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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to filmfestivals.com

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


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Interview with Aroon Shivdasani Executive Director of The New York Indian Film Festival

Celebrating its 16th anniversary from May 7-14, 2016, the New York Indian Film Festival was the first festival in the United States devoted to Indian films and has grown to be the largest and most influential, helping to set up several other Indian Film festivals in the US. It is part of a comprehensive program in the arts offered by the New York based Indo-American Arts Council. These programs include each year a travelling group art exhibition: Erasing Borders Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art of the Diaspora, a dance festival:  Erasing Borders Festival of Indian Dance, the New York Indian Film Festival, and the Literary Festival:  IAAC Literary Festival. In addition music concerts and theatrical presentations are arranged.

As other specialty or niche festivals, the NYIFF has a unique programming profile devoted to features, documentaries and shorts made in the Indian Diaspora, or by Indian independent film makers. Its goal is to foster an understanding of India and its culture and to contribute to improving US Indian relations. The festival is attracting a growing number of Americans. Individuals of Indian ancestry account for 60% of the audience. That group encompasses about 700.000 persons in the tristate area. As other Indian Americans they are characterized, according to census data, by very high educational achievements and form a very affluent group. Among ethnic groups in the United States they have the highest household income of about $100,000.  As other programs initiated and organized by the Indo American Arts Council the New York Indian Film Festival has been growing. IAAC programs reach about 17,000 people each year with the Film Festival attended in 2016 by close to 6000 over the course of the 8 day festival. The traveling art exhibition reaching East Coast galleries from March through October has an audience approaching 3000.  About 2500 come to the Dance Festival in New York City. 2000 are attracted to one free outdoor performance and 500 to the indoor concert and workshops. The literary festival reaches over three days 2000, theatrical presentations and music concerts have an audience of 1500 and 1000 respectively. 

 Whereas 53 films were screened in 2015 this year’s edition of the film festival included 79 films and added two more screening days.  The growth of the film festival audience was achieved by expanded social media reach and collaboration with arts organizations and community groups in the Tri-State area.

Yet in spite of this expansion of the program, inclusion of production from other South Asian countries and an opinion shaping upscale audience the festival faces challenges common to other niche festivals. First there is the perennial funding problem and second is the question of how to best serve the Indian American community and others interested in Indian culture.  This interview with, Aroon Shivdasani,  the driving spirit and the executive director of the Indo-American Arts Council and the New York Indian Film Festival, presents her perspectives

Claus Mueller                   What is the status of the New York Indian Film Festival?

Aroon Shivdasani             We started this film festival in 2001 because we wanted to showcase Indian Independent and Diaspora films in the US – something that had not been done before.   Less than two decades ago, nobody knew about real Indian Cinema in North America. We are the oldest Indian film festival in the US – older than any of the other Indian film festivals that have now cropped up all over the country, like those in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, and many others. We started as an Indian Diaspora film festival screening films made by Indians living all over the world – outside India. We conceived of a program to which the North American audience could relate -before bringing in Indian independent, alternate and art house films. Our first festival opened with the Godfather of Indian diaspora cinema, Ismail Merchant.  The Merchant-Ivory film SHAKESPEAREWALLAH had won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and featured Madhur Jaffrey and Shashi Kapoor.  We closed the festival with Mira Nair’s MONSOON WEDDING to a packed audience of people sitting in the aisles and standing at the back.

CM             When you focused on a target audience whom did you start with?

AS             We wanted mainstream America as well as second generation Indian Americans to see these films.  The first festival had an 80% audience from the Indian subcontinent but that percentage is changing.  

CM            Is it currently still that high?

AS            No, the festival now reaches out to all film aficionados.  However, we still have a South Asian audience of approximately 60% - the rest of the 40% is American.  You must remember that I am including the second generation Indian-American in the South Asian audience.  This demographic is actually American – people like my children who were born in the US.

CM            Has there been a significant change?

AS             Certainly, but there have been several other dramatic changes. The first couple of years most of the diaspora films we received were still immature.  Less than two decades ago there were a handful of good Indian Diaspora film makers.  Our first film festival had only twelve films because that was the number of good diaspora films we showed that year.   Indian diaspora filmmakers have matured over the last 15 years and we now have a plethora of films submitted to our festival.  However, we have also added films from all over the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan) which increased our annual submission rise to over 300 for each festival – giving us a problem that we enjoy – plenty of good films from which to choose our final program.

CM            So what is the mix of productions you show this year?

AS            This year we screened 35 feature narratives, 36 short narratives, 5 feature documentaries  and 3 short documentaries.    Now we have more independent films than Diaspora films.  Probably 60% are independent/art house/alternative productions and the remainder is from the Diaspora.  Over the last years there have been great increases of independent films submitted from India and the rest of the Indian subcontinent, which are quite remarkable in content and quality as well as growth in the number of productions.

CM             How many films were submitted this year, including shorts?

AS             305 films were submitted

CM             Do you carry in your festival commercial Indian films such as Bollywood productions?

AS             No – unless we were to program a retrospective of a great Indian Director who has made a significant contribution to Indian cinema.   Our mission is to show the real India through our films, to give socially conscious films a platform, to encourage audiences to view a different kind of cinema.  Bollywood does not need us to do this for them.  They have a large captive audience of their own.  We often screen films that have commercial Indian cinema stars or directors – however those films are in the independent stream – smaller budgets, socially conscious plots or plots reflecting real lives and stories.  We screen features, documentaries and shorts.  I would love to screen Aamir Khan films – I do believe he has turned the tide of popular Indian cinema.  Bollywood audiences respond to his films because he is of that world despite the fact that he now produces films in the independent genre which means his independent films receive mass audiences.  In addition, there seems to be a turning tide in Bollywood too…..several commercial films are also looking at real issues in the Indian subcontinent.

CM             Lets take another area. If you check the box office results of Indian films in the US it seems to be limited. Among the top scoring 100 foreign language films ranked since 1980 by Mojo, you will find only three Indian titles, MONSOON WEDDING. PK and OM SHANTI OM.  So what is the contribution of your festival to get high quality independent productions and Diaspora films into distribution in the US?

AS             First let us qualify your comment.  High quality Indian independent and Diaspora  films fall into the same category as the films shown in special venues such as the Film Forum, Lincoln center , IFC, Quad  Cinemas,  Sunshine and the Angelika. One cannot place “foreign” films in the same category as the top grossing American films – their markets are completely different.  If we are talking about distribution, we need to keep in mind that our films are part of the foreign language film group  that play in art house theaters, the alternative  or specialty film markets.  Both known and unknown Indian Diaspora films have had successful screenings in these theatres: Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding & Namesake, Deepa Mehta’s Water, Gurinder Chadha’s Bride & Prejudice, David Kaplan’s Today’s Special, Vikram Gandhi’s Kumare and a host of others.  In fact I would place Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire in the same category.  We premiered it and it then became a runaway success!

CM             But that market is also rather small. Foreign language films with box office receipts of more than $100,000 grossed only $ 63.9 million out of a total box office of $10.3 billion in 2014. In 2015 there was a decline. But it is significant that of all foreign language films released to date in 2015 and 2016 those from India had with $16.63 million higher receipts than French and German films respectively.  Comparatively speaking Indian films have a brief theatrical exposure rarely exceeding two weeks. Overall US box office reached $13.9 billion during the same period. Foreign language films continue to lose ground, possibly in part due to the greater use of digital platforms but there are no hard data as to their financial returns in alternative distribution.

It is indeed a specialty market. But looking at specialty distribution, have you been able to track the films you are showing with respect to their subsequent use by art houses or theaters specializing in foreign and/or Indian Films and digital platforms?

AS             Yes, recently we have started to track our films. It is still a rather small percentage of Indian films that have received distribution here.   I mentioned some of them above – others include Mathew Joseph’s BOMBAY SUMMER, Rajnesh Domalpali’s VANEJA,   Srinivas Krishna’s GANESH BOY WONDER, and Shonali Bose’s AMU.  Several notable independent films from our program have been screened in mainstream independent cinemas – Mira Nair’ s RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, Deepa Mehta’s MIDNIGHT CHIDREN, Anurag Kashyap’s GANGS OF WASSEYPUR.   Many films from our last four festivals have been shown here such as Nitin Kakkar’s FILMISTAAN, Feroz Khan’s DEKH TAMASHA DEKH, Anurag Kashyap's UGLY, Hansal Mehta’s SHADID, and most recently MARGARITA WITH A STRAW, SHAHID, UGLY, and DUM LAGAKE HAISHA.

The DVD market for Indian films is huge. Besides the legitimate sale of Indian cinema DVDs, there is a large black market that sells DVDs practically the same day the film is released!

 C M            Is there is a general problem cracking the specialty market, even if marketing support is provided?

AS             Correct, we encourage film makers to bring their contacts from the industry. We provide passes to distributors and film financiers but also use the festival to reinforce audience appeal, and work the media. Further the festival program ensures that there is always a post-screening discussion which gives filmmakers a chance to talk to the audience about their films and allows the industry to recognize and approach them.

CM            But you do have an advantage over let’s say Italian or French festival films?  There is a sub circuit of Indian film theaters in the US films, not only lots of the mom and pop operations but also theaters that were acquired by the Reliance Theatre Circuit.

AS             No, I don’t think so.  For one, mainstream America is already familiar with Italian and French films and filmmakers.  Indian Independent filmmakers are still in their infancy with regard to visibility in the “foreign film” audience.   With regard to Indian mom and pop theaters - they are reluctant to play the productions we offer because they are not confident of the recurring audiences they get with Bollywood films.  Reliance has closed most of their theatres!  However, Indian cinema in theatres has suddenly become popular – both with American Indians as well as American Film aficionados.  Two theatres at the Loews Times Square seem to be dedicated to Indian films…..you can check their schedule weekly for their Indian cinema picks.

CM             What if you have a commercially viable product?

AS           Well, I believe we have to start inviting movie theatre owners to our festival to show them the sold out houses for our films – in English, Hindi as well as all the other Indian regional languages.  In fact we have long lines of wait lists for several of our films.

CM           Did you invite theatre owners … theatrical distributors?  

AS        We invite distributors to our festival and have a panel at NYIFF with several distributors so that our filmmakers can network with them and invite them to their screenings.   We have not yet invited theatre owners, but this is a good idea.

CM             What about new distribution platforms, Video on Demand, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Eros now, HBOGO, special cable or satellite channels aimed at the Indian Diaspora audience, specialized circuits?  Reliance figures that there are millions of people in this country speaking Indian languages. Have you ever explored these new platforms?  

AS          Yes, we are increasingly aware of these platforms.  I believe Star TV, Netflix and several other established online distribution platforms are already screening Indian films.   Netflix carries about 70 feature films from India, though mostly Bollywood productions, they still have to recognize Indian independent productions.  Several smaller ones have approached us to stream our films through them.  In 2016 we continue to move in that direction.  In 2012 Mela attended our festival to invite filmmakers to stream their films through them.  Republic of Brown has approached our filmmakers as are big companies like SONY and MTV.  Several small distribution companies have started checking out our festival to acquire films.  The large ones have very strict rules of compliance whereas the smaller ones are more laissez faire.    We have important Indian film content that can garner a whole new audience of film aficionados for these channels. These companies have approached us because they realize that we have become an important entry point for Indian content.

I have heard Rediff.com is thinking along those lines too although I wouldn’t swear to that.  Companies realize that there is a huge potential market in streaming good films that are not easily available after a one time screening at our film festival.  The Asian Indian population is one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the US,   amounting to more than 3 million people now.   People attending our festival frequently ask where they and their friends or relatives can view our films. We hope to give them concrete answers after our 2016 film festival.

CM        What about other exposure?

We have been approached by the Museum of the Moving  Image, the Indians of Long Island, EKAL, and the Indian Cultural Council of Greenwich  to show a few of our  NYIFF 2016 films at their venues immediately following  our screenings.   Also, all of the local Indian media cover the festival, TV Asia, ITV, India Abroad, News India Times, and several others. MOMI and CCI had mini extensions of NYIFF at their venues in May and G5A (in Mumbai) screened our Award Winners from June 21-July 21).

CM             What is your current principal problem?

AS              Money.  Funding has become a major problem.  Major Indian and International companies, including the media sector have not yet discovered us.   We are exploring those avenues now. Corporate experience with our festival leads them to get more involved.  They certainly benefit from the exposure they received, the festival itself, as well as our audiences.   Limited funding precludes expansion and, equally important, it prevents providing better services to our audiences. 

C M            What about public funding?

AS             We receive small amounts from the federal, state and city governments.  However they are limited and have been further slashed due to the economy.

CM            Can you identify other potentials sources?

AS             We have approached several corporations.  I hope some of them come through.  Individual giving has, to date, been extremely important.  This means individuals who believe in our organization, its mission and are equally pleased with the execution and results.

CM            What about official Indian agencies? They come to mind since I had a very positive response by government and private sector officials to a presentation I gave in New Delhi several years ago on the important role of Indian films in propagating Indian culture overseas as public diplomacy.

AS             ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) and the Consulate General of India. The ICCR used to send us artists - that has changed with new Indian and US Government rules. . The Indian Consulate General gives us in–kind support by hosting some receptions, and the Indian Tourist Office (Incredible India) has, in the past, sponsored us with small amounts of cash.  However, that too has stopped as per new orders from India.  There is no significant monetary support from Indian Government agencies. As to other 2016 funding sources:  IMAN Cosmetics gave us a small amount of money and provided services for the Festival of Indian Dance, Air India has given us tickets for our filmmakers and dancers, both AIG and MasterCard gave us small amounts for the Dance Festival. 

CM      Do you detect any shifts since India is rapidly recognized as a major international power? 

AS      We see it in a greater diverse, mainstream audience interest. I hope it translates into financial support too because of the extent of our programs and of our contribution to sustain better relations between the United States and India.

CM    I trust you are right. Thank you very much for your reflections.

 

Claus Mueller    filmexchange@gmail.com

 

 

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