“I really feel sad to communicate that a film cannot be included in a festival. I won’t call them rejections.”

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Srinivasan Narayanan, the film connoisseur and feisty former Festival Director of MAMI (Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image) from its inception in 2008 till 2014, is now the Film Director for the 3rd Singapore South Asian International Film Festival. In a career spanning about four decades, Narayanan has worked with every aspect of international film festivals and business of film; as festival programme-director, international film distributor, journalist, producer, and administrator.
He is in conversation with A.Radhakrishnan.

Describe your career spanning four decades with films?
As one of the liaison officers in the jury of the IFFIs (International Film Festival of India), when I was with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in the late 1970s, my interest in understanding films began. I started watching and talking about films with jury members who were greats like Grigory Chukhrai, Marta Meszaros, as also my mentor M.V. Krishnaswamy, the Jury Secretary those days and later, Director of IFFI.

What is a film festival?
It is a celebration of films, screening the best crop of the year from all over the world for the audience to enjoy. The personalities attending the film festivals also influence the youngsters through their master classes, workshops and interactions; an academic activity that brings the latest trends in film making, the new techniques, and the new film making idioms.

Are film festivals gatekeepers ‘who add a layer of curation assuring audiences and distributors that they have found the cream of the crop’?
Film Festivals are curated according to the vision of its directors. It covers the best crop of world cinema for that year, but can also be on subjects and personalities. Distributors and producers serve as launching pads for new film makers.

How are films vetted?
A group of people knowledgeable about cinema form a ‘Selection Panel’ to shortlist the best of the films submitted. Then comes the Festival Director/Artistic Director’s stamp, by way of final selections.

Can you learn film making from film festivals?
They provide an opportunity to understand films worldwide, how stories and subjects are treated and the techniques and technologies trending. It makes a person enthusiastic enough to think, if this film has been successful, why not my idea and my film?

How do you work towards remaining open and objective about  every film, and avoid being too tired to give a film a fair share?
I keep emptying my mind. Watching good films is a sheer experience of joy, even if the film is a tragedy. It affects me and stays with me. The best film would be screened, for it is not the topic, but cinematic language that is the criteria for deciding selection.

Are you humane with rejections?
I really feel sad to communicate that a film cannot be included in a festival. I won’t call them rejections. The worse scenario, is when some wonderful films do not make it to the list, and some not-so-good films manage to participate in various film festivals.

Describe the audience which attends film festivals.
They are first and foremost film lovers, film buffs and a discerning audience who look for quality in film making. Art house films survive due to them. They are looking for alternate cinema from all over the world as against the commercial, mainstream films with star cast which only find release in theatres.

What did you do before joining MAMI?
A bureaucrat to begin with, I moved to the Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF) as Deputy Director from 1983 to 1989 and then D.G.M., NFDC, in 2001. Opting for voluntary retirement, I founded my own production and distribution company IN2 INFOTAINMENT INDIA, through which I exported Indian films, imported foreign art house films and television serials for distribution in India, and produced documentaries.

Recall your experiences at the Directorate of Film Festivals?
DFF was my alma mater. Trained and honed as a film festival administrator, I was emotionally and passionately involved. Though under NFDC then, we coordinated with the Ministry of I & B for the National Awards, Indian Panorama, and all the film components of the cultural exchange programmes.  
We mounted the huge Film India Projects in France and USA, and I was the nodal officer for striking and subtitling more than 100 films in French and English in a short span of four months or so. Many rotting negatives were given a new lease of life as a result, then.
I quit when the Government, implemented the Ashok Mitra Committee report, and decided to take back DFF from NFDC, and make it a pure Government of India department. To me, DFF, controlled by the Iron Frame would be a disaster, as organising festivals is the job of the Festival Director and his team. Hence I reverted to NFDC, where I learnt the business of cinema.

Then why did you quit NFDC?
NFDC those days was dominated by a Board of Directors of eminent film makers, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, etc., who guided it in the right direction, supporting young directors, importing good films which had recovery potential, supporting construction of theatres all over the country, etc., and took a firm stand and even fought with the Government.
Mistakes were corrected and grievances heard. Over a period of time, when the Board came to be peopled by unconcerned non-entities and a section of the Iron Frame, I was witness to how a beautiful organisation was emasculated. A time comes in everyone’s life when he or she has to take some decisions on principles.

Can you give a brief history of MAMI?
Film personalities led by the late Hrishikesh Mukherjee founded MAMI so that the film capital of India would have its own film festival. Unlike Government funded film festivals, it faced financial problems from day one. The second edition could not be held due to funding problems. But it survived due to the philanthropy of many, mainly, Manmohan Shetty of Adlabs, till it passed on to the safe hands of Reliance Entertainment, and now to Reliance Jio.

How is MAMI different from other film festivals?
It was one film festival in India which was not funded by Government. Hence it enjoyed tremendous independence in programming and organisation. From a modest Film Society type of event, it managed to emerge as the most important and respected film festival of the country in ten years.

What were the challenges? Did they differ from year to year?
The challenge was always to innovate and keep the festival relevant to its audiences and industry, especially film makers and producers. Within this framework, the festivals metamorphosed in different ways.
For instance, as there was no permanent venue, every year we had to reinvent the festival, depending on the available screening venue and the festival hotel. The whole logistics had to be worked out. If you look at the first 16 editions of the Festival, we moved from the north to the south, and back to the north of Mumbai.

Why is there a plethora of film festivals? Will not a cohesive one do?
There used to be video store in Lokhandwala which had a tag line, ‘curate your own film festival.’
Aspirants to be directors of film festivals are many and need opportunities. Seriously, I support film festivals in every district headquarters. Mumbai Film Festival catered to Mumbaikars and the film enthusiasts / professionals who travel to Mumbai during that period. How can people in Pune, Kolhapur, Nashik or Aurangabad watch these wonderful films, if there are no film festivals there?

Your experience as Director of MAMI?
I thoroughly enjoyed my years in MAMI. We became strong, weathering challenges. We had a great team, totally dedicated and passionate. During periods of financial problems, the team went without pay for months and many times I pulled money from my personal account to pay their rent and salaries. Fortunately, it was a lean team.

Why did MAMI suddenly lose its sponsors?
When the film industry celebrities, read ‘actors’ do not consider it worthy to participate in the festival activities and the newspapers and channels do not cover it, why should any sponsor  support any event, leave alone film festivals? The sponsor is there for publicity and if a festival does not ensure that; after some time he will vanish.

How did this idea of crowd funding come up?
Desperation. Many hard working and enthusiastic youngsters in the team were disappointed and sad that the Festival may not happen.  Satyen Bordoloi started this movement with his article, ‘Mumbai’s Five Crore Shame’, and youngsters like Sanjay Ram, Priyanka Shetty and others orchestrated this. Many more film personalities joined the movement and consolidated that in that particular year. That is why we adopted Phoenix as our logo for the 2014 edition.

Why was it so successful? Will future film festivals also abhor sponsorships?
It was not wholly successful, but gave the initial momentum after which others joined to financially support it. The film industry also started looking at the need of the Festival in a different way.
No festival can survive without funding from either governments or business houses. It should be considered cultural investment. If the royals and the rich had not patronised art and architecture, we would not have been left with our cultural heritage. A Film Festival is also a movement in that direction.

How did MAMI help young cinephiles?
The target audiences were the youth – students. Towards this end, we provided them concessions in delegate fee and two sections – Mumbai Young Critics and Dimensions Mumbai – were specially targeted to train youngsters. Some of them are now professional film journalists and professional film makers.

Do you believe in censorship of films?
Censorship is a colonial mindset. Now we need only gradation. CBFC is not a homogeneous organisation, but has its own whimsicalities depending on its members. When a film can be blocked by hooligans and governments from being screened even after certification by CBFC, what is so sacrosanct about it? CBFC provides publicity even to worthless films when they refuse to certify a film or demand cuts, beyond the understanding of anyone.

How did you get involved in your new role as Festival Director of the 3rd edition of the Singapore South Asian International Film Festival slated from August 30 to September 7, 2019?
I accepted the offer from the organisers. My aim is to streamline the way it is organised, present the best possible films from this region, and value addition with personalities who will participate in the festival.


A.RADHAKRISHNAN

A.RADHAKRISHNAN is a Pune based freelance journalist, short story writer and poet, who loves to make friends and share humour.

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