The Mumbai Film Festival is in its 18th year as far as long-term followers of the annual event are concerned. Over the years, the event organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image has grown in size and scope, and has become the single most important destination for international cinema in a city that doesn’t have a dedicated arthouse theatre and the opportunity to watch the exciting titles that make headlines at festivals around the world.

For the current lot running the festival, MFF is only two years old – dating back to the time when a new MAMI board and president were elected and a new festival directorate was put into place. Kiran Rao now heads MAMI, journalist Anupama Chopra is the festival director, and the board comprises big-name filmmakers from Hindi cinema. As the MFF team gears up for the new edition, which will be held at several venues across the city, Rao speaks about the challenges of meeting the expectations of demanding cinephiles, the reasons behind the festival’s rebranding, and the themes behind this year’s line-up.

The Mumbai Film Festival this year has several documentaries and titles that erase the boundaries between fiction and fact. Why is that?
It is a good change. I kind of feel that putting these things into various parentheses like documentary and animation and experimental makes it restrictive. Why do you have to go only to the Annecy animated film festival in France if you are interested in animation? Why can’t such films be in the regular section? Good cinema is good cinema, and the genre or stylistic leaps that filmmakers are taking should all be included.

Such classifications have existed with good reason, of course.
This does become difficult for programmers – how do you pick across different kinds of storytelling? It is like picking apples and oranges. The barrier between fiction and non-fiction blurred decades ago, of course, but people are doing it a lot more. It is the same in music – what is the difference between jungle, trap and traditional old school hip-hop?

People are bending genres, and their experiments must be included. For instance, Werner Herzog’s documentaries are always programmed in regular sections. Also, we do want to have other modes of storytelling in our programming.

At festivals like Cannes, where the entries go into hundreds, I suppose classifications help in sifting, but we are not yet in that space. We just want to curate the best possible content for viewers.

(L-R) MFF director Anupama Chopra, chairperson Kiran Rao, and creative director Smriti Kiran.

Since the new team took over the Mumbai Film Festival, immense attention has been lavished on branding, the digital media and endorsement from Hindi film celebrities. How does the red carpet culture on the ground reconcile with the grunge on the screen?
Branding does change the way you view the festival. For the people who are putting money into the festival, it is important that the festival have some attention at least from a city of so many million people. The pressure is to make sure our audiences or a potential consumer know that this is out there. Unless we get more cinemas and more people involved, there is no reason that a sponsor will put in so much money every year.

I am also a part of the Hindi film industry, and there are many of us who are interested in good films and in watching the favourites from festivals like Cannes and Sundance. They add much-needed glamour and grandeur to what can be pretty gritty stuff.

Is that why you are doing partnerships with media publications?
We are fighting in a space where space is paid available to the highest bidder. However great your product us, nobody wants to talk about it unless there is an exchange involved. We are a small festival in a big city, and we need to let people know that it is highly affordable and has amazing films that you will never get to see the rest of the year.

The balance between what feels like a filmy glamour presentation and content that is extremely aesthetic and high quality is what festivals seek to achieve the world over so that they remain attractive to the media. It is great if we have the support of the mainstream. Their goodwill in stepping in to launch a vertical or two means that the sense of community is growing. You can’t weigh it against anything concrete – it’s a general celebration of cinema from all over the world.

Mumbai has no exposure to world cinema on the big screen the rest of the year. Does MFF feel the pressure of being the single destination for international arthouse films?
Yes, the Mumbai Film Festival has that pressure. We are the festival of festivals, and it becomes tricky to find the balance between great programming and including films that audiences assume that they should be watching. Last year, we had 240 films while this year, it will end up at around 180. This makes our job much harder.

The problem is that we don’t have relationships yet with international sales agents and distributors. We aren’t the most sought after festival for many world cinema distributors, and we do have to sometimes take a title or two that will help us build a relationship with the distributor. It is an auction, and we have other festivals with deeper pockets to compete with. A lot of filmmakers also feel that they don’t want to show at a festival because they are planning their release.

We have just started on this journey, and the next year, we will start a lot in terms of getting the titles we need to fight for. The rest of the programme is catholic – we have popular titles and films that have gotten mixed reviews since audiences should have the choice. It is not that critical to bar films where an auteur could have wrong or not show a film that the rest of world thinks has gone wrong – the fact remains that our audience does not get a chance to see certain films at all.

The MAMI Film Club was started so that we have interactions through the year, show films that are not so stringently curated and populist titles that drives conversations but are interesting to talk about.

The Mumbai Film Festival campaign film.

There seem to be enough of a cinephile audience for world cinema, but they would rather pirate films than pay to watch them in cinemas or film clubs. Censorship is another problem.
The sheer lack of supply has driven people into these fixed modes of consumption, where you didn’t expect, say Swiss Army Man, to ever come to India and you download it as soon as possible. It’s like showing the middle finger to the establishment to say, if you are not giving it to me, I will get it anyway. If we could have a MAMI film channel where we had a pay per view for films, I would be interested to see how many people would sign up.

The solution is affordable and a quick supply of arthouse cinema, which I can’t believe hasn’t happened so far. The gap is between a film winning at a festival and watching it here. I am hoping that people will make the choice to pay for such content if it is made available.

One of the problems is that the market is much too niche to cater to. We spent so much time curating so much stuff, and it is sad that it lasts for just a week. To have these films play through the year, it means connecting the rights holder with local distributors. We do hope to have a MAMI channel some day for Indian and Asian films that don’t have any distribution at all. It’s a whole other business, but we don’t have the money for it yet.

Some of the major festivals in the world have thriving market sections. Will you have one too?
This is something we are trying to develop, we are hoping to announce it. Last year, we had a one-day market, and while there was interest, it wasn’t enough. The ecosystem of distributing Indian arthouse cinema does not exist, and we will have something after the festival has finished.