A Bollywood-backed Twitter campaign saved the Mumbai Film Festival—but crushed its spirit

Is this what the future of Indian Independent cinema will look like?
Is this what the future of Indian Independent cinema will look like?
Image: Reuters
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The Mumbai Film Festival, which started on Oct. 14 and runs through Oct. 21., seems to have gone from its usual celebration of independent filmmakers, young cineastes, and littérateurs to an unabashed celebration of Bollywood.

Until only a few weeks ago, the festival stood on shaky ground, following the departure of Reliance Entertainment, its title sponsor for the last five years. Film critic Anupama Chopra, who is the festival’s creative director, started an online campaign to pledge support for the event, which is organized by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI). Within two weeks, Chopra raised Rs 3.5 crore (about $600,000) from a who’s who of the film industry—including Aamir Khan, Karan Johar, and Boman Irani—as the #Pledge4MAMI campaign went viral on Twitter.

India’s beloved celebrities didn’t limit themselves to contributing money. They also made time to shoot a promotional video for the festival:

Yes, the benevolent Bollywood stars saved the Mumbai Film Festival—but at a price. Showing up in large numbers for the opening of the festival, the Indian film elite’s presence turned the inaugural evening into a mini version of the glitzy and glamorous Filmfare Awards. The show was stolen away from the independent filmmakers, for whom film festivals that exclusively host them are one of few occasions to gain traction.

The opening night gala, at Chandan Cinema in Juhu, Mumbai, was kicked off by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who candidly wondered if the honor was befitting. Ranbir Kapoor was there (he exited midway) as was Deepika Padukone (who arrived half an hour after the show ended). Akshay Kumar, Rajkumar Hirani, Huma Qureshi, Gauri Shinde, and Homi Adjania, among others, were on the guest list, too.

Amit V Masurkar, whose debut independent feature film Sulemani Keeda premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival last year, explained that MAMI “cannot crowdsource the funds every year. Maybe they need the stars for eyeballs, so that they can get sponsors next year.”

Creative director Chopra seems to think the link between independent and mainstream cinema should be maintained. As she told Quartz, “The notion of Bollywood versus independent cinema is outdated. The best festivals in the world, such as Cannes and Toronto, offer a dazzling mix of art and glamor.”

Yet, barring a handful of successful independent filmmakers—Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Tigmanshu Dhulia, and Kiran Rao among them—who are to be credited for treading seamlessly between Bollywood and indie cinema, the two filmmaking camps remain in separate worlds.

In comparison to Bollywood’s budgets, which on average run to half a million rupees, an indie film may be made on less than a lakh (100,000 rupees). Most times actors work for free—quite a difference from the Rs 50-crore figure that Bang Bang actor Hrithik Roshan has reportedly demanded for his upcoming role in filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro.

Independent filmmaker Arpita Kumar, who produces socially conscious and experimental cinema, said, “Bollywood wouldn’t bother me if the star has worked in an independent film and supported the spirit of indie cinema.” The mismatch between the two worlds was clearly felt in the audience’s reactions. A day after the opening ceremony, regular filmgoers booed Delhi Belly actor Imran Khan, who was invited to introduce Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night, but arrived late and unprepared.

Khan audaciously confirmed this in his acknowledgement to a catcaller during the presentation: “I’m not sure what I’m doing here.” The fiasco led to Chopra’s apologetic tweet:

Following up in style, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was screened without an introduction because the Bollywood actor slated to provide one, Varun Dhawan, was so fashionably late that the film was started before he got there.