Interview | Mumbai

We want the conversations to count, say Anupama Chopra and Smriti Kiran

MAMI festival director Anupama Chopra (L) and creative director Smriti Kiran.  

The Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival with Star (MAMI) unspools for a week from October 25. This year, the academy that governs MAMI has taken a stern stance on the recent #MeToo revelations related to the film industry and swiftly dropped AIB production’s Chintu Ka Birthday directed by Satyanshu and Devanshu Singh and Rajat Kapoor’s Kadakh from its line-up. Two AIB members, Tanmay Bhatt and Gursimran Khamba have been embroiled in #MeToo allegations while there have been charges of sexual misconduct against Mr. Kapoor. MAMI has also found itself in the midst of an unsavoury controversy with filmmaker Shazia Iqbal questioning the basis on which some films had been dropped from the festival, her own short Bebaak, produced by Anurag Kashyap and Ajay Rai, being one such. Mr. Kashyap had been a MAMI board member, but voluntarily stepped down on October 10 after the dissolution of Phantom Films, which was preceded by allegations of sexual assault levelled against Phantom co-owner and director Vikas Bahl. The cast and crew of Bebaak issued a statement late this evening standing by their film and in protest against the “discrimination” and “injustice” being done to them. The Hindu spoke to festival director Anupama Chopra and creative director Smriti Kiran to clear the air and hear more about the upcoming festival.

Has this edition been the toughest festival yet?

Anupama Chopra: The toughest was the first--2015. We are not festival people and we especially weren’t festival people then. That time we had worked on the 2014 one with the original team. First of all to raise the money, to make it happen was insane. We inherited a Rs 75 lakh debt.

Smriti Kiran: I used to tell Anu that for the first time in my life I wish I had started at zero. Aisa lagta tha ki paataal mein chale gaye hain (It was like having hit the nether world).

AC: There was an encryption problem. Smriti literally didn’t sleep for that week. She was in the theatres every night making sure that the DCPs had no issue. I remember filmmakers shouting at us because there was a red tint at PVR that was coming on the screen.

SK: It was a year of learning but people appreciated it. So we knew that we got away with many things that could have gone wrong. We felt that God’s hand was on our heads.

AC: The cinema gods looked after us.

SK: When you are about to have the worst accident on the planet and you escape that. That’s the feeling of relief and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) that one felt after that festival. Whatever went wrong it could have been 50 times worse. There were things we hadn’t even apprehended. It hit us like a tsunami.

AC: It was a sharp and steep learning curve.

This year there has been this controversy [about dropping some films and retaining others]…

SK: It’s difficult because these are films that we only picked for the festival. Then we found ourselves at the mouth of a larger movement. As people and as women we stand completely in solidarity with the complainants, with the people who are affected. This couldn’t have been an easy decision. It’s not like these films are there and lets just drop them. It has been an extremely conflicted time.

AC: We have really struggled with it. The [MAMI] Board is made of filmmakers and producers. Smriti and I are not filmmakers but we have a keen understanding of what it takes to make a film. At no point was it easy to take this call. It’s very hard and we are all still struggling with it. We are here to celebrate movies, we are here for the movies. The only reason for a festival to exist is cinema. No one took this call lightly. It is very very tough that we have disappointed filmmakers, disappointed hundreds of people who worked on these movies. A film is not one person’s work. But we just felt that there was a larger cause here. As an Academy, at that point when we made this decision (10 days ago or two weeks ago when it had all just begun) we did not have the luxury of a nuanced response. We were in the eye of the storm and it had to be black and white. It had to convey a tough stand. Truth is that it was very tough and heart breaking for us, as it is for the filmmakers.

When you say that you didn’t have the luxury of a nuanced response, would you say that it was all done hastily?

SK: When any movement or revolution starts; when the #MeToo movement started in the West, it became part of our conversation as well. Across the board everyone asked what it would take for #MeToo to come to India. Nobody knew it would escalate like this. The reason we would say it wasn’t a hasty decision is that we felt that this stand felt right to us. We felt that there is certain amount of disruption also required to wake up and take notice of the fact that something serious is happening. When people are affected a culture of collective responsibility, at least right now, also needs to permeate. Harassment single-handedly rests on anonymity and on singling out the victim. What tends to happen is that you don’t know the perpetrators and you also don’t know the victims because they are sitting there absolutely shamed by something that is not their fault. Or they become very inconvenient for people in terms of nobody wanting to take sides. There is the isolation of the victim who is suffering this alone. It wasn’t a hasty decision; it was a decision we felt was right at that point of time. And we applied the same metric. You can’t be partisan in the decision you have taken for an edition of the festival.

AC: This is the decision for this edition of the festival and I hope we have moved on and built on the momentum and hopefully next year things will be in a more positive space and we will revisit it. But this time collectively the Board members felt that this was the right thing to do.

Pardon me for being the devil’s advocate, but the inconsistencies in the decision-making that are being talked of—Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built caught my attention also—how do you address them? This assertion that is being made that either all films should have been there or none should have been there…

SK: It’s also because of the fact that we didn’t specify the metric on which this decision was taken. We haven’t taken out films by association alone. We haven’t taken out films where there has been an accusation but it has been vehemently denied. For example Nagraj Manjule. There was a complaint filed but he had vehemently denied that. It’s an ongoing thing right now. The films that were taken out were the films where the principal producers or directors were people who had apologised and stepped down from the concerns that they were heading and said that they could have done more in the positions they were in. You have Rajat Kapoor, the director of Kadakh, who apologised on Twitter. There is Chintu Ka Birthday where Tanmay Bhatt stepped down. Then there were three other films—Shazia [Iqbal’s]Bebaak where Ajay Rai and Anurag Kashyap are both main producers. Vikramaditya Motwane is the principal producer for Awake. Terribly Tiny Tales and Colosseum are principal producers of Binnu Ka Sapna. Chintan [Ruparel of Terribly Tiny Tales] had stepped down.

In Los Silencios Anurag is the associate producer. In The Gold Laden Sheep And The Sacred Mountain he is a co-producer. In Mehsampur he has got the credit of special thanks. As far as Lars Von Trier’s film is concerned Bjork had come out in a big way but he had vehemently denied that and the film had actually played at Cannes.

The reason our stand seems inconsistent is because we haven’t clarified what our stand is. What has happened is that it has become open to interpretations. People are wondering if we are doing this by association. Are they doing this to everyone who has been accused? We have gone consistently with our metric.

AC: The decision is what other larger corporations have also followed. AIB shows have been cancelled by Star.

SK: Each and every person concerned here has been called and spoken to. It’s not as though this tough decision was taken and no uncomfortable calls were made to let people know. They have been spoken to. With Shazia also I have had several conversations. With each and every person. I have spoken to Kanu (Behl), his producer at Colosseum, Lalit. I have spoken to Tanmay. I have spoken to Satyanshu and Devanshu. It wasn’t easy with them. They are ardent MAMI lovers, helped us with the first promo of MAMI. It was horrible to make that phone call. But they all understood, turned around and said that they understood why this was happening. Everybody looked at the larger picture. MAMI will end in 10 days but the movement won’t stop with that. There will be more conversations around it.

You called everybody but there has been this issue about why things weren’t given in writing…

SK: It’s at the discretion of the festival. One has called everyone, one has not written to everyone. That is not by design. They all have our acceptance letters. Films had been announced [in the original line-up].

I may be again sound like the devil’s advocate but then people are asking how is MAMI different from IFFI. IFFI had also removed S Durga at its discretion

AC: But Smriti called everyone. Her decision was that it is more personal to call and say it.

SK: Thing is that I know all these people. How to just give them a letter?

AC: Call is harder to do man. Email is much easier.

SK: I could have made my coordinator send an email to them. I have had this conversation with Shazia that tell us what you want us to do. Do you want us to announce this? Will that make it better? [The dropping] wasn’t announced. These three shorts are good films. You never know what their future is. Announcing that we are dropping them would have harmed the movies. We have nothing to hide. We could have made a statement and made ourselves look good. The only reason it wasn’t done was that we didn’t want the films to get harmed.

So there has been a misinterpretation of your motives or a miscommunication?

AC: There is an extreme disappointment. We will have to agree to disagree.

Apart from some films the Mela has also been dropped…

AC: The Mela is a celebration, it is a fan event. We come out to celebrate, want to cheer and hoot, want to get nostalgic with the reunion of a film’s cast and crew. And it just felt tonally off. At this point in the industry a celebration didn’t feel right. We didn’t want to do it in a lame way. I am such a Bollywood lover. I miss it. I wish we could have done it but it just felt that this was not the year.

So will the opening etc be muted this year?

AC: I won’t say muted but we will acknowledge what the current situation is. The opening is at the Gateway [of India]. It is our 20th year. What a legacy from Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shyam Benegal, Ramesh Sippy--all these stalwarts who created this festival. We feel proud that at this point we are the placeholders, we are carrying the torch forward.

The Oxfam connect for the gender equality award has been the other contentious issue…

SK: The association with Oxfam started in 2016. Alankrita Srivastava had won that award. Rima Das won it in 2017. We work with Oxfam India. In Oxfam UK there were sexual misconduct charges against certain officers. At that point of time—February or March—the CEO of Oxfam India wrote to us saying that they were taking very strict steps, that they were an organisation fighting gender inequality, domestic violence and provided crises relief. The officers accused of it were fired. Court cases went on. They resolved the matter with due process so we did not dissociate from them. Also because of the larger work they do. If Oxfam hadn’t taken the steps they needed to take to resolve it, the situation would have been very different. At the end of the day, the first email, before we could write to them and say anything, the first email came from Oxfam saying that they were deeply embarrassed that the scandal had broken out. Not only that, by law the process had already begun. That trajectory we were very clear about. We were aware and we wanted to see how it would pan out. If at any point we would have felt there would be an ideological clash it wasn’t something we wouldn’t have thought about reconsidering immediately.

Women at the helm of a festival, MeToo happening and a woman saying that her feminist film, made with an overly female cast and crew is being denied its due. Does it complicate stuff?

AC: You have to be clear-eyed. It can’t depend on the subject of a film. That way if there is someone accused of sexual misconduct [who] made an amazingly empowering feminist film, would you say that it’s ok? You can’t. These are not easy decisions. It’s not as though all of us are conflict free. We are all still struggling with it. Life isn’t black and white and this decision is[n’t]. If it’s a decision we have collectively decided to go with, then we have to honour it. We can’t make exceptions.

The matter of complicity/complicitness and association… What is your take on it?

AC: In a larger scheme of things we are all complicit. Many of the stories you are hearing now we had all heard two years ago. There are guidelines in place. What has to be done in a workplace. When it is not followed, when there is an apology because it is not followed. When there is a case of it happened under my watch then there is a problem there. And we are not judge and jury. I am not equipped to do that. But at this point in time and I keep saying it is at this point in time. As individuals we can only bring to it what our processing of the current situation is. We are not a public company, we are not a government body. The rules say that it is at the discretion of the festival. We can just bring forth our best selves and make decisions that we feel at the moment are right. We can turn round later and say it was an insane decision.

SK: We can only analyse it in hindsight. One year down the line we may say it was fantastic and ahead of its times or people might turn back and say it was a myopic decision.

AC: I have no shame in saying that it is a possibility. At this point we can only do the best we can.

Has it affected the sponsorship and money for the festival in any manner?

AC: I didn’t even think that would happen. We are constantly in touch with our sponsors and they are behind us. Not enough people recognise what an incredible thing it is for Jio and Star to put money into this. People come with almost a great sense of entitlement to a festival. Two hundred films in ₹ 500. But who is giving the money for it? And I mean crores. It is not a cheap gig. For any brand wouldn’t they be better served to put all this money into an awards show? Where you will have the top stars dancing and TRPs. They are funding this as a gift to this city, to support great cinema. And not asking questions about the RoI. The impact of a film festival is immeasurable. I don’t think it gets recognised enough.

Some thought should be given to what if it shuts down? What do you have then? Lets be a little mindful of what we are doing.

SK: A larger perspective, a zoom out is also needed. There have been six other people affected by this decision. Since I have had personal conversations with them I know how disappointed they are but they have been nothing but elegant and that hurts even more. To even try and derail a festival…

You think there was an attempt to do that…

SK: You are tweeting and then you are tweeting to a juror…

So Anu you have stepped back this year to let Smriti take charge again this year?

AC: She runs the festival day-to-day. She is the commander of this army and I can’t believe I am quoting Vinod Chopra. In some Sanju interview he said that he is the stepney that comes out when Raju Hirani and Abhijat Joshi want it. Kiran [Rao] and I are stepney number 1 and 2.

So all set for it?

AC: At the festival we always feel like it’s going to fall apart till it actually doesn’t. It’s like being on the crazy rodeo horses.

SK: I describe it as the Maut Ka Kuan with the mobike rider going round and round, hoping that he will land.

Highlights this year?

SK: The team managed to get films we didn’t think we’d get. Like BlacKkKlansman, Boy Erased, Roma, The Wild Pear Tree… Sorry To Bother You came from Twitter trolling. We literally trolled Boots Riley for it on Twitter. He connected me to Annapurna Films.

AC: I have accosted directors wherever I see them. I did it to Jia Zhangke at Cannes, I met Luc Besson at the Frankfurt airport. You do what it takes.

SK: It’s also the talent pugged in—Darren Aronofsky, Sean Baker, Lucrecia Martel, Ted Sarandos.

We also have a #MeToo centric programme--one workshop and two conversations on #MeToo. Filmmaker Ruchi Narain will come and lead this for us. She will steer one workshop with filmmaker Anusha Khan and strategic HR, change management, talent transformation and leadership development expert and advisor on sexual harassment prevention Asiya Shervani talking about POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment). What exactly is the law. It exists and is a very well written law but people need to know that. These are open sessions. POSH is across the board, applies to all work spaces. One conversation will be about the way forward. What should be the next steps? Ruchi will be moderating one session and other will be by Deepanjana Pal. We are working out the finer nuances, we want the conversations to count. We don’t want discussions to be up in the air. At select venues we will have #MeToo solidarity wall where we will invite comments from people. The conversation should be an ongoing thing. We don’t want it to dissipate at all.

The misses?

The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos and we couldn’t get Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Streets Could Talk…


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