Paul Federbush, International Director of Feature Film programming of Sundance Institute, is in India for the Drishyam Films-Sundance Lab, and having worked with markets like China, Brazil, he's perhaps in a perfectly (non biased) positioned to comment on Indian cinema on the world stage. Federbush was instrumental in the acquisition, production, and development of Slumdog Millionaire.
He's in Mumbai for just one night, “to catch up with associates over a round of drinks” before flying to Kerala to cruise the backwaters for a much deserved break. The International Director of Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program was in Udaipur for the seventh edition of Sundance’s yearly screenwriter’s lab, four of them in association with the Mahindra Group’s Mumbai Mantra and now with Drishyam Films. “I love this country but haven’t seen as much of it as I’d like to,” he admits. That is partly attributed to his intense involvement with the lab projects, films that are getting more sophisticated every year. “Or maybe, it’s just my understanding of them,” he grins.
In a chat with Firstpost, the veteran indie exec shares his pick of the projects that could be festival darlings in the coming years, the Slumdog Millionaire-ignited India run and whether digital platforms are changing the rules of the game.
Which of the seven projects selected for the Drishyam Sundance Lab has leapt at you this year?
I don’t want it to sound like I’m picking favourites, but I’m happy to highlight a few. Nandita Das’s Manto could be pretty stunning and will travel well internationally because Manto is such a globally renowned literary figure (The film is a biopic of controversial writer Sadat Hasan Manto, that charts his life in Bombay and the Indian film industry in the 40s to the Partition and a downward spiral in Lahore) Another project, Barren Land (by Kolhapur-born, Germany-based Neeraj Narkar) is an amazing story and could turn out to be a really beautiful art house film. Thanks to an amazing partner like Manish (Mundra, of Drishyam Films) we’re starting to penetrate other regions so people know we’re here.
The India story started for you back in 2009, right? With Slumdog Millionaire.
I was involved with it since 2006. Tessa Ross who was the head of Film Four gave me the book. I thought it was a really contemporary and complete vision from India and kept hounding Tessa for the script. When Danny Boyle became attached to the project, I bought the script. I was at Warner Bros then. Between us and Film Four, we read several drafts and gave notes. It was a very different script at one point of time. For one, he didn’t win the money! It was very episodic as a book. We had to really bring out the love story.
But there was no head butting. Danny is someone you trust implicitly. His movies tend to be lean and he’s also the most collaborative filmmaker I’ve worked with. There was a bit of back and forth regarding the ending, which was just par for the course when you consider the different UK and American sensibilities. Winning the money and the girl didn’t feel true to life for the British. For us (Americans) we wanted it to be that fairy tale.
Did India become the flavor of the season after Slumdog?
It certainly was a tremendous success in the States, as was the soundtrack. There was definitely an Indian flavor to that year. I’m not sure that Hollywood went around running for Indian stories, but it did permeate the culture a lot. Then we did The Lunchbox (2014) which went through the Sundance Lab in Utah and when it did well in the States, people certainly had Slumdog on their mind, even though The Lunchbox was a different, quieter film.
Art house audiences in the US tend to be older. There are certain metrics like music and food that work well. But it was the sweetness of the story as well. It wasn’t nearly as complex as Masaan (2015) which was really beautiful, but I knew it would face some challenges in America and appeal more to European audiences. That’s what’s exciting about independent cinema. You never know what will break out and why.
How would you compare India with other countries you work with?
You just want me to get in trouble! Look, we get requests to work in different regions, but we can have a maximum of three labs in a year. Both my colleague Matthew Takata and I love coming to India. You have one of the oldest and largest industries in the world. The fellows that come in the lab have a cinematic sophistication that has great potential. We just started a program in Cuba which is particularly exciting, because it was isolated for over half a century. They too have a tremendous respect for the art. It’s exciting for us to connect with those artists and hopefully to the rest of Latin America. We also have a mandate to continue our work in the leaner regions like Africa and highlight voices from the region.
Do you watch the big Bollywood films?
I try. It’s hard for me to keep tabs on them. I do try more to catch up on classics. There was one I was wanting to and should probably see. What was it (thinks) … Dil Se. That one caught my interest. There was Cloud Capped Star... I don’t know what the Hindi title is.
Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhake Tara…?
Yes. I was blown away. I’ve seen all of Satyajit Ray’s films so I was excited to see the work of a contemporary of his. I saw it just a year ago and loved it. And then I saw Om Shanti Om (laughs) I kind of loved it too. I can appreciate that sort of film. It was just great fun. Nawaz Siddiqui is one of my favourite actors! His performance in Gangs of Wasseypur- II was stunning. Amongst filmmakers, Chaitanya Tamhane is interesting. I liked Kanu Behl’s first film, Titli. I really liked Liar’s Dice and Chauthi Koot so I’m looking forward to their second films too.
Then there’s London-based Sandhya Suri. Her project Santosh (an art house thriller) was at our Goa lab last year and we invited it to the Utah lab this year. I could happily populate that (Utah) lab with Indian filmmakers. But we have 15 projects and a third of them are international. Matthew and I choose roughly five projects from the rest of the world. So we have The Kitchen (a dystopian heist drama) from UK filmmaker Kibwe Tavares; there’s Hong Khaou, a Cambodian-Vietnamese filmmaker and the Italians, Fabio and Antonio. They made a film called Salvo which premiered in Cannes a couple of years ago and we had their second film, Sicilian Ghost Story, this year.
Do you think digital platforms are changing the landscape of indie distribution?
Yes it has changed already. This year at Sundance, Amazon paid $10 million for Manchester by the Sea and Netflix paid roughly the same amount for Paul Rudd’s road trip film. Those were the big buys at the festivals. Actually, Fox’s acquisition of The Birth of a Nation was bigger - $17.5 million - a Sundance record. Distribution is always changing. We need to wait a couple more years to see digital buys continue at these prices. Some of these companies are still struggling with their business plans. When I was a buyer with Warner, you could tell when you overpaid for a movie or when you bought something; it released within 6 months you had a release date, you got real time feedback and I’m not sure how that works with digital platforms.
Do you see digital blurring the lines between art house and commercial cinema?
It’ll even the playing field to some degree. It now feels within mainstream, there are fewer films that make money; the rest lose money. That’s a recent phenomenon. There’s so much competition for your entertainment time from all mediums. Television is better. 25 year olds who go to the big superhero movies also have video games. Marketing is still an issue; it’s where mainstream movies still have a leg up. But as far as accessibility for indie cinema, yes digital is a boon.
Has digital increased the attrition rate in indie cinema, with everyone wanting to make the big studio blockbuster?
It worries me a bit. I don’t see American filmmakers doing that. Do you? Hopefully it doesn’t become all about the money. Ideally we should have filmmakers that go out and make the big Hollywood or Bollywood film and then do that passion project too. I hope they continue to be challenged by the craft.