We are happy to let you know that Long Live Cinema has tied up with the oldest and largest Indian film festival in North America, the New York Indian Film Festival 2015, to bring to you insights, updates and information about the films being screened and events being held in association with the festival. With titles like Margarita, With A Straw (opening film), Haraamkhor, Chauranga and Kakkaa Muttai in fiction and Being Bhaijaan and Placebo in non-fiction, this year’s line-up is quite exciting. We kick off our series on the NYIFF 2015 with a chat with the Festival Director Aseem Chhabra, who lets us in on the selection process and vision of the festival.
NYIFF Festival Director Aseem Chhabra
How is NYIFF different from other festivals in New York?
NYIFF is the oldest and the largest film festival in North America that focuses on films from the Indian subcontinent. Of course, since India is the biggest filmmaking country in the world, we primarily program films from India, but we often showcase works from other countries in the subcontinent. Over 15 years, NYIFF has programmed New York premieres of some landmark films like Slumdog Millionaire, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, Water, Bride and Prejudice, Gangs of Wasseypur, Shahid, Fandry, Shalla, Anumati and even the charming Do Dooni Chaar (that was a US premiere and we were fortunate to have my favourite Bollywood stars–Rishi and Neetu Kapoor–present during the festival).
We have had many other well-known filmmakers, actors and other film personalities like Shyam Benegal, Mira Nair, Shabana Azmi, Danny Boyle, Freida Pinto, Irrfan Khan, Aparna Sen, Anurag Kashyap, Gurinder Chaddha and Deepa Mehta among others attend the festival. Most other Indian/ South Asian film festivals show 8-10 films. We screen 30 features and documentaries and another 10-15 shorts. We also hold industry panels exploring issues of distribution in India and here in the US; shooting in India and the US; and casting issues.
Could you explain a bit about the programming process?
We send out several calls for submissions. This year, like in the past, we received over 200 submissions – features, documentaries and shorts. But we also go out looking for films. This past year I attended a number of film festivals – Berlin, Tribeca, Telluride, Toronto, New York, Zurich, MAMI and Goa. I found some of the films we have programmed at these festivals. For instance, I saw Margarita, with a Straw and Kaakaa Muttai in Toronto. I saw Elizabeth Ekadashi and Haraamkhor at the NFDC Film Bazar in Goa. I saw Chauranga at MAMI. I got the documentary Being Bhaijaan after I read about it in The New York Times. As I am also a film journalist, I keep track of new Indian films opening in theaters in India and playing elsewhere. So there is no one way we seek films for our festival.
What are the films that you are excited about this year?
I think our documentaries are very strong this year. A Moment of Mishearing looks at the influence of various strands of music on the works of writer Amit Chaudhuri. Placebo explores the pressures of India’s elite education system on young students. Being Bhaijaan is a wonderful exploration of how Salman Khan impacts the lives of ordinary Indians. I loved the two children’s films we have programmed – Elizabeth Ekadashi and Kaakaa Muttai. Both won the National Awards this year. I am also particularly thrilled about our sidebar this year – Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean Trilogy (Maqbool, Omakara and Haider).
Are there any memorable stories about trying to get a film you really wanted to screen at NYIFF?
Tracking films is sometimes like a detective work. I read about Being Bhaijaan in the Times. Then I searched for the two filmmakers on the Internet. I found them on Facebook, and made friends with them. And then I asked them to submit their film to our festival.
Could you give us an insight about the special sections lined up for this year and why they were selected to be a part of NYIFF?
I mentioned the sidebar dedicated to Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespearean films. Haider recently won five National Award and was critically acclaimed in India and abroad. I think the time was right for us to revisit all three of Vishal Ji‘s films. And we are fortunate that Vishal Ji will be at the festival for post-screening conversations.
How has your five-year long programming stint with NYIFF been? What are the lessons you have learnt programming the festival.
I have enjoyed working as the festival director of NYIFF. It can be a stressful job – there are way too many films to see, although I am fortunate that I work with a very committed programming team. But it is very exciting to share a whole range of new, cutting edge films with our audience. I like to show films that surprise me. And so I enjoy the thrill of introducing our audience to those films.
What is your vision for the festival? How do you plan to make it stand out from other festivals?
We have a 15 years track record. As I said earlier, our festival is the oldest and the largest in North America. And we stand head over heals above the rest of the festivals. I often hear from smaller Indian festivals – not just in the US but in Europe also – that they follow our programming. I see that with many of the festivals that are held during the rest of the year. And that is very heartening.
What are the challenges you faced while programming this year?
NYIFF is a part of the Indo American Arts Council – an organization dedicated to bringing Indian arts to the US. But as a not-for-profit organization we have to struggle with shortage of funds. Our budgets are always tight. But that is not reflected in our passion and our programming.