Mumbai Festival Director on What's Next for India's #MeToo Movement

Smriti Kiran - P 2018
Courtesy of Mumbai Film Festival

Mumbai's pioneering creative director Smriti Kiran shares the festival's ambitious plans for growth and why Netflix could ultimately prove a savior of sorts for film festivals.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018, the Mumbai Film Festival finds itself on stronger footing than ever before.

The event's red carpet consistently draws Indian cinema's biggest stars — such as Aamir Khan, Anil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire), Radhika Apte (Netflix's Sacred Games), Dia Mirza and many more — while its programming has come to be seen as one of the strongest surveys of international art house cinema on offer in Asia.

Although not yet the type of event that can pull in high-profile global premieres, the Mumbai Film Festival's (MAMI) 2018 lineup includes everything from Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar favorite Roma to Korean maestro Lee Chang-dong's Burning to Steve McQueen's Widows and Lars Von Trier's latest provocation, The House That Jack Built, along with a predictably rich selection of the Indian cutting edge.

Much of the festival's recent gains can be credited to the tireless efforts of festival director Anupama Chopra and creative director Smriti Kiran, who have overseen the event since 2015. This year the pair also have secured some high-level Hollywood participation to help celebrate the anniversary, with Netflix chief creative officer Ted Sarandos jetting into Mumbai to personally introduce Roma, and discuss the streamer's ambitions in India; The Florida Project director Sean Baker heading up the international jury; and Darren Aronofsky giving a master class.

MAMI also was hit with an industry-shaking surprise on the eve of its 20th anniversary — the sudden upswell of the #MeToo movement in Bollywood. The festival responded quickly to allegations surrounding Indian films within its announced selection, dropping actor-director Rajat Kapoor's Khadak and Chintu Ka Birthday, from comedy collective All India Bakchod. Kiran says festival leadership felt it was imperative for the event to use its platform to play a leadership role in India's ongoing #MeToo reckoning, rather than "treat it as some kind of inconvenience."

Shortly before MAMI's kickoff — the event runs Oct. 25-Nov. 2 in Bollywood's capital city — The Hollywood Reporter connected with Kiran to discuss the event's unique, censorship-skirting business model, how film festivals should respond to Netflix controversies and why she has no regrets about her decision to ban all #MeToo-tainted films: "We needed to take a stand that shows firmly which side we're on." 

MAMI's 2018 lineup is pretty outstanding. I realize that landing high-profile premieres is hard for an emerging festival, but nearly every major art house title of note from 2018 can be found somewhere in your programming, not to mention the impressive survey of emerging Indian cinema. Was there anything you wanted to screen but weren't able to get?

We're really proud of the fact that we've managed to get the kind of films that we have, and massive work has gone into that — reaching out to sales agents and to companies, chasing them down and telling them that there is a market here in India, that there is an audience that is very cinema literate, and that what we are doing actually has a sensibility behind it. The only two films that we wanted but weren't able to get were The Favorite by Yorgos Lanthimos and Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk. When the current team assumed the helm of the festival three years ago, we realized this was going to be incremental, and that it was going to take tremendous work and patience. We can't move the needle in just a year or two. But we can continue to cultivate the right kind of relationships, so we can do even better next year.

Netflix's chief creative officer Ted Sarandos is visiting Mumbai to deliver Alfonso Cuaron's Roma to India, as well as taking part in a panel discussion. In Europe, the streaming platforms are viewed with a lot of skepticism as a potential threat to the theatrical filmgoing model. What's your take? 

I think as a film festival you really need to be nimble. It's not as if [the streaming services] are not making fantastic content. The reason Netflix and Amazon are also doing really well is because they are creating stuff that people want to watch, and they are bringing it to them in a manner that people like. This is all happening by choice; it's not an evil conspiracy. It's not as if they are forcing people to watch [Netflix] and chaining them to their houses and saying you can't go to the theater for a film. When film came along, everyone was concerned that it would destroy stage theater — and now we have this wonderful form we call film. As a platform, we are dedicated to good visual storytelling in every possible format. So, we welcome streaming platforms. I don't look at it as a conflict at all. I look at it as something that has come and is marching ahead on its merit. 

Do you think the streamers will ultimately help or hurt film festivals? 

I don't think anyone knows yet. But I think what is interesting about festivals is the experience they create around the movie watching and consuming. That human element is very important — you get to meet creators, have memorable conversations and encounters, and get connected with a whole lot of people. That's not an experience you can't have at home. That communal experience is also something that is disappearing from the world in general. People are hankering for that, because this idea that we are now connected to everybody thanks to digital technology is a fallacy — we are only connected to our phones. So, I feel that it is important as an entity like a film festival to keep on looking at the seismic shifts, and march ahead with full self-awareness that you will need to change and mold yourself a little bit — and hopefully do it without your brain getting diluted in the process.

So, one of the big issues we have to talk about, given the events of the past few weeks, is the way the #MeToo movement has really gathered steam in India.

Yes, thank God.

How has the movement here manifested differently, or similarly, to the way it started in the West? Where do you see it headed? 

Well, first of all, I have to say it took me by surprise that this even began here. When it started in the West, there were a lot of people who thought this MeToo movement would not be coming to India anytime soon. But then it just happened: one story came out and that led to another story, and then another. It kept on gaining momentum and then people came out in support of the complainants — which caught a lot of people by surprise, in the best possible way. We're in complete solidarity with that movement. It is way larger than anything that is happening here at the festival, because it has given voice to years of oppression, mistreatment and marginalization of more than half of the population of this planet.

The movement has also impacted the festival though. Several films were dropped from MAMI's lineup because people involved in them were accused of sexual misconduct. Other artists who work on those projects have argued that it's unfair that their work is being punished, just because of one participant's misdeeds. What's your response to that? 

We have found ourselves at the mouth of this movement, and we simply wanted to show that there is no question about the fact that we stand in complete solidarity with it. Any revolution begins very messy. Before any kind of nuance can come into people's responses, there are always an initial few weeks and months of confusion, of pondering over things, of waking up to new facts and waking up to your own take on things.

We've had to take some strong decisions. I would not like to say whether they are right decisions or wrong decisions; I can just say that no matter how hard that is, it feels right for the time. That is the only thing that you can go with, right? We might have caused a lot of hurt and pain to a lot of people who didn't have anything to do with this. But this decision at the moment was about showing support for the people who are speaking out — the people who found the courage to stand up and tell stories which are horrendous — because that has happened on everyone's watch. We felt we needed to take a stand that shows firmly which side we're on. 

Your team also responded to the recent developments by putting together a series of high-profile #MeToo panel discussions — and I understand this was organized within a matter of days. That's pretty impressive, especially given that the other great film festivals of Asia — such as the Tokyo, Busan and Hong Kong film festivals — appear to be deliberately dragging their feet on the issue. What do you have planned? 

We've organized two discussions and one workshop. The workshop is designed to tell people about the law that exists in India on sexual harassment. Because people here keep saying, "There should be a law; this is a legal matter; there should be something." But there is a law — and it's very lucid — it's just that you haven't read it. So we will raise awareness of the law and recourse that does exist. 

One of the conversations will then be about the narratives in our films, and how they shape society and mind-set. We will explore whether they have in any way fueled and led to the kind of messaging that has helped make subjugation exploitation of this kind possible in our society. 

The third is a conversation about the way forward. What are the next steps? How do we tackle this? What do we need to do to make sure that the workplace is safer and more humane. Because, you know, people are scrambling their way through this. We don't have all the answers yet. But we are going to try and get those answers, and make sure that this doesn't just get reined in. It has to lead to change that is positive. The idea is not just punishment, but consciousness. We really need to embrace this and take it forward. That is why you need women in key positions, because there has to be mindfulness and consideration for the needs of diverse people. Otherwise we can be absolutely tone-deaf. It's not an easy time, but it's essential. 

MAMI has a unique business model. Can you explain how it works? 

There are no ticket sales at the festival, because if we sell tickets the films have to be censored, as all commercial films in India are. That would mean we couldn't show more than half of the festival films that we usually want to select. We have a censorship exemption from the government as a special cultural event. But that means we can't be self-sustaining, and have to mostly rely on our sponsors, whom we are very grateful to. What we do is charge a nominal fee for bags and catalogs to everybody who registers for the festivals, and then they have access to the whole festival. It's very affordable, and it's also an incredible opportunity for anyone living in India because everything is uncensored, so it's a chance to see films in the cinema that you would never be able to see anywhere else. This is partly why our filmgoers are so incredibly passionate about the festival. 

Yeah, I've heard the tickets go very fast. 

Oh my God, yes. Everybody who comes to India for the festival, they're all blown away by the passion of our audience. They're cinema literate and they're fiercely focused on getting to the next screening. They don't care about getting selfies with stars — all they care about is seeing this great cinema on the big screen. They'll be banging on doors if they can't get into a film. It is scary and heartening at the same time. At least we know we're doing something right. Losing all my hair trying to pull this festival together is not going to be in vain. There is a purpose to it.