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As Indian film festivals mushroom across the globe, desi cinema is drawing new audiences

A still from Love Sonia.

A still from Love Sonia.

At the dawn of the new millennium, when Selvaggia Velo founded River to River: Florence Indian Film Festival, arguably the first film festival abroad dedicated to Indian cinema, she had no idea what to expect. Unlike London, New York or Toronto, the Renaissance city could neither boast of a burgeoning Indian diaspora nor did it see the commercial release of desi films.

The only access to Indian cinema was through limited exposure to Italian-dubbed Hindi films. It was quite a surprise then to find a unique and dedicated audience returning to the festival in its first three years: Italian women reliving their memories of visiting India.

Diaspora in droves

Seventeen years on, the festival has a more diverse audience — from Italians and the French to English speakers (British and Americans) living in Florence. “In town, there is hardly an Indian community, and the few Indians who attend come mostly from Milan or Rome,” says Velo. But other cosmopolitan cities around the world, which host well-known Indian film festivals, find no trouble drawing the diaspora community in droves.

The week-long New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF), which begins tomorrow, or the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), which concluded last month, both started as diaspora festivals, aimed at showcasing indie cinema from the subcontinent. “It’s also for the second generation, the younger audience that wants to connect back to the country and in a way that is relevant to them,” says Christina Marouda, founder of IFFLA.

However, with increasing popularity, the audience for these festivals has grown to include non-Indian cinephiles too. “If we’re showing an LGBTQ film from a local or Canadian-Indian filmmaker, that tends to attract an audience of its own,” says Aseem Chhabra, Director, NYIFF.

More than Ray

When The Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) started a decade ago, founder and programming director Cary Rajinder Sawhney noticed that mainstream British media had a limited understanding of contemporary independent cinema from India, and seldom ventured beyond Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen.

The festival, which claims to have a more than 40% non-Indian audience, invites journalists and critics from British media to interactive sessions, giving them a chance to discover emerging filmmakers. “All the diaspora festivals are ambassadors of India and we’re selling our products and telling the audiences how wonderful India is,” says Sawhney.

A still from Omerta.

A still from Omerta.

In the last two decades, Indian film festivals have mushroomed in several cities across the U.S., Europe and Australia. Latest to join the club is the Boston International Film Festival of India, which will reportedly roll out in September. “Most film festivals severely under-represent cinema from India, if they represent it at all, despite the country’s long tradition of quality filmmaking,” says Mike Dougherty, Director of Programming, IFFLA.

Intimate networking

Over the past two decades, Indian film festivals have gained enough reputation to attract world premieres. The ninth edition of LIFF will open with the world premiere of Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia in June, while NYIFF will see the world premiere of Bird of Dusk , a documentary on Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh.

These film festivals provide an intimate networking opportunity for filmmakers who would otherwise not be seen or would get overshadowed in major forums such as Cannes or Berlinale. They are also a platform for diaspora filmmakers keen on an American or European release over an Indian one.

IFFLA prides itself on its geographical proximity to Hollywood, which helps it provide aspiring artistes and filmmakers easy access to high-profile executives, distributors and agents.

With growing diversity, programming for a mixed audience is an exciting challenge. London-based author-filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir, who has been curating Indian films for British public-service broadcaster, Channel 4, for over three decades, says that filmmakers matter more to the U.K. audience than stars. “When Court (2014) was screened, we had almost 80,000 people watching it, which I think is a very good number,” she says.

A still from Village Rockstars.

A still from Village Rockstars.

But Florence is a different ball game. “Nothing can be taken for granted in Florence,” says Velo. The appeal here lies in themes and stories. Movies with social commentary seem to be a big draw. This year’s line-up at LIFF too includes several women-centric films and a few on the toxic masculinity of father-son relationships, says Sawhney.

As film curator and programmer Meenakshi Shedde says, “A lot of third- or fourth-generation Indians, who have a different worldview, are less likely to watch something just because it is Indian.”

kennith.rosario@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | May 17, 2022 1:45:31 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/as-indian-film-festivals-mushroom-across-the-globe-desi-cinema-is-drawing-new-audiences/article23773557.ece