Jio MAMI's Smriti Kiran builds a gargantuan homegrown film festival, while chasing her love for cinema

Devansh Sharma

Oct 06, 2019 09:27:05 IST

It is a long wait at Mumbai's JW Marriott, Juhu, for Smriti Kiran, Artistic Director at Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival. As she's busy wrapping up her brief interviews with fellow journalists immediately after the press conference where the festival line-up for the year was announced, I sit patiently to begin my requested long interview with her. And we do, only, a couple of hours later.

Smriti laughs with abandon, and does not look like a person shouldering a film festival that's coming up in less than a fortnight. However, she insists that is only because the job satiates her soul. "To tell you the truth, the only way you can survive at MAMI is if you're f*cking crazy. It's extremely taxing because there aren't enough resources or people. It really comes together in the last minute, not because it's disorganised, but because that's how the festival ecosystem works. I'm 20 kg heavier. I've not gone to the gym consistently. But I'm not cribbing. I'm not saying this as a martyr (insert a melodramatic "Haaye! Mar gaye!). Somewhere, this is also mann ka kaam (food for the soul)," she says.

 Jio MAMIs Smriti Kiran builds a gargantuan homegrown film festival, while chasing her love for cinema

Smriti agrees with Festival Director Anupama Chopra — the event has aged her in the five years she has been involved with it. "But it's a very gratifying job yaar!" she says. "Passion for cinema is fine, but in the last four years, we got a lot of love from the delegates. If you're having a difficult day, one message will come out of the blue, saying, 'MAMI changed my life', or they say, 'We've been going to MAMI for 20 years'. So you're not doing it for the 80 people who will arm-twist you. But you're doing it for some guy who's sitting in some corner in Assam, dreaming the cinema dream. It sounds very lofty and sanctimonious. But that's what it is. Obviously, I reminisce the time when I had to do just one show a week (as a former employee of NDTV and Film Companion). You'd want to have a slightly more leisurely life. But that is absolutely outweighed by the incredible love we get. It's the most gratifying job in the world!"

Smriti, along with Chopra and the new team, took over the management of MAMI back in 2015 for its 17th edition. While she claims that the spirit of the festival was maintained by their predecessors, it was a gargantuan task to revive the audience interest in the homegrown festival. "It was very daunting because you don't know the space at all. Irrespective of your work experience, you have to acquaint yourself with the language of that space. The team we took it over from were hobbled by the daily struggle of keeping the festival going, but they kept at it."

She confesses that while her new role five years ago was challenging to the superlative, she looks back at it with a very clear perspective. "The best part of the terrifying experience was since you had a vantage point, you could re-imagine the festival. When you look at something from a distance, the perspective you get is clarity. When we came in, we knew we had to create value. It's a very hard gig so if you can't create value, then band karo dukaan (shut shop), and visit other festivals. So when you come from that philosophy, you change things around," Smriti says.

One of the things she and her team did was to make the festival pan-city. "If you live in Colaba, going to Versova is like taking a flight to Delhi to watch a film. You don't need to have a gruelling experience before you enter a cinema hall. Please make it easy. No one says you need to kill yourself for cinema. We also looked at the sections, and figured out which sections make sense. We increased the India sections. Also, there was an inordinate amount of prize money for the International Competition section. We divided it between International Competition and India Gold because we're not some festival happening in California. We need to feed into our industry."

Smriti and her team also worked on making themselves accessible as festival organisers, thereby stepping down from the perceived pedestals they were put on. "Either you can work for your vanity, or you can work for the festival. If there are areas that aren't feasible on ground, you say bye to them. It could be a great idea, but you need your energy to be focused towards other areas. So there was a shift in the sensibility and the lens through which we looked at the fest. The biggest change was the way we looked at the delegates. We took away every barrier between us and them. We're film lovers, they're film lovers. The only difference is we organise the film festival, and they watch it. We're on this side of the fence, and you're on that side of the fence. Whether you paid Rs 500 or Rs 5,000, we're going to treat you as someone who paid Rs 5 lakh for the festival, because you are the people we serve. There were concerns in the first year because they thought the fest will be disorganised. We knew all that so we were prepared for the aggression. In the three years, that has changed."

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Smriti is of the belief that film festivals like MAMI have helped change the perception of Indian cinema overseas. "We've gone out of our way to forge relationships with film festivals, consulates, and cultural institutions, in order to take the stories of our filmmakers forward. When one person or film makes it to the film festival overseas, that immediately leads to the world noticing that person's work back home. The moment you throw a Lijo (Jose Pellisery, Malayalam filmmaker) into a TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), you have an Ari Aster tweeting about Jallikattu. This is what festivals are supposed to be doing," she says.

Smriti explains how the film festival line-up for every year is a product of sourcing titles through the year, particularly at festivals like Cannes, Berlinale, and TIFF. "These are hectic work trips. But obviously I can't complain when I go to the French Riviera for work. It's a very first-world problem to have. But the days are very crazy. On the agenda are watching films and then fixing up meetings with the producers. We know beforehand which titles are coming to a festival, because of the programmers' grid and grapevine. So we focus on debuts, buzziest titles, and the unknown gems. Sometimes, there are films like Jojo Rabbit or Parasite, which I watch, come out of, and say we have to get these films. But both films are not at MAMI. But despite that, you're watching films and meeting great people. It's backbreaking work, but I have to say enjoying our work is a consolation. There are people in the world who do backbreaking work for something they're not interested in. So I consider myself fortunate, and I never let myself forget that."

Anupama Chopra, in an interview to this writer, had thanked Smriti and the team, saying that her role in MAMI has become progressively easier over the years. Smriti agrees; Chopra's role has indeed been that of a constant guide for years. "Since she is the festival director, Anu has access to a lot of stuff. So if she likes something, she nudges us in that direction. And then we pursue it in our capacity."

While critically acclaimed films like Taika Watiti's satirical war drama Jojo Rabbit, and Bong Jon-Hoo's dark comedy thriller Parasite could not be brought to MAMI, there are as many as six Netflix films that are a part of the line-up this year, including Martin Scorsese's period crime drama The Irishman, Noah Baumbach's comedy-drama Marriage Story, and Fernando Meirelles' The Two Popes. In fact, Meirelles will also conduct a masterclass at MAMI this year.

"What we usually do is send a list of titles to a number of studios. We had sent a list of 10 or 12 titles to Netflix since they have such an impressive fall slate. We don't have a formal tie-up with them. They've got a really good team, especially Neha Kaul, who put together the slate for us. So we had clarity at all points."

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Despite sourcing some of the most widely appreciated films at festivals across the globe, Smriti is aware that none of these films will make their world premiere at MAMI. But she doesn't necessarily mind that. "We know our place in the ecosystem. You can't be so non-self-aware. But I think the premiere status matters to the festival. It doesn't make a difference to the audience. Have I been affected that world premieres don't take place here? If you look at it logistically, the people who are watching it here aren't watching it at Busan or Toronto. But we do insist it should at least be the India premiere of the film," she says.

The opening film this year is Geethu Mohandas' Moothon in Malayalam("Yes!" she screams, when I point out that the opening film this year is not in Hindi, but in a different Indian language, unlike other years.) However, language was never a factor that influenced Smriti's decision of opening the festival with a Malayalam film. "I have to be honest with you, one thing that was at the back of my mind was that it's by a woman director. But programming a woman director just because she is a woman is an insult to womanhood. When I went into watching Moothon, I prayed it to be nice because it's directed by a woman. Even after I loved it, we took a month to lock it as the opening film," she says.

Finally, Smriti also reveals that the team is pumped up for the return of the MAMI Movie Mela, a day-long precursor of Bollywood celebrity interviews. While they gave the Mela a miss last year, this year marks its much-needed return, especially when no big-budget Bollywood film has made it to the line-up ("Because Bollywood doesn't need us," as Chopra puts it). "Our sessions were all locked last year. But we didn't do it because of the #MeToo movement in the industry. It was not only because celebrities will hesitate to talk to the media, but because you didn't want to celebrate the movies when such a movement was happening simultaneously. Mela is an in-your-face celebration, where everyone is happy and gregarious. It would've been like throwing a party in the middle of a funeral," she says, explaining her role as the Artistic Director, is not just limited to programming, but also lends itself to a holistic dealing of the festival.

Looking at the calm yet excited Smriti approaching the festival, one is assured of the reasons behind her confidence. When I ask her about the closing film, she tells me that they have not locked one yet. Clearly, she has miles to go before hitting the sack, but until then, one can only imagine her relentlessly pursuing her festival dreams.

All images by Snehil Vyas.

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Updated Date: Oct 09, 2019 09:25:30 IST