The red carpet event at the 9th Chennai International Film Festival is more subdued than I had expected. At 6:15pm on Friday night, local celebrities begin to walk down the corridor leading to the doors of the Inox Theatre as a small audience of volunteers and festival attendees step out of the 4pm screening of the Japanese thriller “Confession”. Still, this is a far cry from the first CIFF, which opened in 2003 with a vastly smaller budget, older films and one registration official, says Mr Murali of ICAF, who continues to be involved with the festival's management. When members of the Tamil film fraternity entered the organising committee last year, they implemented a three-step plan to build upon its foundations as an international film festival, trading in Pilot Theatre for more upscale venues, contacting film curators to source the best and newest films, and increasing funds with the aid of several sponsors, including the Tamil Nadu government. Digital tools such as Google groups and Skype also came to form the basis of the committee's interaction. Actress Suhasini Maniratnam, who has aided in the organisation of the Berlin and Dubai film festivals, explains that it is quite unusual for members of the film industry to become involved with film festivals in a significant way – however the organisers of the CIFF are immersed in the event every step of the way, doing everything from scavenging banners and balloons from wedding decorators to tending to international directors and producers during their stay in Chennai. As actress Fathima Babu states, “It's like a wedding and we're the bride's people.”
Antonia Grande, Deputy Director of the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre, and Laya Yourgou, director of the Greek production “Red Sky”, are deep in discussion...about the sea. Having spent four years in India, Grande draws similarities between South India and Southern Italy for their similar connection with the sea. But Grande is quick to point out that the two countries are still very different, especially with regards to their taste in film. Working in the cultural sector can be especially difficult in India, as sensitive issues such as religion, politics and sex, even when expressed in art, can become highly controversial. Yourgou nods, and exclaims, “I was wondering how they even came to show “Red Sky” in Chennai. Both women however agree that controversial themes are simply more acceptable to a festival audience with a deep interest in cinema. Parisian director Jean-Jacques Jauffret disagrees, arguing that a festival audience is probably no different than a regular theatre audience. Jauffret's film, “Heat Wave”, is somewhat infamous for its inclusion of explicit nudity. However, he believes that it has been better received at its 17th screening in Chennai than at its previous screenings in “puritanical” North America.
New Indian Cinema
Manoj D Pillewar cannot sit still. Waving his hands excitedly, he exclaims, “In Mumbai, film becomes a part of life; in Chennai, film is life.” The director and producer is screening his debut feature film, “Yada Yada Hi Dharmasya” at this year's CIFF. The screening is important in more than one way. A remake of the film in Tamil or Malayalam is on the cards, and rests almost entirely on the reaction of the audience at the CIFF. The film explores the kind of “thought provoking” theme which is routinely avoided in most mainstream Indian cinema, depicting a communalist system in rural India and the restrictions it places on people's freedom. The film is definitely weighty. However Pillewar believes that Indian audiences are opening up to less melodramatic, more “realistic” genres of film, which are well represented and popular at this year's festival. Although it is starkly different to most Indian films, “Yada Yada Hi Dharmasya” still falls back on one key element that could act as a security blanket as it screens in front of Indian audiences: music. Ever important to Indian cinema, music can literally make or break a film at the box office – but Pillewar insists that while music plays an integral part in the film, it is his portrayal of a highly relevant and controversial issue that will ultimately decide the reaction of the Chennai audience.