The Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival’s 2021 edition, which was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic and was meant to be held in March, now stands cancelled. In communication sent to participating filmmakers on Friday and seen by, event organiser Mumbai Academy of Moving Image cited the “logistical and financial challenges” among the reasons.

“Despite our best efforts, it has become untenable for us to hold the festival in March,” part of the communication read. “The continuing pandemic, logistical and financial challenges have all contributed to the unavoidable decision we have had to make.”

The festival organisers issued an official statement on Saturday about the cancellation: “We are pushing the festival edition planned for March (11th March to 15th March, 2022) due to a multitude of challenges brought upon by the continuing pandemic. At this point, we do not know when, what form and shape the festival will take in the future. We have a larger more over-arching logistical reimagining parked at our doorstep that takes into account the way the world has altered to live between waves. However, we will continue to screen films digitally as part of our year-round programme on our digital screening platform (Shift72). But we believe that an-on ground component is critical to clocking an edition of the festival and hopefully we will be able to do that before this year is over.”

The Mumbai Film Festival’s 2020 edition was scrapped because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2021 edition was pushed to March 2022 because of the emergence of coronavirus variants.

Jio, the telecom giant from Mukesh Ambani’s group, is the title sponsor. Nita Ambani is co-chair of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image’s board of trustees. Her daughter, Isha Ambani, is a trustee alongside Mahindra Group head Anand Mahindra, PVR Cinemas chairperson Ajay Bijli and a host of filmmakers, including Zoya Akhtar, Vikramaditya Motwane and Siddharth Roy Kapur. Film journalist Anupama Chopra, who is the festival director, is also on the MAMI board.

In August 2021, Priyanka Chopra Jonas replaced Deepika Padukone as MAMI chairperson. “For us, building a unique cultural space and platform for cinema like the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival over six years has been immensely fulfilling,” Isha Ambani said in a press statement at the time. “Now more than ever, we need to nurture the power of cinema and art to heal and help humanity move forward.”

The cancellation will most directly affect independent filmmakers, for whom film festivals are vital – and at times only – platforms to premiere their work and hope to attract awards and distributors. Because of strict censorship norms and the absence of a viable alternate distribution model for arthouse cinema, film festivals are often the first forum at which such movies can be viewed by the public.

The single-most important section at the Mumbai Film Festival is India Gold. This competitive category rewards the cream of Indian arthouse talent. India Gold has two lucrative awards: the top winner gets Rs 15 lakh and the runner-up, Rs 8 lakh.

Besides the money, an award in India Gold is a matter of prestige for the winners. Filmmakers often withdraw from competing events in order to qualify for India Gold, which demands an Indian premiere.

“There is no other channel apart from a festival to show your work,” a first-time director whose film was selected for Mumbai told on the condition of anonymity. “Distribution is very niche [for independent cinema]. Either you can hope to get into a foreign festival or hope to be selected by an Indian one, of which there are very few.”

A producer whose film was selected for the Mumbai festival said that the coronavirus pandemic could not be claimed as a valid reason for the cancellation.

“The entire city [Mumbai] is open, kids are going to school, so how can be the pandemic or Omicron be an excuse,” the producer said on condition of anonymity. “And how can money be the excuse when Jio is the sponsor? We are very upset with this decision. We put our plans on hold for MAMI. Some directors pulled their films out of other festivals to be at MAMI. You have now left us in the lurch. This is a platform that is supposed to nurture indie filmmakers.”

One of the possible reasons could be be the lack of screening venues. A-list producers who were forced to put their plans on hold because of the Omicron variant are now queuing up for a theatrical release from the end of February.

The festival’s main screening partner, PVR Cinemas, which has taken a massive hit in its earnings because of frequent lockdowns, would have been hard-pressed to vacate screens for a not-for-profit event. However, Smriti Kiran, the fesitival’s artistic director, clarified that this was not the case. PVR Cinemas was eager and willing to host the festival despite the difficulties involved, she said.

An online version was not considered to be a viable option, Kiran said, even though this has been the route taken by several big and small festivals across the world. Most recently, the International Film Festival of Rotterdam put its entire programme online after the Netherlands reported a surge in Covid-19 cases.

But the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival did not want its 2021 edition to be held online, Kiran said.

The festival “remains committed to serving the Indian filmmaking community and its most passionate loyal audience”, the statement added. “We are in touch with our filmmakers. We are grateful for their support and understanding despite all the debilitating challenges they have faced in the last two years. We will continue to work with them, help them in whichever way we can to traverse the uncertainty of this time together.”