TIFF's Cameron Bailey to Indian Filmmakers With Global Aspirations: 'Think Differently' (Q&A)

Cameron Bailey at Film Bazaar 2012, Goa, India
NFDC India

The Toronto Film Festival artistic director warns india's film sector that it must abandon formulaic storytelling to succeed.

As a regular visitor to India, Toronto Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey has always been a strong supporter of the country's vibrant film sector. He demonstrated that support earlier this year when TIFF's City to City program showcased films from Mumbai. While visiting  the Film Bazaar in Goa, which is organized by India's National Film Development Corporation, Bailey sat down with THR to discuss the Indian film sector's evolution, how it compares with China and why Bollywood stars are having crossover success in Hollywood.

The Hollywood Reporter: There seems to be a new energy around India's indie scene right now. What do you make of this vibe at the Film Bazaar?

Cameron Bailey: I am hopeful for a greater diversity of Indian cinema... There are projects at Film Bazaar which are being made in different regions and languages, some for the first time. That I think has a real richness that can be tapped. The stories of the smaller cultural groups - whether they are tribal communities or far removed from bustling Mumbai – I want to see more of them and that's beginning to happen.

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THR: Is there a unique Indian voice that you are beginning to hear now?

Bailey: That's an interesting question. Political restrictions in a country like Iran have produced a very unique cinema. India doesn't have those kind of restrictions but there could be restrictions of the marketplace which exerts an enormous commercial influence on Indian filmmakers. And this can be as damaging as political restrictions because it limits what you can do. What I like is when filmmakers start engaging with this challenge: they don't accept it or reject but contest it. And that's what happened in Iran. You are right next door to China with a big market and thriving scene.
THR: But it seems China has developed its own voice via its martial arts epics. Do you think India will have multiple voices?
Bailey: Of course, there are so many languages here to start with so India has to have multiple voices. If you look at the India-China comparison a little more, China is usually engaging with historical stories. But in India what you have is a conflict between tradition and modernity. Its in every element of Indian society – from the generation conflict to the rural-urban divide. So if there is a voice then this conflict could be a recurring theme in Indian cinema.
THR: Generally, how is Indian cinema evolving in your opinion?
Bailey: When I started programming Indian cinema in 2005 at Toronto, I saw a kind of split between mainstream Bollywood and the arthouse scene. The big change I have seen since is there are now filmmakers who pay attention to the commercial market but are also making personal films in a more independent way. You see this in western Europe but not so much in India. This is gratifying to see that filmmakers are seeing both sensibiltiies and they know their audiences are not just Indian or the diaspora but global.
THR: How is the international perception of Indian cinema changing?
Bailey: The fact that the head of Fortissimo Films (Michael J. Werner) is here at Film Bazaar in Goa says a lot. Seven years ago he was not attending an event like this, which now has people from Tribeca and Cannes. We are here paying attention to the enormous potential beyond the commercial arena. There is no country on earth like India where filmmaking is so vital and productive. The quality of film technicians is also unmatched. But I still think some filmmakers are paying too much attention to the domestic audience and that might be a controversial thing to say but I think there's a wider world out there. Look at Scandivania which has a small domestic market but they have filmmakers like Lars von Trier who are known globally. As an Indian filmmaker you have to be clear who is your audience. If it is the strong domestic market that is absolutely fine but if you have global aspirations then you will have to think differently.

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THR: With Hollywood studios fortifying their India presence what do you see ahead?
Bailey: People looking at commercial cinema from outside sometimes stick too closely to the formula and they may not always succeed. So the initial attempts by Warner and Sony to produce Bollywood films were not so successful. As an example, Korea offers an interesting case study with filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and Park Chon-Wook (Oldboy). They are now both making films in Hollywood for studios. The South Korean model is to make thrillers but they were arthouse and very intense with thriller elements, yet they had a kind of extreme quality which came from auteur filmmaking. And that attracted the attention of the West via festivals and hence Hollywood. But they were also high on technical qualities, which India already has. Like food, films also need a special flavoring. Indian food in Toronto is differently flavored than in India and you can see that in films. So you have to come up with the right flavor.
THR: What was the response to Toronto's City to City program this year which featured films from Mumbai?
Bailey: It opened a door to a new kind of Indian cinema because the big Bollywood films are so dominant and people think that's all there is from India. So for the first time a number of people at the festival realised these films don't have songs or big stars or fantasies but are real about contemporary India. That was a huge success as I wanted to break down that image of Indian cinema just being Bollywood. We have showcased arthouse filmmakers in the past whose films are more connected to poetry rather than popcorn. Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur was a popcorn movie but it's something like a Quentin Tarantino movie.
THR: There's always been this long running debate about India's presence on the international festival circuit which is quite low given the size of the industry. Do you see that changing?
Bailey: At Toronto we show about six films from India in a regular year, though this year we had 16 because of the City to City program. But for a country producing a thousand films, India's representation is low. Compare that to France from where we are showing an average of 15 films though the country produces far fewer films than India. But they have a whole industry of filmmakers who produce films that travel the festival circuit. I think that is now beginning to happen in India when you see directors like Ashim Ahluwalia (Miss Lovely) or Dibakar Banerjee (Shanghai). They are as sophisticiated as anyone working in Paris. They are informed about international trends and as long as they can navigate that very complicated set of influences between what the Indian market wants, what the world wants and what they want for themselves, then they are going to be the ones to produce the films that will travel.

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THR: But how viable can that be?
Bailey: That really is upto the Indian audience if they want to come out and support these kind of films. And its upto the industry to deliver these kind of cinemas. What is sorely lacking in India is that there are no arthouse cinemas. I am sure there are going to be lots of people who want to see a good Indian arthouse film only if there were enough cinemas for them. Exhibition and distribution has to change.
THR: Taking a long term view, what is the image of India that you would like the rest of the world to see through films?
Bailey: I want the world to see contempoary urban India because there is that stereotypical and ridiculous image of poverty that has to change. You know how French cinema communicates an image of France as being urbane, cosmopolitan, sophisticated and romantic? Why not have films from India that show how incredibly cosmopolitian and modern Mumbai or Delhi are? I want to see more of that. On the other side I am also transported when I see parts of India that people don't even know existed as seen in Frozen by Shivajee Chandrabhushan which was filmed entirely in the remote regions of Ladakh.

 THR: A country is also known by its talent. What are your views on Indian talent given some are making international inroads?
Bailey: I think there is enormous acting talent in India but often they haven't been directed well. And that's because they have been directed for purely commercial reasons. With the right combination of good writing, direction and performance, these actors could have international appeal. Nana Patekar is one of the best character actors not just in India, but the world. Abhay Deol is incredibly charismatic and is becoming the face of new Indian cinema. He could be like Dustin Hoffman was in the seventies, an actor who embodies a revolution in cinema. Konkona Sen Sharma can be very good as well. They have the talent but they need everything else around them. Its a good start for Indian actors who have started to appear in mainstream Hollywood films (like Irrfan Khan in The Amazing Spider-Man) but it can't end there. They can hold up against big Hollywood stars and I am not surprised. For instance, Anupam Kher's performance in Silver Linings Playbook is terrific.