Behind the curtain: Anupama Chopra on the magic and mania of film festivals - Hindustan Times
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Behind the curtain: Anupama Chopra on the magic and mania of film festivals

Oct 20, 2023 10:42 PM IST

They’re stressful. They're chaotic. And the memories are indelible – from bliss in the Himalayas, to being shouted at by irate viewers in the lobby of a PVR.

In nine years of helping to curate and organise film festivals, I’ve come to realise that this job requires a touch of masochism. These events are hellishly hard to pull together, with the first and biggest hurdle being raising the money.

Stills from Rima Das’s film Tora’s Husband, and the animated short Taar by Tsering Lhanzes. Both tales of struggling families were screened at the Himalayan Film Festival. PREMIUM
Stills from Rima Das’s film Tora’s Husband, and the animated short Taar by Tsering Lhanzes. Both tales of struggling families were screened at the Himalayan Film Festival.

My earliest taste of this was in 2014. The Mumbai Film Festival was in its death throes because no sponsor could be found (this is the largest privately funded festival in the country). I jumped into the fray because I believed that the home of Hindi cinema must have its own festival.

Like door-to-door salesmen, the filmmaker Kiran Rao, then-artistic director Smriti Kiran and I went from one corporate office to another, armed with a laptop, our pitch deck, and a grand passion for the movies. “But what is the ROI,” we were often asked. It was the first time I had heard the term “return on investment”.

It took seven or eight months of this, and then Star (now Disney) came on board, and later Jio. The latter continues to support the festival and I continue to be the festival director. The next edition will run from October 27 to November 5.

But to complicate life further, I also took on the curating and co-hosting the second edition of the Himalayan Film Festival, which was held from September 29 to October 3, in Leh.

I’m a great lover of the mountains and the combination of mountains and movies was irresistible. The festival was led by commissioner Padma Angmo and the Leh department of information and public relations, while my company Film Companion was in charge of the editorial palette: curation, masterclasses, workshops and a pitch tank.

The festival was held at the Sindhu Sanskriti Kendra, a sprawling auditorium nestled in the mountains. Events were held in the main hall, and in an amphitheatre encircled by Himalayan peaks. In the evenings, people gathered here for musical performances and open-air screenings.

Elsewhere, there were masterclasses by filmmakers Vikramaditya Motwane, Amit Sharma and Kenny Basumatary. The award-winning Rima Das showed and discussed her exquisite new film, Tora’s Husband (about a simple, flawed man trying to keep his business afloat in small-town Assam, amid the pandemic).

We screened Ladakhi films alongside blockbusters such as Jawan (houseful, naturally). There were some eclectic stories on view too, including Romi Meitei’s heartbreaking Eikhoigi Yum (Meitei for Our Home; about an isolated fishing community’s struggle to survive), Avinash Arun’s poignant Three of Us (Hindi; about a woman revisiting sites of her childhood while battling early symptoms of dementia) and Rizza Alee’s It Is This (about a new generation seeking a semblance of freedom in snowboarding, in Kashmir).

One of my favourite memories from the festival was a networking dinner during which filmmakers from the region sat down with Vikram and Meghalayan filmmaker Dominic Sangma and chatted for hours about their craft. It became an informal Q&A.

Another highlight was that the short-film competition was won by a young woman from Ladakh, Tsering Lhanzes. Her animated work, Taar, is about a mother and daughter on a journey, after their home is destroyed by an avalanche.

I returned from Leh and jumped headlong into the Jio MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image) Mumbai Film Festival. Right now, most days are a blur of fighting fires, big and small; supporting the core team; and sending up prayers to the movie gods that all goes well. The festival is back after three years, with a new chairperson, Priyanka Chopra Jonas; and a new venue, the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre.

Organising festivals is chaotic, stressful, and sometimes deeply unrewarding. I have, for instance, been shouted at in the lobby of a PVR theatre, by attendees who didn’t get seats at the screening of a coveted film. But I gladly do it, year after year. Because it is a privilege to help celebrate cinema.

One evening at the Himalayan Film Festival, we sat in the amphitheatre listening to a local band called Luyangs. We swayed to the music as the sunlight slowly faded over the mountains, and just then, a flock of birds soared overhead. It was magic.

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