When I attended the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in New Delhi in 1993, I was only 20. I was studying zoology at the time, and it was this film festival that completely altered my life and helped me decide that I wanted to be a filmmaker. Until that year, the only cinema I was exposed to was mainstream Hollywood and Bollywood. The only regional film I had seen was the Bhojpuri Nadiya Ke Paar. I never looked at what I saw as a career. I didn’t know that the ideas in my head could also become cinema. I had never seen cinema celebrated in such a manner. I saw five films a day – a retrospective of Vittorio De Sica that included Bicycle Thieves, Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar.
Initially, I saw a festival the way others did. If a movie is selected in a festival, it could wear that as a badge. It was certifiably good enough. Festivals were a way for your film to reach audiences everywhere. In 1999, I was ecstatic when two films that I had written – Satya and …Jayate – became part of IFFI’s Indian Panorama. Cannes, Berlin and Venice were just names. I had no passport at the point, so they were literally out of reach. In 2003, my unreleased Paanch was chosen to close Osian’s Cinefan Festival in Delhi, and I think it was only then that I realised the true value of a festival. Had my film released theatrically, I wouldn’t have discovered film festivals. They would have remained the Olympics. Not even the Commonwealth or Asiad. If you were at a festival, that was the pinnacle.
For a filmmaker, I understood that festivals are places where you create a market. I started treating festivals differently because I was told that nobody wants to watch my films. I am still told that. When I make a movie, everyone from my parents and partner to the people I work with end up asking – why did you have to make a film like this? I can now smile and not reply, but back then the question was soul-crushing. I’d be reminded that my first film was banned and my second had been stopped, but Black Friday was selected for Locarno in 2004. When I went to Switzerland, I realised that there were a lot more people who wanted to see my films. The problem with our system is that it doesn’t know how to sell your film to a non-diaspora audience and thus declares you unwatchable.
Festivals, I realised, are a great platform for me to sell my movies. I understood the importance of having a universal language. I started peddling my own films. I would carry their DVDs, go to shops, ask them to sell my movies and keep the money. I have been doing this for the longest time. The biggest hurdle I found were Indian sellers, our distribution and our market. When the satellite rights of our films are sold, the television channel buys the worldwide rights. As a consequence, nobody abroad wants to buy our films because their way of making money from a foreign language film is also through its satellite rights. Dev D and Gulaal were shown at Venice, but people who were interested in the films backed away because the films had released and they’d already been pirated.
With Udaan, there were so many enquiries at Cannes. We were sure the film would sell, but despite winning so many audiences abroad, the price being quoted by people in the distribution section was preposterously high. I realised that I had always been dependent on other people, so That Girl in Yellow Boots was my experiment. I owned the film and I could do whatever I wanted with it. We started pushing out the film for nothing. In Venice, we were a team of 19 people and we peddled our movie at every street corner. We didn’t want to make price a factor. We decided to just give out the film and as a result, Yellow Boots is one of the most seen films across televisions in the world today. The big surprise came in the form of Wasseypur. In my head, I had made the film for the Indian market, and I had no idea that it will crack open the West for me. Some things happen like that too.
In the past few years, I have been on several juries – Sundance, Venice, Busan, Marrakesh, Copenhagen – but at Cannes, for instance, I prefer that my film be included as part of the Director’s Fortnight instead of the main competition. How can you compare two films, made in two different circumstances, dealing with different politics, made in countries that have different levels of censorship, that deal with different kinds of moralities? In my head, they can’t. I am constantly circumventing the system to figure out what I can do and put out. I have so many battles to fight, and I am competing with another filmmaker who has all the freedom to explore so much more and I already look at him with envy even before we’ve started. I genuinely believe that films can’t compete with each other, but you can’t take away that pleasure from people. More than anything else, competition creates some excitement for the festival and the market, so it is a necessary evil. Wherever there’s a cash prize, I immediately enter my film in the competition. Any kind of a recovery, you see, is recovery after all.
When you’re a member of a jury, you understand what kind of films work in which market. For me, my entire journey is about the survival of cinema I believe in. Festivals take me everywhere. When I meet people, I realise they have different struggles, some much bigger than mine. This makes me calmer. I’m less edgy. I no longer think that nobody wants to watch my films. Others don’t have a healthy film industry like ours. I make a film every year. Not everyone can do that. But when I realised I have to actively find my audience, I decided I had to minimise cost. It’s very important that my film recover its cost in India. I know I make films that won’t have a ready audience, that’ll get people angry, that my morality will be questioned. If my cost is minimal and once the recovery is done, I can worry less. My film builds its value in the future. A film earns its shelf life when it travels. I know that I can’t make a film that is going to please every market. I know I am making genre films. I am not an arthouse filmmaker. So, for my films to be seen, I needed to figure out my give and take.
Almost every Indian city – big and small – now has a film festival. The good thing about this is that people in smaller towns are getting exposed to cinema they wouldn’t otherwise have seen. But because everything is driven with an agenda of branding, there is something essential that is being lost. You can’t make an audience suddenly jump into the deep blue sea. You have to take them there slowly. If an education about cinema is the final goal, it has to be a long term process. In small town India, people go to a festival if they are told that a celebrity will be coming or if they’re told that a film has a great sex scene. These reasons have nothing to do with cinema and that is a big problem.
Festivals like MAMI and the International Film Festival of Kerala are exceptions. At MAMI, for instance, the best section would have to be India Gold. It shows our films to the world. Those are the films we want people to watch. In 1993, there was a sense of magic when you were at a festival like IFFI. The films that were shown were rare and not widely available. Because of this, there was this alluring sense of temptation which is now missing. Today, people go to festivals to watch the films they had missed out on during the year. It’s like ticking a checklist. There’s just no sense of discovery.
Young Indian filmmakers need to wise up more. They are scared that their films will be pirated the minute they’re shown in a festival. Some do not trust themselves. They fear bad reviews. People have to learn how to evaluate their films. You don’t take a genre film to an arthouse festival. It will be slaughtered. A festival is your stepping stone to bounce into the world. A movie like Court, for instance, would have been lost if it wasn’t discovered at Venice. Gurvinder Singh isn’t out to please crowds. He wouldn’t survive if his films (Anhe Ghore Da Daan, Chauthi Koot) weren’t being celebrated in festivals. Anup Singh’s Qissa comes to India and nobody sees it, but it travels all across the world and survives. Parched is already a massive success in film festivals across the world, but it still hasn’t released in India. Its director Leena Yadav, though, has found courage. Nobody can stop her from making the films she wants to. Film festivals give us strength. They make better filmmakers.
(As told to Shreevatsa Nevatia)