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Aishwarya can save the Mumbai Film Festival, BUT...

By Aseem Chhabra
October 28, 2014 16:55 IST
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Aishwarya Rai Bachchan at the MFF

'Sonakshi Sinha, Imran Khan and other stars say MFF is their film festival. In reality, the festival belongs to Mumbaikars who wait in long lines, rushing from theatre to theatre,' says Aseem Chhabra.

What makes a good film festival?

The quality of films, yes.

And the way it is run.

This year, the Mumbai Film Festival programmed some major films -- many that had played at the Berlin, Cannes and Toronto festivals. Films like Mommy, Boyhood, Nymphomaniac Parts 1 & 2 were a big draw.

Now in its 16th year, MFF runs with good intentions, a lot of heart and audience love, but also mismanagement and confusion that can be irritating.

By now everyone knows about the financial troubles that nearly killed this year's MFF. All of that is in the past as many good people -- Bollywood and non-Bollywood types -- came to save the festival. Hopefully, there would not be a similar desperate situation next year.

Minor irritants can be enough to annoy regular festival-goers. Firstly, there is no good quality large single screen theatre or auditorium in Mumbai's suburbs that can accommodate the festival's grand opening and closing ceremony.

Chandan in Juhu, a western suburb of Mumbai, may have had an exalted history, but the theatre is an embarrassment -- from dilapidated carpeting and bad toilets to a shameful sound system. The dialogues in the opening night film Serena (a mediocre film and in itself a bad choice for a festival that wants to have an international face) were mumbled and barely made sense.

The following day's 10 am screening Early Spring, Kyoto and the next show of the Berlin winner Stations Of The Cross were marred with subtitling issues. A festival organiser blamed the theatre for the problem. But this is the third time I am attending MFF and each year a few screenings are interrupted because the subtitles fail to appear on the screen.

Why can't the festival assign one volunteer (and there are many eager and helpful volunteers around) to every theatre, who would work with the projectionist 15 minutes before the screening to make sure the aspect ratio, projection and subtitles are all correct?

The audience should not have to suffer the first 10, 15 minutes of a screening wondering if anyone in the projection booth or the festival organisers seem to care about what is showing on the screen.

And while the festival may have major financial issues, theatres like Chandan should be retired or left for screening the latest Salman Khan film for his fans who would not care about the subtle nuances of sound and projection.

Everyone knows that many Bollywood stars and production houses have private screening spaces equipped with the world's best state-of-the-art systems. It is a shame that Mumbai, the capital city of Bollywood, does not have a high-end screening room that can accommodate about 1,000 people.

Perhaps the MFF organisers might consider hosting the opening and closing night events at the larger and cleaner NCPA theatre in Nariman Point, south Mumbai. The rest of the festival can be held in the suburbs, but this change would give MFF the sense of an all-inclusive, all-Mumbai festival.

This year's MFF again and again brought up the issue of Bollywood, its star system and the gap that exists between them and indie cinema -- Indian and foreign. Some of these issues are serious and could be extensively debated. But it is also true that all international film festivals -- despite showing many raw indie films -- depend on big movie stars to walk the red carpets and present awards.

Stars draw attention to festivals and media shows up in large numbers to cover their presence.

Some of this coverage can also help the festivals by bringing in bigger audience. So I had no problem with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan lighting the lamp with Catherine Deneuve on the opening night of MFF or Madhuri Dixit and Aamir Khan presenting the final day awards.

Much has been said about the Imran Khan fiasco where the star showed up for the screening of the Dardenne Brothers' latest film Two Days, One Night. I was not present at that screening, but the word is that some people in the audience booed Khan since the screening had been delayed by 15 minutes.

The fact that Khan came unprepared is inexcusable. Senior festival organisers have apologised, but why this messy situation had to occur has not been explained.

More importantly, did the festival organisers believe that Khan's presence or that of Varun Dhawan at the screening of Boyhood would bring in more people to see those films?

I can understand Anurag Kashyap introducing Parinda and Dibakar Banerjee speaking before the screening of Bandit Queen. Kashyap and Banerjee are first of all film lovers and then filmmakers.

I do not know Khan and Dhawan personally, but I doubt if the two have much knowledge about the films made by the Dardenne Brothers or Richard Linklater. And then after all of the drama and reports in the press, nobody seemed to care that Rajkumar Rao's introduction of Kim ki-Duk's One On One was canceled on the last day of the festival.

While Banerjee's presentation of Bandit Queen was appreciated, people later talked about the screening itself.

The print of Shekhar Kapur's film seemed to be in a bad state and the sound was not in sync with the images.

A festival organiser said that Bobby Bedi, the film's producer, gave them the print. But the festival should have checked the quality of the print before planning on the screening. If no good quality print was available, then the screening should have been canceled.

Anyone can blame Bedi, but ultimately it is the festival's responsibility to ensure that good quality prints are shown. In fact a similar print-related problem was also reported during the screening of Shyam Benegal's Junoon.

All of these hiccups aside, a festival is about introducing new cinema to the audience. Film festivals celebrate films -- bringing the rare, the recently released and often much acclaimed cinema to audience who otherwise would have no chance to see these works on the big screen.

For young film-goers, most living in the suburbs of Mumbai, the MFF is a gold mine, even when hardly any foreign press shows up to cover the event or that the festival is really not on the radar of Hollywood studios, producers, bloggers and festival-goers.

Watching young festival-goers standing in long lines, in hallways that were often less than adequately air-conditioned, all one could say is that MFF had met its big goal.

Sonakshi Sinha, Imran Khan and other stars said in a video promoting the festival that MFF is their film festival. In reality, the festival belongs to Mumbaikars, who wait in long lines, rushing from theatre to theatre, sometimes skipping meals.

I only wish they could watch and experience the films in an optimal manner at all times.

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Aseem Chhabra in Mumbai