‘The landscape of independent cinema in India is exciting’, says The Sundance Institute Director

Paul Federbush, International Director of the Feature Films Program at the Sundance Institute on working with desi indie filmmakers and responding to emerging challenges

June 21, 2017 07:56 pm | Updated June 22, 2017 08:10 am IST

The Sundance Institute has been championing the cause of and supporting independent Indian filmmakers for five years now. It has hosted Screenwriters Labs, with the help of industry advisors, to provide a practical working environment for young filmmakers, supporting nearly 40 fellows and their projects. The collaboration began with Mumbai Mantra, a part of the Mahindra group, and continued for two years with Manish Mundra and his Drishyam Films. The institute has supported, fostered and showcased some notable independent Indian films like Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox , Prashant Nair’s Umrika , Shonali Bose’s Margarita With A Straw and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan . In an email interview, Paul Federbush, International Director of the Feature Films Program, The Sundance Institute spoke to The Hindu about how they intend to spend the coming year evaluating programmes to respond to the challenges that face the country’s indie filmmakers.

Why the focus on India? What prompted it?

We were inspired by what we saw as a new generation of Indian filmmakers working outside the traditional Bollywood model—filmmakers like Ritesh Batra ( The Lunchbox ) and Anurag Kashyap ( Gangs of Wasseypur )—opening paths for a more daring type of cinema and we wanted to support and be part of that tremendous energy and excitement.

What kind of interventions has the Sundance Institute been providing to independent Indian filmmakers?

We’ve hosted Screenwriters Labs—practical working environments to help artistes fulfil their creative vision with the help of screenwriting advisors—in India for five years, supporting nearly 40 fellows and their projects. One of the hallmarks of the Lab model is to provide a forum for artist-to-artist dialogue, a process we’ve honed at our signature Screenwriters Labs in Utah. Creative advisors at the Labs are working filmmakers and, across our five years in India, the Labs have been driven by an accomplished group of creative advisors, including Guillermo Arriaga ( Amores Perros, Babel ), Shekhar Kapur ( Elizabeth, Four Feathers ), Thomas Bidegain ( The Prophet, Rust And Bone ), Naomi Foner ( Running on Empty, Very Good Girls ), Asif Kapadia ( Senna ), Marti Noxon ( Glee, Mad Men ) and Carlos Cuaron ( Y Tu Mama Tambien ).

Any specific independent Indian films and filmmakers you have collaborated with? What was the nature of your involvement with them?

Between our Screenwriters Labs in India, and our Utah-based Lab Programs, we’ve fostered and showcased some very notable independent films from India in recent years, including Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox , Prashant Nair’s Umrika , which won the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival; Shonali Bose’s Margarita With A Straw , winner of the NETPAC Award at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival; and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan , which had its world premiere in Un Certain Regard at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it received the Avenir Prize. I love all of these stories and am so proud of what these filmmakers accomplished.

Currently there are three Lab-supported projects in production in India. It has been a daunting endeavour because the country is so large and multifaceted. But with our Screenwriters Labs in India we’ve made a concerted effort to support filmmakers telling stories across the nation. We’ve been proud to support Marathi films in India’s rural centre, as well as cinema in the South, including Geetu Mohandas’ Malayalam-language Moothon which is currently [being shot]. Meanwhile, on the Northern border, Lab Fellows Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam are shooting their film, The Sweet Requiem . We also supported Nandita Das on Manto , also currently in production.

We are very proud and excited to be supporting Indian films that take us across the country’s culturally rich and diverse regions—from 15,000 feet in the mountains of the rarely-seen Ladakh region in the North to the Lakshadweep islands in the South.

What other countries, other than India, is Sundance involved with?

Supporting artistes around the world is critical to our work. Many of our Labs are open to filmmakers from around the world. We have hosted Labs in places like Mexico and Brazil and supported the early feature films of international filmmakers including Alfonso Cuaron ( Love in the Time of Hysteria ), Guillermo Del Toro ( The Devil’s Backbone ), Walter Salles ( Central Station ) and Braulio Mantovani ( City Of God ). Our current work extends to Cuba, Turkey and the Middle East/North Africa region, Greece and the Mediterranean as well as a workshop in Japan.

What’s unique about Indian indies? Their strengths and problems? How do you step in to help?

The landscape of independent cinema in India is exciting because it’s continuing to evolve. Without the state-sponsored funding available in Europe and Latin America, financing for independent projects can remain scarce and theatrical distribution for these films even more challenging. Our core work is creative and starts with the screenplay. However, from that moment on, we try and support our filmmakers through the whole process with practical strategic advice, while the creative support continues. Our support extends the life of the project—all the way to distribution and festival strategy.

Could you give us some more details about the ongoing projects. What made you pick them? How would you be involved with them?

Right now, we’re focusing on continuing our support for alumni of our Lab in India. We are excited to continue supporting the three films I previously mentioned with whatever editorial and post-production support we can. We continue to support the filmmakers that are still in development of their screenplays and approaching the production process. For example, we’re working closely with Sandhya Suri, a Screenwriting Fellow from the 2015 Lab in Goa, who was subsequently selected to Sundance’s January Screenwriters and June Directors Labs in Utah, for her first feature Santosh . In the time since, the Institute has provided a sounding board for subsequent drafts of the screenplay and is currently strategizing with Sandhya on potential producers and financiers to advance the project. We would love to continue our Lab in India for as long as artistes, advisors and partners will join us, and we will, of course, continue to welcome filmmakers from India and around the world at our Labs in the U.S.

How have you seen the Indian indie scene transform over the years?

As technology has evolved storytellers have more tools and methods than ever before and audiences are increasingly open to stories outside the mainstream. The distribution landscape is always evolving. Amazon and Netflix are aggressively moving into India like they are in other parts of the world. They offer a much needed platform for these films to reach wider audiences but I also worry about their entrance into an indie film ecosystem that doesn’t have a strong theatrical component. Many of these films deserve the shared emotional experience that theatrical provides.

Because the landscape of independent cinema in India is so dynamic we are spending the coming year evaluating our program to make sure it responds to the most current challenges facing the country’s independent filmmakers.

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