that same joy to the people who flock here.