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Interview English (India) Hindi

Visibility of Indian cinema has grown: Christina Marouda, Mike Dougherty on IFFLA

Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) founder Marouda and programming director Mike Dougherty discuss the evolution of the festival and the networking opportunities in Hollywood that it provides to the filmmakers. 

Christina Marouda and Mike Dougherty

Suparna Thombare

The 16th Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) is all set to kick off tomorrow, 11 April, in the Californian city, with Manoj Bajpayee-starrer In the Shadows

Hansal Mehta's Omertà starring Rajkummar Rao, Ben Rekhi's The Ashram starring Kal Penn, Karthik Subbaraj’s Mercury starring Prabhu Deva, Nila Madhab Panda’s Dark Wind (Kadvi Hawa), Bornila Chatterjee's The Hungry,  Bash Mohammed’s Prakasan and Mahesh Narayanan's Take Off, among others, will also be screened during the festival. Marathi film Sairat's director Nagraj Manjule's short film An Essay On Rain will also premiere at the festival.

IFFLA will be held in LA from 11 to 15 April, and Rima Das's Village Rockstars will be the closing film. 

Apart from the screenings, Big Bang Theory star Kunal Nayyar's masterclass on 12 April will be one of the major highlights this year.

Rewind 2017: 10 festival gems that won us over

Several Indian filmmakers and actors are expected to attend the festival, including Bajpayee, Radhika Apte, Nila Madhab Panda, Sushma Deshpande, and Manish Dayal. 

Here are excerpts from our conversation with Christina Marouda, founder of IFFLA and programming director Mike Dougherty, on the evolution of the film festival since its inception 16 years ago, the increase in visibility of Indian cinema in the US and what's in store for cinema lovers at IFFLA this year.

What was the goal with which IFFLA was launched 16 years ago?

Marouda: Back in 2001, which was when the idea of an Indian Film Festival in Los Angeles came to my mind, there wasn’t a platform for Indian cinema in the US. I worked at AFI Fest, which showcases over 150 films every year from all over the world, yet Indian cinema was always overlooked. Same goes for other international film festivals both in LA as well as in other cities across the country. To me this did not make sense given the volume, magnitude and legacy of Indian cinema. I happened to love Indian cinema as I watched some Indian films in Greece as a teenager (I grew up in Crete). 2001-2002 was also an interesting time for Indian cinema crossing the boundaries with Lagaan (2001) being nominated for Best Foreign film and the success of Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Bend it Like Beckham (2002) that I felt it was the right moment for IFFLA to launch. 

Even today, 16 years later, most festivals play one, maybe two Indian films across their entire lineups and feel they’ve represented the country well. We know there’s much more out there, and we strive to elevate our films to their rightful place alongside the best of world cinema. IFFLA is crucial to giving these films a strong platform in the US, and we provide opportunities for the filmmakers to visit Los Angeles and introduce themselves to the biggest entertainment industry in the world.

How has the festival changed over the years?

Marouda: IFFLA premiered in 2003 at ArcLight Hollywood presenting 20 films from or about India to almost 3,000 attendees. The 2017 festival included approximately 30 films attracting over 7,000 attendees. Additional programming included workshops, post-screening discussions, live music performances, and receptions, allowing festival attendees access to films never before screened in Los Angeles. Lastly, we now work with all the studios, including HBO, Netflix, Disney, Warner Bros, Paramount, Sony, Amazon, NBC Universal, and through our One-on-One programme, we bring high-level executives to the festival to have brief meetings with our filmmakers. 

How do you think things have changed for Indian cinema in the US over time?

Dougherty: The visibility of Indian cinema has absolutely increased since IFFLA began, both due to efforts like ours, and the rise in accessibility of Indian cinema on platforms like Netflix and Amazon. The rich and diverse catalog of Indian cinema used to be difficult for the average moviegoer in the US to access, but now you can find a great number of films on streaming platforms. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a big improvement. The role of social media in film criticism and discourse and our new, 24-hour news cycle makes it far easier to spread the word about the great successes of Indian cinema, or current headlines. The surprise box office success of Baahubali 2, or the controversy surrounding Padmaavat, or word-of-mouth on Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox were all greatly aided by our “plugged-in” society and all spread beyond a strictly South Asian audience.

What role do you think the festival plays in the promotion of Indian films and talent in Hollywood, apart from appealing to the diaspora?

Dougherty: An important part of IFFLA is the networking opportunities we provide to our filmmakers visiting from India. We're in Los Angeles, where Hollywood is considered the heart of the film industry, and have access to distributors, agents, managers and executives that we can put in a room with our filmmakers and create relationships that can hopefully benefit the artists’ current work, or plant a seed for collaboration on their next projects. Companies like HBO, Netflix, NBC, Disney, Sony, as well as agencies like CAA meet with our filmmakers every year, and in many cases, have gone to collaborate with them.

What will be the highlights of this year's film festival?

Dougherty and Marouda: There are almost too many to name! We’ll present a memorial tribute screening of Chandni (1989) to honour Sridevi. Bookending the festival are the Los Angeles premieres of In The Shadows with Manoj Bajpayee and director Dipesh Jain in person, and festival favourite Village Rockstars with director Rima Das in attendance. We have filmmakers from almost every feature film visiting our festival, as well as several short film directors. We’re presenting the world premiere of Nagraj Manjule’s beautiful short film An Essay On Rain, the North American premiere of Devashish Makhija’s intense thriller Ajji, we have two wonderful Malayalam language features: Take Off starring Parvathy and Bash Mohammed’s Prakasan. We have three incredible documentaries all with female directors, and some more special events still to be announced.

Which actors and filmmakers are expected to walk the red carpet at the festival?

Dougherty: As mentioned, Manoj Bajpayee will be here for In The Shadows. Hansal Mehta plans to attend with his new film Omertà. The star of Ajji, Sushma Deshpande, will be here, as well as Nila Madhab Panda with his film Kadvi Hawa. Manish Dayal, the star of The Hundred-Foot Journey and Viceroy's House (Partition 1947), has directed and starred in his own short film called Fifteen Years Later, which he’ll come to the festival to support, hopefully along with his supporting cast: Golden Globe-winner Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and Matt McGorry of How To Get Away With Murder. Radhika apte will be there with her film The Ashram, also starring Kal Penn and Melissa Leo. We’ll have Malayalam filmmakers Mahesh Narayan (Take Off) and Bash Mohammed (Prakasan), as well as documentary filmmakers Vaishali Sinha (Ask The Sexpert) and Priya Desai and Ann Kim (Lovesick). We will confirm more names to attend every day, so stay tuned!

What are the special plans for the opening and the closing ceremony this year?

Dougherty: Our opening night red carpet gala screening will be Dipesh Jain’s debut feature In The Shadows. We’ll have Dipesh at the festival with us, along with his leading man Manoj Bajpayee. It’s Manoj’s first time at IFFLA and it’s sure to be a special night. On closing night, we’ll present our Grand Jury and Audience Awards to both features and short films, and conclude with a gala screening of Rima Das’s incredible feature Village Rockstars, which has been the most praised Indian film on the festival circuit this past year.

What are the efforts being made to promote female filmmakers?

Dougherty: We’re thrilled that so many of our female filmmakers will be joining us for the festival, including Rima Das, Vaishali Sinha (Ask The Sexpert), Priya Desai and Ann Kim (Lovesick) and Reema Sengupta, whose short film Counterfeit Kunkoo was the first Indian narrative short to play in Sundance in 15 years. All of these women will participate in Q&As after their screenings, will be on the red carpet promoting their films to the press, will be included in our networking events with major industry players, and their screenings are being promoted by organizations like Women in Film, who help get the word out about female filmmakers to the Los Angeles filmgoing community.

How do you go about ensuring that a certain number of films have their world premiere at IFFLA?

Dougherty: Our main goal is to show the best of Indian independent cinema from the past year. It’s not extremely important to us that we hold World Premieres, as the films we play might not get a theatrical release in Los Angeles otherwise. However, we’ve been fortunate over the years that filmmakers are finds of our festival, and have offered us world premieres when available — this year, Nagraj Manjule whose career has had a meteoric rise — was happy to have the World Premiere of his new short film with us, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.

Tell us about Chandni being screened as a tribute to Sridevi?

Marouda: When we heard the devastating news about Sridevi’s passing, we were in shock like the rest of the world. We felt it was our duty, and desire, to find a way to honour her memory in this year’s festival. Chandni (1989) was one of the first films that came in mind. We contacted Yash Raj Films and they were extremely gracious and made it possible for us to screen a digital print of the film with English subtitles. We cannot wait to share with the Los Angeles audiences this unique opportunity to see Sridevi on the big screen one more time, or for many non-Indian audiences, the very first time!