IFFLA has had a long-standing history of encouraging and providing a platform to new filmmakers. The line-up for the 19th edition of the festival gives an inkling that you hope to do the same this year as well.
Indeed, this year’s line up reflects our commitment and legacy of providing a platform to emerging voices. 19 of the films are debut features and shorts, including our opening night feature Fire in the Mountains. That decision in itself, putting the spotlight on a feature that have no stars or any other recongizable attachments, proves our dedication to new filmmakers.
The first edition of IFFLA was launched in the year 2003. What attracted you to Indian cinema in the first place?
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 in the US for Indian cinema as a whole. 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 being nominated for Best Foreign film and the success of Monsoon Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham that I felt it was the right moment for IFFLA to launch.
Even today, 19 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 U.S., and we provide opportunities for the filmmakers to visit Los Angeles and introduce themselves to the biggest entertainment industry in the world.
As a festival curator, which are the films that you think are the highlights of this year’s programme?
The powerful female-centric film, Fire in the Mountains, the 2021 Sundance-selected debut feature by Ajitpal Singh that immerses audiences in the splendor of the Himalayan mountains. Sthalpuran (Chronicle of Space) by Akshay Indikar, the Marathi film that premiered at Berlinale 2020 and has captured the hearts of audiences at festivals around the world for its breathtaking minimalist exploration of the inner life of its protagonist, a young boy named Dighu.
The prestigious Rotterdam Tiger Award-winning Tamil-language film Pebbles, a debut film from director PS Vinothraj; the North American premiere of debut filmmaker Thamizh’s Seththumaan (Pig) about the caste politics of food culture in rural Tamil Nadu; IFFLA alum Bhaskar Hazarika’s romance-thriller Aamis (Ravening); the powerful Bengali ensemble film Debris of Desire; and the North American premiere of National Award-winning filmmaker Farida Pacha’s disarmingly intimate documentary Watch Over Me.
This year’s selection features stories highlighting exceptional, memorable female characters, including the 2020 Berlinale selected drama Laila Aur Satt Geet (The Shepherdess and The Seven Songs), the Malayalam-language story Biriyaani, and the Film Bazaar Goes to Cannes selected thriller Uljhan (The Knot).
The festival also features a strong lineup of films directed by women, including the 2020 Student Academy Award winner and 2021 Academy Award shortlisted film, Bittu by Karishma Dube; and the 2020 Venice Biennale selected Anita by Sushma Khadepaun.
A very special and timely short film is the 2021 Rotterdam selection Letter From Your Far-Off Country by Suneil Sanzgiri.
Other highlights from the shorts lineup include the Grand Prix winner of the 2020 Cannes’ Cinéfondation competition, Catdog by Ashmita Guha Neogi; the 2021 Sundance-selected Lata by Alisha Tejpal, the 2021 Clermont-Ferrand award winner Angh by Theja Rio; and India’s 2021 National Award Winner Custody by Ambiecka Pandit. Four of the films in the program are directed by IFFLA alums, including For Each Other, the latest film by Rima Das (Village Rockstars).
16 of the films that will be screened at the festival are by women filmmakers. Was it a conscious decision to bring in a sense of inclusivity to the festival this time around?
When deciding what movies to showcase, we look at all of the criteria for selecting a film together, one of which is to amplify emerging filmmakers. We are happy to see a steadily increasing number of submissions by women directors, however it’s still a reality that the majority of the submissions we receive are by male directors. The industry as a whole still has a long way to go to produce and distribute films helmed by filmmakers of all backgrounds that better represents the population as a whole. During our outreach and discovery of films we hold that in our minds that we may have to work a little harder to find films directed by women, and we very consciously always do whatever we can to make sure we have films made by artists that reflect our audiences, who are vast and diverse, and want to see their stories authentically told.
In an interview, you cited Andhadhun as one of your favourite Indian films from the recent past. What are the kind of Indian films that interest you as a viewer?
Andhadhun is indeed one of the highlights of our past programs. We are fans of Sriram Raghavan work and have also showcased Johnny Gaddaar in the past. As a viewer, I like to be immersed into the world that the filmmaker chose to create, from the story to the acting the music, the editing and the sound design.
This year, IFFLA will be held virtually. Do you think this will result in a decrease in the number of people who might want to sign up for it?
Going virtual has actually given us the opportunity to be accessible to a lot more people. Our films will be available all over California, and a selection of the line-up (26 films total) will be available all over India. This is a first for us and it promises to be a year with an expanded audience.
What is the biggest challenge you faced while putting together this year’s programme amidst the pandemic?
Our biggest challenge was to discover and learn the new skills required to hold a film festival virtually, and that, too, within a very short period of time. Even at this time that I’m answering this question, there are still nuances we are facing, and that we have to figure out within a timely manner. Examples of such nuances include selecting the right screening platform that would be 100% secure, user friendly and esthetically attractive; creating the India Pass (26 films out of 40 in the line up) which gives access to everyone in India; figuring out which films can be made available in India, how much to charge for this pass (Rs 150), how to cover our financial loss for making this pass available; producing the awards ceremony virtually; and pre-recording over 25 Q&As with participants in various time zones.