2020 and the pandemic has taught us that digital is here to stay, writes MAMI Artistic Director Smriti Kiran
'This period has taught us that even though the theatre and on-ground experience is unmatchable, our digital arm is here to stay.'
2020 has been a watershed year in history, and that has also trickled down to the realm of entertainment. In this series, 2020 Unwind, stakeholders from the Indian entertainment scene weigh in on how they view entertainment now, how their skills had to evolve and adapt to changing patterns and whether the year has altered them as artists.
It is going to be hard to sum up the lockdown work experience in words but this is as hard as it gets for folks like me who come from a place of great privilege. I have survived the last 10 months with food, shelter, a job, the comfort of friends, the excitement of new connections, a rock-solid family, enviable colleagues, and my sanity. I am putting my thoughts down today with complete acknowledgement of my privilege, deep gratitude and understanding of the place where I am doing this from. We have all lost the right to and, frankly, the will to complain. Everything pales in front of the misery and devastation the world is facing. No matter how difficult it got to swallow food while looking at the millions suffering in abject poverty, hunger, rampant joblessness, debilitating depression, domestic violence, and disease, the fact remains that I was carrying spectator pain on a full stomach and a warm bed.
But this is me talking 10 months into the pandemic. Let me dial it back to when it all began. I had just come back from Dublin in the first week of March realising— like so many other things one has only been able to understand in hindsight — that I had escaped the early quarantine hell by a few days. The murmurs around COVID-19 had begun to gain serious ground. The news coming in from Italy was both scary and sad. In light of mounting fear, the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) office was one of the first to close its shutters in Mumbai. We went into WFH mode on 13 March, and cancelled the scheduled Year Round Programme screening of Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts’ incredible documentary, For Sama. It was the responsible thing to do. The festival was scheduled for (5 to 12) November edition without a break. But we are also an active academy through the year. We had launched the academy’s Year Round Programme in 2016, a free-of-charge initiative that brought together film lovers in the city every week for screenings, masterclasses, and conversations. All of the work we did through the year culminated into the annual festival, Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, in October. Over the past few years without marketing, outreach or any tangible resources, we have around 16,000 members, a global database of over 50,000 people, an intercity imprint bringing its members the best of films and talent they deeply admire and want access to. It has taken us four years to build this programme from scratch. Can you imagine where this programme would be if we had media and money support? For the first time, the heaviness of this realisation engulfed me.
When the lockdown was announced, we were following the rollout timeline of launching three new academy initiatives apart from continuing with the festival properties — Word to Screen Market, Young Critics Lab, Half Ticket, and Movie Mela that we organise and curate as a run-up to the festival. The lockdown felt temporary (looking back, I want to laugh at this delusional optimism induced probably by disbelief in the earlier half of the year). In a country where culture is the last priority and funding is a constant struggle, Jio MAMI has been built with the blood and sweat of a lot of good people and the resources and kindness of generous partners. Inherently, I felt this was not the time for us to lose momentum. We knew we had to pivot fast. Pivot to what and for what were the larger questions. We had no platform to screen films, no technology to rely on (remember back in February, we didn't even know the word ‘zoom’ in any other context except in relation to cameras and lenses) and had no roadmap or contingency plan for a situation like this.
We were all about the in-person, on-ground, touch, feel, brick-and-mortar experience. We were everything that the digital experience does not offer. That was our USP. It felt like we were expected to run blindfolded.
Just like when you lose the use of a key sense, you develop and hone other faculties, the lockdown forced us to look in directions we had never had to. We took a first small step with the digital screening of Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha on 24 April. Props to Tanuja Chandra and Anupama Mandloi for putting their trust in us. Screening in a theatre is different. A digital screening opens you up to piracy, ambiguity with regard to the premiere status of your film (very important in the festival circuit), and probably puts filmmakers in crosshairs with streaming platforms. These questions had no answers 10 months back. Convincing a filmmaker to give us a new film to digitally screen a film without a foolproof system put into place was a tall task. Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha opened the floodgates for us. We got another booster shot when we were the only Indian festival amongst 21 prestigious international festivals invited by Tribeca Enterprises and YouTube to participate in the first digital global film festival – We Are One. Our Chairperson Deepika Padukone was amongst the global film personalities that gave people hope for better things to come as part of this festival. I curated the films for the festival and four of our best films (two features, two shorts) screened to staggering success at the event — Nasir, Eeb Allay Ooo!, Natkhat, and Awake. A personal highlight was being a speaker along with Robert De Niro at the festival’s opening press conference. The successful screening of Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha and We Are One’s impact propelled us to take larger strides.
We launched our flagship property, a one-of-a-kind knowledge series, Dial M For Films on 31 May. Over the last six months, we have also launched Writer’s Block and The Long Road To Success within the series. The talent that has appeared on the show has been generous both with their time and experiences. We have featured Zoya Akhtar, Kabir Khan, Vikramaditya Motwane, Vicky Kaushal, Taapsee Pannu, Anvita Dutt, Richa Chadha, Shakun Batra, Mira Nair, Sudip Sharma, Abhishek Chaubey, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Anjali Menon, Bejoy Nambiar, and Jaideep Ahlawat amongst many others. Hosting, creating, and curating this series has been a dream come true. Nothing for me is more exciting than to pick the brains of artists. Here a host of people joined us on the call and did the same along with me.
I have always imagined Jio MAMI as an institution that is a repository of all things films and creating for screen. As a space, where any person can walk in, ask any question about film, and our team would be ready to help with information, access, patience, and a cup of tea. Where can film lovers and aspiring film professionals go to talk to their film idols? Where do working film professionals go to speak to their contemporaries and seniors? Who will connect industry professionals across film cultures in India and the Indian talent to professionals abroad? These are a few of the many gaps I feel Jio MAMI can fill. Keeping these in mind, we also launched Storytellers Are Us: The Origin Story that I host with my partner in crime, the head of programming for Jio MAMI, Kalpana Nair. Zoya Akhtar met Prateek Vats, Anvita Dutt met Kislay, Juhi Chaturvedi met Achal Mishra, and watched each other's work because of Storytellers Are Us. Over 500 aspiring film professionals, working film professionals, and cinema lovers attended the Dial M For Films sessions on live Zoom calls with film personalities they always wanted to talk to.
There has been staggering love for both shows. Our biggest struggles are resources and media attention because both would give us a larger reach but we are happy with the way these two shows are making a difference. My heart is full and the fire in my stomach burns brighter because I know we are onto something cardinal. As with all labours of love, I know we just need to keep at it, and keep improving as we go along. With 30 episodes, Dial M For Films has become like a film school for aspiring talent, Storytellers Are Us is a meeting ground between creators working in the same industry but who have never met and 11 digital Year Round Programme screenings found us a plethora of audience beyond the city of Mumbai. This was value creation beyond clocking views. We resolved to carry this forward even after the pandemic was over. This period has taught us that even though the theatre and on-ground experience is unmatchable, our digital arm is here to stay.
But all this while, as we created properties, what we really hoping for was for cinemas to open. Sadly, the cinemas did not open in Mumbai in time for the festival. Despite all the preparations, we had to cancel the 22nd edition of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in late August. Any later would have been unfair to all our stakeholders, especially the filmmakers. It broke our hearts but what was worse was the way every collaborator of ours was suffering. Business had come to a complete halt for PVR Cinemas, Turkish Airlines, BookMyShow, JW Marriott, Pentagon Events and Activations and many others who work with us. Companies that were no longer just companies. They were now friends and partners. I felt guilty for mourning the festival. It felt selfish. Their grace during this period of strife made it even worse. I am filled with nothing but even more respect for them than before.
I cannot sign off without talking about the experience of working during the pandemic. And the comforting myth associated with work from home. What could be better than lounging in bed with the laptop and typing emails in your pyjamas... right? Contrary to popular belief, the initial months felt like walking through cement. WFH without any scope for meeting even once a week is very challenging and requires a special kind of rewiring. You are expected to break patterns and a mindset that you have never had to think of an alternative for. What earlier got accomplished by a glance between teammates now took multiple Zoom calls, WhatsApp messages, emails, and minimum two rounds of feedback. The new way of life the team had to deal with on top of the anxiety that the pandemic brought did not help. But the initial frustration slowly turned into deep respect and empathy. I was fortunate to be part of a team which rose to the occasion every single time patiently and with perseverance. They did not always speak about their challenges but I know they were all battling difficult things like everyone around us. They showed up every day despite this. I cannot thank Kriti Dhanania, Gaurav Gupta, Yash Chhabria, Gavin Pinto, Ankit Patel, Sanchay Bose, Saurabh Mehendale, Pratyush Thaker, and Aaliya Bamboowala enough. The unshakeable faith of our Board of Trustees and our principal sponsor, Jio has given us the foundation that we stand on today. I mention this here where I have been asked to write about my pandemic work experience because nothing binds you more than solidarity in a crisis. You don't forget that and this will not be forgotten.
Lastly, in this dark and difficult time, it is impossible to separate the personal from the professional. The physical separation between home and work has literally vanished. Our lives have merged during the pandemic, and hence both aspects have spilt into one another. For all the lofty ambitions (plan to chase each one with ferocity) I have written about in this article, I would say, don’t turn down that coffee with a friend, chat with family, making that presentation for your dream project, showing up for yourself and people you love, for anything. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. And I don’t want to live with regret, guilt or unpursued dreams.
Smriti Kiran is Artistic Director, MAMI and Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
For more stories in the 2020 Unwind series, click here.
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