Film festivals open your head and ways of seeing the world, says Anupama Chopra
A festival insists that you watch films you would never have encountered otherwise.
I love film festivals. Because for a brief moment in time, they allow you to believe that movies are the only thing that matter. Every waking minute is spent watching films or discussing them. A festival insists that you watch films you would never have encountered otherwise. It asks you to take risks. It opens your head and ways of seeing the world. The best festivals are frenzied and have a ferocious energy. You emerge exhausted and enlightened.
My first festival experience was IFFI or the International Film Festival of India. When I started attending in the 1990s, it used to be held at the Siri Fort auditorium in New Delhi, in January. There was only one venue, which fostered a sense of community. We would watch films and then huddle around with steaming cups of tea in the foggy Delhi winter.
The ultimate victory was getting into a film that came with a ‘sex scenes hain’ reputation. These were in the pre-internet days and there was nothing that fired up a festival crowd more than the promise of skin. I remember the madness around the Maya Memsaab screening in 1993 – it felt like Siri Fort might collapse under the weight of the rushing crowds.
A year later, there was a similar sight in Mumbai, with people breaking down doors to see arthouse auteur Mani Kaul’s The Cloud Door, an Indo-German production with a shot of actor Anu Aggarwal topless. A parrot also played a starring role.
I distinctly remember two things – a friend dryly remarking that ‘finally Mani Kaul got a full house’ and the film ending with a shot of a fish smiling. A character looks at the fish and says something like, “Yeh nar machli kyun hans rahi hai?” None of us got it and we spent the rest of the festival asking each other the same question. Like I said, festivals really open up your mind.
I first attended the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. It was overwhelming, intimidating and exhilarating. It took days for me to understand the mechanics of screenings and how to get interviews. In 2008, I was invited to be on the jury of Un Certain Regard, which allowed me to get deeper into the system. I was stunned by how meticulously the event was organized – on the red carpet, we actually had minders telling us where to look so the photographers (all in tuxedos of course) could get the right frames.
But I didn’t understand what it takes to create a film festival until I became the festival director of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star. MAMI, as it is popularly known, was my introduction to what happens behind the scenes – we raised money, stalked international talent until they relented (it took three years of chasing to get Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky to attend), persuaded the Hindi film industry to put their might behind the festival, figured out multiple government permissions (I remember one year, sitting in the BMC offices, trying to hold back tears because an opening ceremony was about to be canceled – it eventually wasn’t) and of course, getting the best films we could source.
More than anything, a film festival is a testament to the passion for cinema. Briefly, the theatre versus streaming argument is stalled – there is no greater proof than the staggering lines (last year, a young boy queued for seven hours to see Gaspar Noé’s Climax – clearly, sex still sells). A good festival is a movie carnival and what could be better than that?