Mumbai Film Festival Cinema in the City of Seven Islands

Aamir Khan, Jio Mami Film Festival 2017
Aamir Khan, Jio Mami Film Festival 2017 | ©YouTube (still)

If you want to get anywhere in Mumbai, you have to deal with an insane amount of traffic. The “City of Seven Islands,” as Mumbai was historically called, is dominated by a bustling coexistence of luxury cars, tuk-tuks, busses and pedestrians. In the city with the most billionaires in India, who live alongside millions of impoverished people, the geographic situation makes using main streets and big bridges necessary in a city with a total population of 19 million.

This situation obviously influences the organization of a giant film festival, like Mumbai Film Festival, which Indians call “MAMI.” Its organizers have the task of creating a fitting film selection and screening it at diverse cinemas around the city. This is crucial because audience sizes are decidedly important for the single biggest film festival on the Indian subcontinent, since this festival receives no public support. It’s financed by private sponsors and the proceeds from ticket sales. This is also a novelty for visitors, since people in developing countries have long been accustomed to their cultural activities being financed by their governments. The 19th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival took place between the 12th and 18th of October, 2017.

Pros and Cons of Being Independent

Kiran Rao has held the chair of the film festival since 2015. The director and producer is known in the film festival world for her film, “Dhobi Ghat“ (Mumbai Diaries). On the other hand, film buffs know her as the wife and producing partner of the well-known Aamir Khan. We met Rao for dinner at an upscale restaurant in one of Mumbai’s trendy neighborhoods, which the festival organized for jury members and international guests. She told us about the advantages and disadvantages of working without the support of the Indian government.

Kiran Rao, Mumbai Film Festival ©YouTube (still) “Financial independence gives us more freedom in selecting the films, the guests, and the whole program altogether. But this freedom has its price, which can be summed up in two words: cansureship and taxes.”

All films that want to be shown in India have to be approved by the board of censors, even if the screening is taking place in the context of a cultural event. No government can guarantee that we can actually show all the films we would like to. In many cases, if the film gets too close to three risky subjects (sex, politics and religion), the authorities grant a cultural screening, but forbid the sale of tickets. This harms a film festival that is clearly reliant on ticket proceeds.
On the other hand, commercial screenings always create problems with taxes. In India, taxes in the film industry are immense. Indian law classifies cinema as transgressive, like alcohol and cigarettes, so it burdens film with high taxes. That may work out for big film productions, that are working with millions, but for a small festival like ours, which is just trying to cover costs, it’s impossible to pay such sums. This means we have to fight each year to be exempt from paying these taxes, a decision that would be much easier if we were supported by the state.

Author and producer, Smriti Kiran, who acts as the festival’s creative director, referred to the same two problems. We met her in the Juhu district, in the lobby of the hotel that serves as the festival’s headquarters. She told us about the difficulties of organizing a festival in cities like Mumbai or Cairo. And she added on a third aspect: continuity.

“When you’re reliant on sponsors, both companies and individuals, you live with the constant risk of losing one of them. If one of the main sponsors pulls out, it could endanger the entire festival. That’s why we treat each festival as if it’s out last. It’s not a nice feeling, but you can also see it positively. Each individual in our team works as best they can to make the upcoming festival the best we’ve ever put on.

It’s the audience that counts above all

Kiran leads a team of international program directors, who are responsible for the selection of films and the festival program. Because of the complexity of a city like Mumbai, she explains, the philosophy of the festival is to primarily be geared towards the audience. Getting to a screening location may be stressful for guests, but not for people who are used to life (and traffic) in Mumbai.

“Our festival is geared towards the residents of this city. Going off of that, the film screenings take place in 18 theaters at seven different locations. We organize the distribution of locations around peoples’ lifestyles, so that anyone who wants to see a film can do so nearby to where they live.

We have three cinemas with a total of 11 theaters, which can be seen as the festival’s center and are within walking distance of each other. We show each film in the festival here at least twice and film lovers spend their entire day here. We’re very careful in choosing the films for the other locations, always trying to match the films to the respective neighborhoods.

For example, we show the biggest international and Indian productions that the audience wants to see on a giant screen in the festival’s biggest theater (1,100 seats). Some film lovers stand in line for over an hour to see award-winning films from Cannes on the big screen, rather than in one of the smaller theaters in the festival center.”

The best evidence of the attention that the festival pays to its audience is the selection of films, which can be put into two categories: international cinema and Indian cinema. Visitors can see practically every international film that was successful and received recognition at the big festivals in Cannes, Berlin and Locarno. “Not all of them of course, we’re missing eight or nine films,’ Smriti Kiran explains with a wink, responding to my observation.

The festival also organizes competitions among the screenings of Indian films. These include “India Gold,” where the best Indian films compete against each other, “India Story,” for films from Indian cities with a local perspective, “Discovering India,” for Indian films from the diaspora, “Dimensions Mumbai,” for short films (features and documentaries) and for film school films, “JIO MAMI Content Studio.”

MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is an annual meeting of international films that tries to endure and still remain independent of the government while still trying to expand. It’s an inspiring model for cultural activity in the developing world.

Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI) Logo ©YouTube (still)