31 Oct 2014
The Film Festival that Nearly Failed and India's Search for a Story
This year's Mumbai International Film Festival nearly collapsed when its backers pulled out, but the resulting show saw India's filmmakers in a mood for greater realism and keen to remake Hong Kong's finest celluloid gangster moments.
When non-natives talk about Indian cinema, they are usually only referring to Bollywood – the mainstream, Hindi-language film industry centred in Mumbai. In fact, India also makes films in more than a dozen other languages, across different parts of the country, with the Tamil and Telugu-language film industries just as large and prolific as Bollywood.
The Hindi industry, though, is undoubtedly the best known internationally. This is largely due to the appeal of its stars, the number of Hindi speakers living overseas and, more recently, the deep pockets of the Mumbai-based film companies that have been investing in Hollywood. It's also an industry in rude health. It accounts for around half of the country's overall box office – a box office that last year grew by 10%, taking its total to US$1.53bn (Rs93.4bn), according to KPMG.
It came as something of a surprise then that this year's major Mumbai film festival was almost scuppered by a lack of funding. Backed for the past five years by Reliance Entertainment, the film arm of one of India's biggest conglomerates, the Mumbai Film Festival was landed with a big hole in its budget when Reliance pulled its support.
With local government and other potential backers appearing uninterested, it looked like the 16th edition of the festival would have to be cancelled. Fortunately, a number of local industry figures and audience members stepped up and launched a crowdfunding campaign.
Within a matter of weeks, several big-name directors, including Vidhu Vinod Chopra (Eklavya: The Royal Guard) and Rajkumar Hirani (3 Idiots), as well as a number of film companies, notably Cinestaan Entertainment (founded by the industrialist Anand Mahindra and hospitality-cum-media mogul Rohit Khattar), stepped up to support the event.
Explaining his reasons for coming to the rescue Khattar said: "Anand and I believe that a festival as important as this should not belong to one sponsor or studio. As the youngest film studio, we would appeal to the larger studios, production houses and, in fact, to all Mumbai film lovers to take joint ownership."
The initiative began to snowball and, following intense lobbying by Anupama Chopra, a local film critic and journalist, mainstream Bollywood began to throw its weight behind the event, boosting its appeal to sponsors. Eventually the festival went ahead as scheduled with a full programme of Indian and world cinema. A number of Bollywood stars, including Akshay Kumar, Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai, turned up for the opening and closing ceremonies, while major directors introduced their favourite films.
Chopra said: "The kind of support we've had this year from the mainstream, I don't think has happened before in the 15 years this festival has existed. It's a heartening sign that the industry is willing to put itself out and give us its time."
What was perhaps most surprising about the support the event has received is that Bollywood does not really need Indian film festivals to promote its movies. In recent years, the industry has used festivals outside India to launch its films internationally. Inside India, though, Bollywood relies on its stars and its massive marketing machine. Film festivals and film markets, such as Mumbai, Kerala and the annual Film Bazaar co-production event in Goa, have become the platforms for promoting India's growing ranks of independent directors, many of whom have chosen to work outside the mainstream.
The participation of Bollywood personalities at the Mumbai festival, however, revealed just how the mainstream industry is changing – even if the newer films were not being screened. Through a series of masterclasses, seminars and film introductions, stars and directors talked about how Bollywood is diversifying away from the "mass entertainment" that it's famous for. While it has traditionally focussed on star-driven movies with song-and-dance routines, presenting a highly idealised version of life, it is now producing films that are more rooted in reality.
One keen advocate of this change is Deepika Padukone, a much-feted Bollywood actress. Jointly hosting a masterclass with Catherine Deneuve, the renowned French actress, Padukone said: "It's the most exciting time right now. There is so much variety in the types of films being made.
"The films that we used to make – and that some filmmakers still make – were more about audience aspirations, whereas now they are more real and relatable. There's a difference in the roles we are now asked to play."
Bollywood does still make its mass-market "masala" movies, films that are thin on story and big on major stars. The most recent of these – Happy New Year, starring Shah Rukh Khan – just had a record-breaking opening over the Diwali holiday weekend (24-26 October), grossing US$18m. Other big hitters this year include Kick, starring Salman Khan, which grossed US$35m during its run, and Bang Bang with Hrithik Roshan, which took US$24m.
The rise of multiplexes in India has also initiated a change. It has allowed Bollywood producers to make films that target particular demographics, such as young people or women. Surprisingly for such a male-dominated industry, Bollywood has had a string of hits with women-centric films in recent years. This started with the 2012 thriller Kahaani (starring Vidya Balan) and continued this year with Mary Kom, a biopic of the five-time World Amateur Boxing female champion boxer (starring Priyanka Chopra,) and Vikas Bahl's Queen, the tale of girl who goes travelling alone in Europe after being jilted.
A new generation of director-producers has also emerged that are looking to make edgier films that appeal to younger, urban audiences. A number of these filmmakers now make movies both inside and outside the Bollywood studio system, backed by independent finance and driven by a guerilla filmmaking sensibility. Notable successes here include Anurag Kashyap (with his gangster thriller Gangs Of Wasseypur), Dibakar Banerjee (who recently produced Delhi-set drama Titli), and Vikramaditya Motwane (with Lootera, his recently-released love story).
Some directors are also turning to novels and to the classics for inspiration – Vishal Bhardwaj recently scored a hit with Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet, while many of the novels of best-selling author Chetan Bhagat have also been turned into successful Bollywood films, including 3 Idiots, Kai Po Che! and 2 States.
While some of these films feature big name actors, they are far more story-driven and targetted than the masala movies designed to appeal to the whole family. This, in turn, makes them more interesting for international audiences. As one producer at a major Bollywood production house said: "It used to be that screenwriters started a new script by thinking about which star they were writing for – now they're actually looking for a story."
As producers anywhere in the world, though, will testify, good stories are hard to come by. While India's mainstream industry is changing, it is struggling to find enough strong story ideas and screenplays to fulfil the audience demand for more diverse films.
This very issue was discussed at a Mumbai Film Festival panel by several of the country's leading filmmakers, including Bhardwaj, Motwane and Shridhar Raghavan (who wrote Chandni Chowk To China, a 2009 comedy that represents one of the very few collaborations between India and China).
Identifying the problem, Raghavan said: "People get taught the craft of screenwriting, but haven't been taught how to identify the right idea. What is the heart of the story? What story are you trying to tell?"
According to Motwane, part of the problem is that Bollywood screenwriters are not paid well – actually a familiar cry in film industries around the world. He said: "All the good screenwriters have become directors. The bigger problem is that we're not able to support them so they can stay writers all their lives."
Motwane's opinion was echoed by Rajkumar Hirani, the director of 3 Idiots, as he introduced a screening of Anand, a 1970s Bollywood classic. He said: "We had more writers back then [in the 1970s] and a tradition of Hindi literature. Possibly we are to blame. It's not that we don't have good writers, but that we haven't nurtured them enough."
With mainstream Bollywood making so much money, there is not a huge impetus for the industry as a whole to change. Change, though, is clearly happening at the grass roots level among cine-literate writers, directors and producers with an international perspective.
As part of this process, the event saw the launch of CineRise 100 Storytellers, a screenwriting initiative designed to nurture new talent across India. The programme was sponsored by Mumbai Mantra Media Ltd and its chairman Khattar, who headed the event's screenwriting panel.
And after years of producing unauthorised copies of Hollywood and other foreign films, Bollywood is also finding story ideas in officially sanctioned remakes of international movies. The move away from unofficial copies is due to the increased corporatisation and globalisation in the Mumbai film industry – with nearly all the major studios either owning or being part-owned by US studios.
India's voracious appetite for stories is not limited to Hollywood, however. For the first time this year, the Mumbai Film Festival also featured a remakes market organised by Unifrance and La Fabrique Films. This saw six French titles presented to Indian producers as potential remake material. Earlier this year, two Mumbai producers – Karan Johar and Guneet Monga – acquired the remake rights to The Intouchables, a hit French comedy.
Indeed, selling remake rights is the one area that may be of the most interest to those Hong Kong and other Asian producers looking at ways to access the Indian market. Although India and China recently signed a co-production agreement, Indo-China co-productions are still rare and even Hollywood struggles to compete at the Indian box office with Bollywood films.
The names of Hong Kong action thrillers and gangster dramas, though, frequently crop up in conversations about the movies that Indian filmmakers would most love to remake. With the increasing professionalism on show in the Bollywood film industry, it's also becoming much easier these days to sign remake contracts and actually get paid.
The 16th Mumbai International Film Festival took place from 14-21 October 2014.
Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Mumbai