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Habitat Film Festival provides space for genuine cinema lovers, says programme director Vidyun Singh

The 13th edition of the festival, featuring a pan-Indian sweep of National award-winning and critically acclaimed cinema, begins in New Delhi today.

Vidyun M Singh, director (programmes), Habitat World

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The 13th edition of the Habitat Film Festival, which begins at New Delhi's India Habitat Centre today and continues till 27 May, will feature a selection of the Best of Indian Cinema 2017-18, a pan-Indian sweep of National award-winning and critically acclaimed films.

The festival will be inaugurated by eminent film critic and scholar Aruna Vasudev, who has been at the forefront of taking Asian cinema to the world.

Aruna Vasudev launched the film journal Cinemaya in 1988 to showcase the work of Asian filmmakers. She also founded the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) in 1990, with support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO, headquartered in Paris, France.

Aruna then started Cinefan, the Cinemaya Festival of Asian Cinema, in 1999, which was also one of the first festivals in the world to focus on Asian cinema.

In a conversation with Cinestaan.com, Vidyun M Singh, director (programmes), Habitat World, recounts the journey of the festival and its role in creating a dedicated space for cinema lovers in the capital. Excerpts:

Let me begin by asking you what is the focus of the festival this year.

The Habitat Film Festival every year does not have a theme as a focus, it is always the best of the year that was, but yes, we have a focus each year in terms of honouring somebody from the industry — an editor, director, cinematographer, someone from the industry who has made a seminal contribution to the industry. So we do a Tribute section which is a retrospective of their work.

This year, the retrospective is of KG George, who revolutionized Malayalam cinema in the 1970s. We are looking forward to seeing some of his early works. A part of the excitement is that we will be seeing the films on 35mm, which one rarely gets to see now.

Apart from that, we have a Tribute section for the people we lost from the industry. So we have a Tribute section for Shashi Kapoor. Most people are familiar with his Bollywood [mainstream Hindi cinema] films and those get screened frequently, but we are trying to bring to our audiences some of his early films, which are the Merchant-Ivory productions which don’t have that kind of visibility.

We also have a nice discussion and screening of one of Sridevi’s early films where we have Anna Vetticad, who is very excited to be able to talk about Sridevi and her talent, not just as we know of her through the Bombay industry but by looking at her talent from when she was not even 16 years old and doing films. There are aspects of that which our audiences will not be familiar with, which she would be highlighting.

So those are our special segments which focus on certain directors or actors. Apart from that, it’s the best of the year that was.

Aruna Vasudev is inaugurating the festival this year. As someone who started NETPAC and promoted Asian cinema across the world, what is the significance of getting her to inaugurate the Indian film festival at Habitat?

The reason we have asked Aruna Vasudev to inaugurate the festival is to honour her contribution, not just for the promotion of Asian cinema. Aruna has been associated with us and the Habitat Film Club since its inception. When we set up the film club in 2000, Aruna had just had her first Cinefan festival here. Seeing the excitement it generated, we felt this would be a new element that would add to our programming. She was very much available as an adviser guiding us and has been associated with the film club and our festivals, and we have always been able to reach out to her. So she has always been part of our history.

Having seen that she did get awarded internationally, but there wasn’t so much recognition at the national level, we thought that as we don’t do awards or formal recognitions and contributions because that’s an ongoing thing, what we could do is ask her to be the chief guest to inaugurate the festival and turn the spotlight on her.

Last year, when we discussed the festival, we spoke of how regional cinema had come to the forefront and was doing more exciting things than Bollywood. Do you think that has been maintained in the past year? Do these films still remain not so accessible despite being showcased at several festivals across the country?

Well, as I said very happily, today suddenly everybody is talking regional cinema — from Shekhar Kapur at the National awards ceremony to Vani Tikoo at Cannes. So regional cinema is certainly no longer the unsung hero of Indian films.

But the fact is that for whatever you may be reading in the press, where do our audiences get to see the films? If you take the Malayalam films, for instance, there are channels screening them, but they are being screened for a Malayalam-speaking audience. With the result that people who do not know the language will not watch them.

So, this is the only opportunity, because we have subtitled prints. We can say we are exposing audiences to pan-Indian cinema because, as I said earlier, today when you go to watch a Marathi or a Malayalam film, it isn’t just the Maharashtrians or the Malayalis who are watching the film. There is a brand new audience out there which has been here, seen what good cinema is happening, and is coming back, as they are now able to enjoy cinema that they are not otherwise exposed to. So, I think that is the biggest achievement of our festival.

More than other festivals, perhaps, the Habitat Film Festival has been committed to creating a film culture and audience as the film club and the film appreciation forum have focused on a certain engagement with cinema. So be it a student trying to understand cinema or a cinephile who wants to go beyond casually watching films or just people wanting to discover good films, there are films here for everyone. How do see this journey of the Habitat Film Club?

That was actually the whole purpose of the club — to be able to provide a forum for cinema lovers and, more importantly, for people who had a thirst to get to know more, to understand cinema quite literally.

So, in the initial years, we had Habitat film appreciation courses every year, we had film discussions led by a scholar, and it was hugely popular, till other options opened up. So when the School of Arts and Aesthetics in JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] or the Jamia [Millia Islamia] courses started, students found that there were institutions that were actually providing them the academic space.

So for a while, we did not do the film appreciation courses. We have picked up again the monthly discussions, but the whole idea behind the film club was exactly this. The festival grew out of seeing that there is an audience hungry for this. It was not superimposed as one more festival to add to our calendar but grew organically.

We screened 20 films in the first year and it grew from there. But it is the confidence of the audiences that made us grow as a non-sponsored event and it’s free and open to the public. So in that sense the Habitat Film Club and the Habitat Film Festival are providing that space for genuine cinema lovers.

So, what would be your recommendation for this year’s festival? The ‘must watch’ films according to you.

There are so many ‘must-watch’ films at the festival that it would be crazy to pick just four or five. Over the years, everyone has their favourite directors, so one feels that one must watch a certain director’s film, but it’s not always necessary that the same directors would be making amazing films every year, and there may be something even more amazing by some unknown director. So every year, for me personally, I find the unexpectedness to be most exciting. There may be films that have won awards, but sometimes it is the films that have not won awards that throw up surprises. And it is this surprise element that people need to discover for themselves.

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