Showcasing more than 200 films from 56 countries, the 11th Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) starts today in the home of Bollywood, and runs until November 5. Around a thousand Bollywood films, twice the number made in Hollywood, are produced each year. But that has not stopped the festival from casting its net far and wide to bring in the best of both Indian and world cinema for the seven-day event. The opening-night film, Steven Soderbergh's real-life drama The Informant!, will be followed by a colourful selection of both Indian and international movies, which are making their Indian, Asian or world premieres in Mumbai. All are screening across five main sections.
"All of the festival sections carry some of the best films made the world over," said Shyam Benegal, the Indian film director and the chair of the festival's organising body, the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) in announcing the line up. "Whether it's the thematic or the director's point of view that makes every film so distinctive, our audience will be able to see and experience for themselves and be enriched."
This year, the MFF has made several innovations including the introduction of an international competition for first-time directors, which gives the event a firm focus on new filmmakers; a film business centre, which is a first step towards introducing a fully fledged film market in Mumbai; and Reel Real, a section of 14 feature-length documentaries, all of which will make their Indian premieres.
Some of the biggest names in the country's cinema industry sit on the MFF committee, including the Indian actress Shabana Azmi, the producer Yash Chopra, the actor-director Amol Palekar, the director Ashutosh Gowarikar, and Amit Khanna, the chairman of Reliance Big Entertainment, which has become the main backer of the festival, in a move that organisers say has allowed the event to grow by leaps and bounds.
"The idea was to have this festival that would make us proud as Mumbaikars because this will be here every year in Mumbai, known as Mumbai's main film festival and the first one in India not organised by the government," said Khanna. Films this year will compete for some of the biggest cash prizes offered by any festival outside of Abu Dhabi, including an award of $100,000 (Dh367,315) for the best first feature film, a jury grand prize award of $50,000 (Dh183,657), and a $20,000 (Dh73,463) audience choice award, which is new this year.
"This festival will be on an international level thanks to Reliance Entertainment's support. I think in five or six years we will be up there," said Chopra. Among the 13 debut films competing in Mumbai are several titles that have made a mark already this year. This includes the Danish film Applause by Martin Pieter Zandvliet, which won the best European film award at the 44th Karlovy Vary film festival, and Gigante by Adrián Biniez, which won three awards at this year's Berlinale, including the best first feature prize. Gigante follows a supermarket guard in Montevideo who develops a non-threatening obsession with one of his co-workers.
Other films being screened in competition include Here by Tzu Nyen Ho of Singapore, which debuted in the Director's Fortnight in Cannes. The film is a love story set in an abandoned mental hospital. Huacho, by Alejandro Fernández Almendras, which follows the lives of a group of peasants living in rural Chile and was screened at Toronto and at the Middle East International Film Festival. Also showing is Katalin Varga by Peter Strickland, which is a Romanian-set revenge drama which premiered in Berlin.
Rail Truck, a Taiwanese-Japanese coproduction by Hirofumi Kawaguchi featured at a number of Asian film festivals, and another Cannes title, The Whispers with the Wind, by the Iraqi director Shahram Alidi will also compete. It won multiple awards when it was screened in the Critics Week, with its tale of a postman in Iraqi Kurdistan who records the voices of Iraqi soldiers. "The idea of instituting an award for a best debut director is the characteristic of this festival. The idea is to bring latent young talent from across the world, directors not usually seen, to the fore," said Khanna.
Further emphasising this theme, the section Above the Cut will show 14 debut features of special merit, including the harrowing French film, Rwanda, The Day God Walked Away by Philippe Van Leeuw, and the Locarno Film Festival winner She by Xiaolu Guo, which tells the tale of a Chinese woman who leaves her village in search of the bright lights, which she finds in London. The Indian showcase, Frame, will screen 15 of the best Indian films made during the last year. This includes the Bengali films Janala by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, which premiered in Toronto, and Rituparno Ghosh's Abohomaan about the legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray. The Marathi films Vihir by Umesh Kulkarni and Rita, the directorial debut of the actress Renuka Shahane, will also play alongside Madhupal's Malayam film The Crown.
The world cinema section will bring together some of the most popular films making the rounds on the festival circuit in the past year. Among these are Sally Potter's film Rage, about a schoolboy who interviews a group of employees at a New York fashion house on his mobile phone and secretly posts the results on the internet, and Man on Wire, James Marsh's documentary about Philippe Petit's high-wire routine performed between the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York in 1974.
Dimensions Mumbai returns for the second year with a short film competition for young Mumbai filmmakers under the age of 25. The brain child of MFF's Jaya Bachchan, Dimensions will screen 25 shorts on the theme Mumbai The Metropolis, showing any aspect of life in the city. These films will compete for a cash prize of $3,200 (Dh11,742). Meanwhile, MAMI has selected five filmmakers to receive special awards and will present a showcase of each of their films. The Greek director Theo Angelopoulos will be the subject of a retrospective and receive an International Lifetime Achievement Award alongside the Indian actor-turned-producer-director, Shashi Kapoor. Amitabh Bachchan's 40-year film career will be celebrated during the closing night on November 5, as will the late filmmaker BR Chopra's. A special screening of Chopra's film Naya Daur will be presented by his son Ravi Chopra that night.
And the Hollywood screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) will be paid a special tribute and sit on the main jury with the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, the Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza, the Indian filmmaker Shaji N Karun and a former director of Locarno, Irene Bignardi. In order to nurture young talent, this year's festival also has introduced the Mumbai Young Critics programme which will give 20 preselected Mumbai college students the chance to form a jury and to vote for films, which will receive the Mumbai Young Critics Award and the Silver Gateway of India Trophy. Student initiatives are now a staple part of many major festivals.
And the festival's first-ever film business centre will provide a networking platform for "Indian distributors, producers, television channels, foreign sales agents, and festival directors to help the international sales of Indian films". The centre will run from October 30 to November 3 at Fun Cinemas Andheri, the central hub for MFF. "To be successful we need good films, which we promise we have, and we need a market because ultimately, across their world, festivals, apart from bringing the joy of watching films, are also an important place for filmmakers to do business," says Azmi."
We hope it will become an important part of our festival. Glamour we have. And glamour we will bring. We also want Mumbaikars to make the festival a habit, to put this in their calendar every year." Angelopoulos's The Dust of Time will close MFF on November 5. The film is the second part of a historical trilogy that takes place in the former Soviet Union, the Austrian-Hungarian borders, Italy and New York between 1953 and 1974, covering the eve of Stalin's death, Nixon's resignation in the US and the fall of the Greek junta.
The Informant!, which also screened during MEIFF, is a dark political comedy based on true events, as told in the non-fiction book by the journalist Kurt Eichenwald. It stars Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale and Melanie Lynskey and tells the tale of a young man on the rise at the American company Archer Daniels Midland. His wife pushes him to blow the whistle on their price-fixing manoeuvres in the early 1990s.
MAMI was founded in 1997 by the late filmmaker Shri Hrishikesh Mukherjee in order to represent film professionals in India. Now Reliance is helping take things one step further. "All of us are really very fortunate with the stepping in of Reliance," says Azmi, whose upcoming films include a biopic on the late Pakistani politician, Benazir Bhutto and Gurinder Chadha's latest film, It's A Wonderful Afterlife.
"We hope that the festival will also provide inspiration," says Azmi.