With just a week to go before the Chennai International Film Festival begins, actor-director and festival organiser, Suhasini Maniratnam, tells Ramya Kannan how the event that is now synonymous with the city was reinvented in 2010

If you are lucky, life propels you towards the things you need to be doing: being an astronaut, or painting pictures, running a Montessori, or even curating a film festival.

For Suhasini Maniratnam, life, and a kind uncle nudged her towards the path she now strides on: putting together the Chennai International Film Festival (CIFF).

CIFF was actually born in 2003, and at that point it was organised solely by a few persons who were part of the Indo Cine Appreciation Forum, including the man who still plays a leading role in the organisation of the festival, E. Thangaraj.

It was in 2010, things changed dramatically, and the turn of events spiralled the festival into the glamorous, fun event that Chennai completely owns now.

“I was watching films that were part of the fest in 2009 at Woodlands Theatre. I suddenly found myself on stage, giving away an award. I said, ‘It is such a beautiful event. I’ve watched five Scandinavian films that I might have never watched otherwise. He (‘Thangaraj, our hero’) is giving us such a gift and we are not even relishing it. He is doing such a great thing for the film industry.’ I also promised them that the next year if there was something that I could help them with, they must let me know,” Suhasini says.

The tenacious man that Thangaraj is, he promptly followed up and invited Suhasini for the next meeting.

“S.Ve. Sekar was involved and they were talking about getting sponsors for the event. I was not sure we could actually pull it off. But things changed after our trip to the Busan Film Fest in Korea. There I met the gentleman who put the whole thing together. I asked Mani (Ratnam) if one individual is all it takes to make a film festival. He said, ‘yes.’ That got us started.”

Clearly, the involvement of a star like Suhasini has an immense impact on the profile of an event. In the first year, with the stars of the film industry contributing generously, they raised a whopping Rs. 95 lakh for the festival.

The involvement of stars obviously brought in the money that enhanced the scale of the event; and the line-up, its celebrity status.

“It was an event a lot of people now wanted to go to. Between Revathy (the actor) and me, we put in a lot of effort in the initial year, we did a lot of nut-and-bolt-stuff ourselves. It was around the time I became the curator of the Dubai International Film Festival, and that helped. All our friends in the industry, including Mani Ratnam, Sarath Kumar, Radhika, Kushboo, Rohini, everyone pitched in.”

When they got the festival films to play at Inox and Sathyam multiplexes, Suhasini says, the crowds really picked up. “A lot of people, including youngsters and younger stars, began coming. We are all that we are today, thanks to the audience,” she says, the true artiste that she is.

“In a film festival, people come to watch because they are interested in cinema. It’s not like watching a premiere show or being in any cinema hall, where you are not with like-minded people. It is like the difference between going to a wedding as a guest, and to a wedding in your own family or your best friend’s wedding,” she says.

While in subsequent years, the funds raised (among well-wishers) were not as substantial as in the first year, the State government pitched in with Rs. 50 lakh.

“It takes about Rs. 2 crore to conduct a festival of this scale. We manage with less, primarily because we get a lot of stuff gratis,” she says. People from the industry and friends volunteer for various tasks, giving their time and expertise free.

“More than anything, filmmakers want to come to the festival. They get to meet the people who make the films; nearly every second person you meet here is from the industry. Not in Goa, not in Delhi. Aparna Sen told me, “Don’t grow. This is warm and nice. Director T.V. Chandran said Chennai audience was the best.”

The other thing was to get the city involved in the event. “That’s when we decided to stage a flash mob. This year, we also have Zumba. We have festival tees, student volunteers, more cinema halls, and several stars. We have had Anurag Kashyap, Shekar Kapur, Amitabh Bachchan last year… This year, we have Aamir Khan coming for the grand finale.” Clearly, they have the formula of raising the festival’s profile laid out pat.

What’s next, then? Suhasini is brimming with ideas. She says the next stage is for top filmmakers to premiere their films at CIFF. “I also think we need to become a niche fest, say, like Sundance that shows only independent films, or only digital films. We’ll have to find that niche, but that’s the way to go.”

She also thinks the government should take over the fest, as is the case with every other major film festival across the world.

“Ironically, it’s just in Mumbai and Chennai, the two hubs of Indian cinema, the government has a smaller role to play. It would be good if the State sets up an academy to curate the event, give the curators autonomy so they can attract the best films.” Finding an ambassador for CIFF is also part of the agenda. “We need a ‘face’ for the festival. We have three people who are respected internationally, and have great interest in international cinema — Kamal Haasan, Mani Ratnam and A.R. Rahman,” she says.

(The Hindu is the presenting partner for the Chennai International Film Festival to be held between December 12 and 19.)

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