Curtain Raiser

    What began as a small affair has evolved into an iconic feature on Melbourne’s cultural map. A look at what’s in store at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne starting next week.
    The scale of shared excitement, nervousness and work is 10 out of 10 here at the office of Mind Blowing Films in St Kilda. Everyone is working round the clock as time quickly ticks. This small team is responsible for one of the biggest festivals in Melbourne. From coordinating dates and shows to ensuring licence for each film to hosting A-list celebrities, pretty much everything is done in-house. But Mitu Bhowmick Lange shows her running gift for creating an unerring event as the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne (IFFM) rolls into town next week.
    “We have been working day and night to put it all together, I really hope everyone comes and enjoy the festival,” says Lange, head of Mind Blowing Films, who has yet again put up a remarkably strong line up of films, celebrities and events with a modest budget. More on that later.
    Last year, it was Amitabh Bachchan who left an indelible mark. As he shared a glorious moment at Princess Theatre taking a selfie with the stars on stage and the crowd in the background, Lange refreshes a memory of pure joy and happiness felt across the theatre. “I kept thinking how on earth are we going to top that or even come close. There is only one Mr Bachchan.”
    It wasn’t just this challenge that concerned her. “In this age of illegal downloads it is very hard for film festivals to be sustainable and grow,” she rues. With that in mind, she and her team at Mind Blowing Films have been reinventing themselves and trying to be better each year. “Festivals have to be very interactive, engaging, have some big names, etc. so that we can pull in the crowd and at the same time introduce elements that truly satisfy film lovers. We have, to a certain extent, succeeded by removing any repetitive value, keeping it fresh and also retaining the things that work.”
    This year the festival opens on August 14 with a screening of the film Umrika, the toast at the Sundance festival and described by Variety magazine as a “straightforward, ingratiating drama that builds toward a satisfyingly expansive close.” This special opening night will be attended by Bollywood bigwigs Anil Kapoor, Raju Hirani, Sonam Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut, Nikhil Advani, Simi Garewal and Imran Khan at Hoyt’s Melbourne Central. “This time also we have the largest number of international guests coming, over 20 film stars and filmmakers.”
    The next day on August 15, for the first time at Federation Square, the Indian flag will be hoisted by Anil Kapoor, Raju Hirani and Indian High Commissioner Navdeep Suri on the occasion of Indian Independence Day. “It’s a proud and memorable moment for all of us because Fed Square is the pulse point of the city,” says Lange.
    Immediately after the flag hoisting is the Telstra Bollywood dance competition, a free event, which will be judged by the Katti Batti film team of Kangana Ranaut, Nikhil Advani and Imran Khan. Katti Batti is an upcoming Indian romantic comedy directed by Nikhil Advani, who directed his first film Kal Ho Naa Ho, one of the biggest hits of 2003. Interestingly, Advani was Lange’s first guest when she started the festival in 2005. “At that time we had a budget for only two business class tickets so it was just him and Rohan Sippy who had come. The wheel has come full circle for Nikhil who is very kicked about the fact that 10 years later he is here again with Katti Batti,” says Lange.
    The Telstra dance competition will also see stand-up comedian Kiku Sharda or Palak who has become a household name post his Palak act in hit TV show ‘Comedy Nights with Kapil’. “Palak told me he is the best dancer in India and there will be a dance-off with him. Whoever wins is in for a big treat,” reveals Lange.
    This year the festival looks outside the realm of just films as fashion and films connect at the IFFM Awards Night at the home of arts, the National Gallery of Victoria. In keeping with the theme of equality, the highlight of the festival is the equality fashion show where celebrated designer Anamika Khanna, the first Indian designer invited to Paris Fashion Week, as well Indian and Australian designers will showcase their works. And Melburnians from all walks of life will walk the ramp alongside the models. The proceeds of a silent auction at the show will go to the Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. All these will be packed in on the evening of August 15.
    Of the awards, Lange says, “What sets us apart from everyone else is our jury, which is not all India or all Australia but film makers from both the countries and boasts some of the most respected names in the industry. This year we have Jill Bilcock who is one of the most celebrated editors. So it is very interesting to see what they have all come up with. Some things we have loved the Australian jury might find over the top and things they love the Indian jury might find a bit disconnected.”
    On August 16, the centre of gravity will shift to Hoyts Melbourne Central again with a Q& A session with actor-turned dynamic producer Anil Kapoor and his daughter Sonam, style and youth icon at 8 pm and 5 pm respectively. “It will be interesting to see the kind of engagement that people have with these stars who we have loved most of our lives,” says Lange. More Q&As will follow during the week with Rajkumar Hirani, Nagesh Kukunoo, Srijit Mukherji, BS Lingadevaru, Shonali Bose, Winston Furlong, Vinnil Markan and Ana Tiwari. There will also be master classes from Palak or Kiku Sharda, Nagesh Kukunoor and Simi Garewal.
    But the festival has, of course, been a place to discover the best of Indian cinema and films from the sub- continent. In all 55 films will be screened. “With the big focus on equality this time, there is a section on girl power and on sexuality which brings to the forefront a lot of questions including films that were banned in India such as Unfreedom,” says Lange, adding, “We have always screened the best films out of India and its neighbouring countries in the past but we wanted to give the festival some kind of a direction. So we are using the festival as a platform to talk about issues that are close to our heart. For instance, Bose’s Margarita, With a Straw is a very unique film because it explores sexuality and disability and people really don’t go there. Also I am He, I am not She is a film on a transgender which got a national award.”
    Quite a few details have been added to the festival by Lange who started Mind Blowing Films in 2008 and who has been curating the festival since 2009 on her own but with prior involvement while she was working with another company. But despite government funding of $150,000 since the past few years and some sponsorships, it remains a largely ticket-driven event. “For the festival to grow it is very important for people to buy tickets and watch movies and really engage in the kind of unique opportunities which is offered to them. For instance, how many times do you get to talk to Raju Hirani, one of the most iconic filmmakers we have today. These are the opportunities that I don’t want people to miss out on and we worked so hard to make these moments happen.”
    Most of all, Lange has worked hard to follow her dreams sown from the time she was in Delhi as a school student volunteering for the International Film Festival in Siri Fort. “I always had this love for films and film festivals.” Much, much later when she moved to Australia and started film distribution business, she noticed the interest in mainstream Australians too in Bollywood films and ensured there were subtitles in every film screened.
    So she started the festival with the idea of packaging the best of films with the subtitles so people could choose from an array of films. But as the festival evolved, it has become a wide-ranging affair with streams such as Hurray Bollywood focussing on main commercial blockbusters, Beyond Bollywood which has regional cinema, independent films from India and the sub-continent, Film India World which is about films made by Indians living outside India, Masterstrokes which celebrate the masters of cinema with a handful of films from three of the most unique voices in Indian and Australian film, this time premiering the newly restored classics of doyen Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, Charulata and Arayner Din Ratri, and Girl Power, a selection of girl power classics.
    Now breathing a rarefied air of hosting celebrities from India and worldwide, Lange says, “The journey has been a really exciting one. The festival has bridged like-minded people and our two cultures together. When we started we were small. With the government funding, it has really helped us strengthen and consolidate the festival as one of the top Indian film festivals in the world. And it has also helped create some kind of a buzz within the Indian film industry where filmmakers now want their films to premier at our festival, and film stars want to come. It has been a lot of hard work, it is very challenging and for small business like ours there are also some risks as we rely very heavily on ticket sales. But having said that, it has been wonderfully rewarding and I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes there are of course ups and downs in everything but the ups far outweigh the downs. The only downs, perhaps, has been the unnecessary negativity which is most of the time driven by ego. But I have also made amazing friends along the way.”
    And some of the most heart-warming stories that have come out of the festival have been from the exceptional sensibility shown by stars and patrons alike. Take a 90-year old Bachchan fan whose lifelong dream was to see this patriarch of Indian cinema and all she wanted was a seat reserved for her with wheel chair access to the theatre. Or, a little girl who had cancer with whom Bachchan spent 20 minutes showing her the fortitude to fight her illness. Or Vidya Balan giving a spontaneous hug to a family at the Royal Children Hospital whose child was battling a serious disease. Stories are galore. “But it is moments like these that make everything so much worth it that I don’t really care about the rest,” says Lange.
    Does she have to deal with any star tantrums? “Not really,” laughs Lange, adding, “Because most of the stars who come know that it is a film festival, that they are here not just to promote their films but for a bigger purpose: to promote Indian cinema. I think they know it is not a show. But at the same time one does have to wear many hats.”
    Clearly, the festival each year is an inspiring initiative from Lange and her team! Such great events ask to be revisited.