Since its 2010 inception, the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne has become the biggest celebration of Indian cinema outside the motherland. This year’s program showcases the film 83 about the journey of the Indian cricket team to win the 1983 World Cup, with cricket legend Kapil Dev in attendance. Winner of the Queer Palm at Cannes, Joyland, will be screening in cinema, and the creative team will join the festival.
The program offers short films like Arun Fulara’s My Mother’s Girlfriend, documentaries like Rahila Bootwala’s Women Beyond Bollywood, independent features like No Land’s Man starring the impeccable Nawazuddin Siddiqui, as well as big Bollywood productions like the new Aamir Khan film Laal Singh Chaddha. A Satyajit Ray mini-retrospective links with good symmetry to a feature directed by Ray alum Aparna Sen called The Rapist, starring her daughter and critically acclaimed actor Konkona Sen Sharma. Most of the films are available to stream for free, while some are only in cinemas.
There’s always at least one big film star in attendance, and this year features Bollywood royalty Abhishek Bachchan, and Telugu and Tamil star Samantha Prabhu, in separate conversation events. Industry legends like Karan Johar, Shefali Shah, Anurag Kashyap, Simi Garewal, and Kabir Khan will participate in panel discussions. And because us desis go big, the events include an awards night, a Bollywood dance competition, and a flag-hoisting ceremony which will be particularly poignant since this 15 August marks 75 years of Indian independence.
IFFM director and film producer in her own right Mitu Bhowmick Lange caught up with Nisha-Anne to talk about this year’s offerings, the unexpected joys of programming, and her favourite festival moments.
It’s such an exciting program this year, there’s so much to talk about. So tell me about the revival theme. How did that come about?
Mitu Bhowmick Lange: I think we are all on revival mode, aren’t we? So that’s why when we were thinking what should be the theme, unanimously it was revival. And revival is not just getting back. It’s also being who you are, being true to yourself, going back to your roots, going back to your core, pressing that reboot button, you know?
We have over 100 films in 29 languages on streaming. At the same time, some of them are in our cinemas. So it’s a very exciting program. We have all the events that everybody loves so much like the flag-hoisting to celebrate India at 75, opening night, closing night, awards night.
I love that the revival theme also ties into 75 years of independence in terms of India reviving itself. I can’t believe it’s only been 75 years, and I can’t believe it’s been as much as 75 years as well.
MBL: I completely hear you. It’s also a time to reassess our values. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know [how] to see where you’re going. The festival is a window and a mirror in so many ways.
There’s always really great focus on female stories in the program.
MBL: We had a whole section on periods last year.
MBL: So many people were like, “That is a bit disgusting.” So we were like, “Let’s program some more.”
Good. How do you go about with the selection process for the festival? Do you look for certain subjects like feminism or certain political topics that you want to highlight?
MBL: I’ll be very honest with you, Nisha. We actually don’t have that on our radar, like “Let’s look for the films with women only.” I think if you’re naturally inclusive, it just happens. We’ve always supported films made by women, female filmmakers, films that are based on gender identity, we’ve always programmed such films. Always. So as a result, I think we receive a lot of films like that. It’s a cycle.
A lot of women, first-time female directors — I don’t like to say female directors, I like to say male directors. But anyway, first-time directors who write to us [to] say “This is my film, and it’s a bit quirky.” We are very, very supportive of first-time filmmakers, anybody who’s trying to do something completely outside the box, anything that makes you think. They might not always succeed, but at least they have that bravery to try. They may be made on a shoestring budget with no stars but if they still have something provocative or something brave or something new to say, we will 100% program them. I think because that has been our signature style of programming, we receive a lot of unusual films which probably other festivals would not program, but we do and quite happily.
What are some of those films? I know you’ve got The Rapist with Aparna Sen and Konkona Sen Sharma. What else?
MBL: We also have W.O.M.B about Srishti Bakshi who walks the whole length of the country. Almost 40% of the program is headlined by women directors and women producers or women script-writers or are about women.
Films should either entertain you, engage you, or make you think. They should do at least one of the three. We love the big Bollywood films that entertain us, the “leave your brains at home and just go on the ride” [kind of films]. I love those films. And we program those as well.
At the same time, we also have a lot of films that are very moving, that make you think. Like you rightly said, The Rapist is one of them. Even though it’s a very difficult film to watch, but at the same time it’s one of those things — it’s that unpopular thought of “Where are these rapists coming from?” They’re also a part of the society and the environment.
Similarly, there are other films like Ayena which is a documentary about two acid survivors. One is a Hindu girl, one is a Muslim girl. At the same time, they are very positive, and it’s one of the most uplifting documentaries you’re likely to watch.
Because, you know, art reflects life. And the kind of films we receive is based on what’s happening around us. So we get a lot of films on environment, climate change, a lot of films about identity, a lot of films about borders, boundaries, a lot of films about sexuality, gender. From women empowerment to loss of identity to quirky queer films to comedies, everything is there.
Wonderful. Tell me about this year’s panel discussions.
MBL: We love our panel discussions. Even when we were in lockdown, we used to have Zoom panel discussions. We’ve got three panels. One is about representation and how films are evolving. The second one is about web-series and how they have created a whole new industry and a whole new structure and a whole new style of storytelling. Then we have an in conversation with Samantha Prabhu who’s one of our awesome guests. And then we have in conversation with your Abhishek Bachchan.
Yes! I was wondering whether he would actually be there in person.
MBL: Yes. I’m trying to bait you to come as much as possible.
(laughs) So will they be live-streamed or recorded and put online?
MBL: They’ll all be live streamed and we will also be recording them and editing them nicely and putting them on our very own streaming platform. All the events, awards night, everything will be on there, so you can watch at any time.
I love that the festival has such a strong online component. This year so many other film festivals have either eliminated the online stuff and gone cinema-only, or they’ve only got a fraction of films online. But IFFM has kept that element really prominent. Is that something you’ll keep going into the future?
MBL: Yes. You know, in 2020, when we did it, nobody knew what they were doing and we were all forced to move online. And we had no idea. But we were really, really wonderfully surprised to see the kind of numbers we got, and the kind of penetration it gave us. Last year, we had more than 147,000 film views, and that is incredible. And the best part was [some were] from the most remote part. Like we’re looking at the map of Australia, “Where is this place?” From the most remote regional part, people were logging in. That is so wonderful for a festival, to have that kind of reach and presence. So we’ll never let go of the online part.
The second thing is it gives us a lot more freedom to program. A lot of films which people might not buy a ticket and go and watch [in a cinema] we can put on our online version, and we can then make sure that the film has a platform, it has a life and it can reach an audience.
It’s also a demand and supply thing. We watch what is before us. So because it’s all in front of you, you might end up watching and loving a film which you would have never gone and watched at a cinema. That gives us a lot more freedom especially to program a lot more of these really quirky films.
And films about periods. I can see how somebody wouldn’t want to watch that at a cinema but they’ll watch it at home quietly on their own. That’s great, I love that.
MBL: Yeah! That is the whole thing. We had 14 films about periods [last year]. That was our most watched selection. (laughs)
Love it. (laughs) So being a festival director must be amazing for you. You’ve got so many milestones, you’ve got the program launch, then opening night, the Bollywood dance competition, awards night. Which bit of the festival do you most look forward to?
MBL: Ah, such a good question. I actually love pretty much all our events because all of them have a unique focus and a different audience and energy. But I do like our awards night because that’s when we celebrate all the amazing filmmakers, all the amazing films that we’ve had. That is also one of the most hectic and stressful nights. But at the same time, I do love that night the most, I would have to say. And of course I always end up getting very teary at our flag-hoisting. It’s just so moving when you sing your national anthem and the flag comes out and you’re in your new home country and you’re celebrating your other country. That is very, very beautiful.
Absolutely. And especially in Melbourne, specifically. I know with Melbourne and Sydney, we’ve both had problems in the Indian community and so it’s even more important that we celebrate our presence and our lives here. I’m so glad the festival exists for that.
MBL: Thank you so much, Nisha.
What’s next for you, Mitu, after the festival? Are you producing?
MBL: Mind-Blowing Films are distributing nonstop. We have five films this month, we have more films next month. So thank god, that’s good. Because after the two COVID years where cinemas were the first to close and last to open, we all took such a big hit. Knocking on wood, it’s just so great.
We’re also going to launch our feature film initiative My Melbournewhere we are making four short films based on the four foundations of diversity: race, disability, sexuality, and gender. And each film is going to be headlined by one iconic Indian filmmaker. Like for example, the short film about race will be mentored by Kabir Khan. The short film about sexuality will be made by Onir. The short film about disability will be made by Rima Das. So that is going to be our next big project that we are all very focused on.
I’m so excited to hear that and so looking forward to the festival. The streaming is free, right?
MBL: Yes. We are so privileged and happy to present this wonderful film festival. From 12 to 20 August, we are in cinemas. Lots of events, lots and lots of incredible filmmakers and film actors are coming down to engage with us.
And then from 13 to 30 August, we are online. Not just on your laptop, you can stream on our IFFM app both on Android and on Apple TV and watch our films seamlessly. Everything is free to watch, and we urge you to donate to Royal Children’s Hospital which is our festival charity. And this is for film-lovers like you, Nisha, who are not in Melbourne. Do watch as many films as you can because they’re all awesome. We really love bringing these films for everyone, not just the Indian community but for the broader community and for anybody who loves cinema.
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