The Films Division’s biannual Mumbai International Film Festival will feature at least 800 titles between January 28 and February 3 – but several important and acclaimed independent documentaries released over the past two years that cast a critical eye over India are missing from the programme.

According to people familiar with the situation, among the documentaries that were submitted but rejected are Anand Patwardhan’s Reason. Patwardhan was the recipient of MIFF’s V Shantaram Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

Reason explores the spread of Hindutva and the murders of Communist leader Govind Pansare and rationalist Narendra Dabholkar. Reason won the Best Feature Length Documentary award at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2018.

Reason (2018).

Other documentaries that did not make the cut include Deepa Dhanraj’s We Have Not Come Here to Die, about the aftermath of the suicide of Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad in 2016, and Deepti Gupta’s Shut Up Sona, a portrait of outspoken singer Sona Mohapatra. Also submitted but found wanting were Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s Two Flags, about Pondicherry’s French heritage, Janani and Juliet, which examines caste through a stage production of Romeo and Juliet, and Avijit Mukul Kishore’s Squeeze Lime in Your Eye, about the artist Kausik Mukhopadhyay.

Rohan Shivkumar’s Lovely Villa and Archana Phadke’s About Love, both personal documentaries, did not impress the selectors either.

Films Division Director General and MIFF Director Smita Vats Sharma insisted that there was “no political thought” behind some titles being rejected and others picked. “A film is a holistic kind of a thing, whether it the idea or the treatment or whether it is the sheer span of creativity being explored by the documentary maker,” she said at a press conference in Mumbai on Tuesday to announce the highlights of the festival.

Seven hundred and twenty nine films were submitted for the Indian National Competition section, of which 48 were selected. In International Competition, there were 144 entries, of which 28 were picked. The productions that are not chosen for the competition categories are shown in the National or International Prism slots. “We only have these four categories, so there has to be some kind of filtering as to what films go in,” Vats Sharma added.

The Mumbai International Film Festival is India’s oldest and largest showcase of non-fiction, short fiction and animation. The prize money is very healthy – a total of Rs 60 lakh – and the event provides a rare meeting ground for filmmakers from across the country. A large showing of student films and a commitment to animation and short fiction have ensured that MIFF has been a festival of record, showcasing the best creative expression from around India in one place.

However, the state-run festival has not been unmarred by controversy over its selections. In 2004, the wholesale rejection of politically-themed films led some filmmakers to organise a parallel film festival called Vikalp.

“MIFF 2004 rejected some 30 of the most outstanding new Indian films made on a range of themes - primarily political,” Anand Patwardhan wrote in the Frontline magazine in 2004. “Included in the reject list were several films on state complicity in the Gujarat violence and many excellent films on communalism, caste and gender, sexuality and the environment. Quite a number of these have already been screened at major international festivals and won awards.”

Fourteen filmmakers withdrew their films from MIFF and screened them instead at the alternate event, and Girish Karnad, the head of the MIFF jury, also stepped down in solidarity, Patwardhan wrote.

Ironically, MIFF 2020 will pay tribute to Girish Karnad, who died in 2019, by screening documentaries by and about him. Among the other filmmakers who have been listed for tributes are Manjira Dutta, Ram Mohan, Bhanumurthy Alur, Bhimsain Khurana, Jagdeesh Banerjee, Vijaya Mulay, VG Samant, Mrinal Sen and Agnes Varda.

Varda By Agnes (2019).

At least 800 films are scheduled to be screened over the week-long festival. Satyajit Ray’s birth centenary will be marked by a retrospective of the non-feature films he directed, including Sukumar Ray, The Inner Eye and Pikoo .

Documentaries made by other feature filmmakers, such as Bernardo Bertolucci and Milos Forman will be shown at MIFF. Bertolucci’s short fiction films, such as Histoire d’Eaux and The Oil Route, are scheduled to be screened, as also are Forman’s The Decathlon.

The Indian Competition section includes Sapna Bhavnani’s Sindhustan, about the Sindhi community, and Subha Das Mollik’s Dwelling in Travelling, which explores the Jewish community in Kolkata. Aparna Sanyal’s The Monks Who Won the Grammy, Vijay Bedi and Ajay Bedi’s nature documentary The Stork Saviours, Sandhya Kumar’s Koothu, about a folk theatre in Tamil Nadu, and Vibha Bakshi’s National Film Award-winning Son Rise, about female infanticide in Haryana, are also in the Indian Competition section.

The Monks Who Won the Grammy (2018).

Among the titles in International Competition are Natalia Koryncka-Gruz’s A Minor Genocide, a “war story of a family presenting a unique, intimate point of view” that combines animation and documentary. The section includes Jesse Alk’s Pariah Dog, which explores Kolkata residents who care for the city’s stray population, Ajay Bedi’s nature documentary The Secret Life of Frogs, and Piplu Khan’s Hasina: A Daughter’s Tale, a partisan portrait of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Nirmal Chander Dandriyal’s Moti Bagh explores migration in Uttarakhand through a farmer who has chosen to stay behind. Supriyo Sen’s National Film Award-decorated Swimming Through the Darkness follows blind swimmer Kanai Lal. Also in this section are Anjali Bhushan’s My Home India, about Polish refugees in India during World War II, and Nagraj Manjule’s short fiction An Essay of Rain.

A Minor Genocide (2019).

The productions in the National Prism section include Malti Rao’s The Geshe Ma is Born, about Tibetan nuns being conferred with doctorates for the first time in their order’s history. The International Prism category counts among its entries Shakti Hasija’s Rock Disco Tabla, a portrait of musician Karsh Kale, and Taghagat Prakash’s The Other Men in Blue, a study of blind cricketers in India.

The Other Men in Blue.

Among the offerings in animation is a retrospective of Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit, which include his Oscar-nominated Father and Daughter. Dudok de Wit will also conduct a master class.

Russian animator Konstantin Bronzit has curated his own retrospective. There will also be packages of films representing the stylistic themes and concerns of the Balkan and Dutch animation industries and a package of documentaries from Ireland.

The festival includes a selection of older films produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. Among these are Avijit Mukul Kishore’s Vertical City, Paromita Vohra’s Morality TV and the Loving Jehad, and Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s Pather Chujaeri.

Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary will be marked by screening films from Films Division’s vast archive. Among the special packages are student films.

Films Division has also created a MIFF app this year that contains the highlights, schedule and a voting button for the most popular title. Efforts are on to fulfill the longstanding demand of holding MIFF every year instead of every two years, Smita Vats Sharma said. “This is a felt need, we would like to make the festival annual, and we are working towards it,” she said at the press conference.

Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa.