x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Helping the twain to meet

East meets West: the Screen Actors Guild president Alan Rosenberg and Anil Kapoor at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.
East meets West: the Screen Actors Guild president Alan Rosenberg and Anil Kapoor at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

In the Oscar--winning film Slumdog Millionaire, a young Muslim man from the slums of Mumbai -triumphs over probability and his past to win a jackpot on television as the country watches. In Los Angeles, a festival of Indian film is now offering its own modest jackpot to the scriptwriter, Indian or non-Indian, who best reflects universal themes inherent in -Indian culture. The goal is for that script to end up as a film, perhaps one that many countries will watch. The Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles begins taking applications on September 1 for its Film Fund -development prize of $10,000 (Dh36,7000 - nowhere near -Slumdog level, of course - as the capitals of the two largest film industries, -Hollywood and -Bollywood, draw closer than ever. The deadline for submissions is November 2. The initiative is starting small; its ambitions are anything but. For the IFFLA director Christina -Marouda, the fund's goal is not simply to help a script get written and a film get made, but to bring the talent of the Indian diaspora and stories about India to the -attention of the US film industry. ---- "Given the recent co-operations between Hollywood and Bollywood over the last few years, it just seemed like the right time," she says. Marouda listed some of those co-ventures - the CG-animated -Roadside Romeo that Disney made for the Indian market, Sony's Saarawiya (2007) produced by -Hollywood for Indian audiences and a financing deal between India's -Reliance ADA and -DreamWorks. "We are definitely trying to -position the festival as a bridge -between the two largest film -industries in the world," says the filmmaker Verendra Prasad, who is one of the festival's programmers. Script submissions will be -narrowed to 10 finalists, all of whom will receive notes on their projects from a three-person jury. (Writers with more than one feature film credit are ineligible.) IFFLA will stage a reading of the winning work at the festival next April. It will also send a dossier of all 10 final scripts to agents and -distributors. "We want to help them develop their projects into something that can be made and be successful. That's why we start from the script level, because it's really the first stage and if that stage doesn't go well it creates issues that can't be fixed later on," says Marouda. The festival's success at bridging film cultures is unusual, -particularly because Marouda is not Indian. Born in Greece, she came to Los Angeles for a marketing MBA and worked in distribution for Lion's Gate. After stints at other film -festivals, she founded IFFLA in 2002. Its first season came a year later. The festival has doubled the size of its -audience since then and its budget has expanded ten-fold, she says. "Their breadth of taste is -impressive. Christina Marouda must have the best taste of any film programmer in LA, because there's quality to what she picks in every genre," says David Chute, a critic for LA Weekly and an Asian film specialist who has covered IFFLA since it opened. Could the IFFLA Film Fund bring that taste to -commissioning -movies? The initiative is applauded by Vikram Jayanti, an Indian-born filmmaker in Los Angeles. -Jayanti's latest -documentary, -Snowblind, -premieres at the -Toronto -International Film Festival next month. "I think America is terribly good at incorporating hyphenated -ethnicity - Indian-American, Pakistani-American - they're very good at -giving them a way into popular -culture in America. That is the kind of -investment that will result in some valuable cross-cultural -product," he says. Marouda says that part of her -festival's mission is nurturing talent: "The festival highlights -emerging filmmakers from India as well as from the diaspora, whether that exists in the US, the UK, Australia, Malaysia, wherever they are," she says. "Given that we are in Los -Angeles and there are so many Indian-American filmmakers living here, we want to make sure that there is a platform for them." Support from Indian filmmakers is to be expected at a film festival committed to showcasing work by emerging directors of Indian -descent. Support from Hollywood studios is another thing, but IFFLA has that as well. "It has gradually been growing to the point that this year all the major studios participated in some -capacity," says Marouda. "It has been an educational process for them and it continues to be. But at this point we see many studios -having established a division or having hired people that focus on India. For those people, the festival is a great portal to India." It is now an essential portal, given the success of Slumdog Millionaire, which earned $362 million (Dh1.3bn) worldwide, in addition to eight Academy Awards. But -Marouda denies that Slumdog was the impetus for the Film Fund. "Of course, the success of -Slumdog helps, but we would have done it -either way," she says, noting that the Film Fund had been -under -discussion for several years. "Having an example that worked perfectly would make -production companies and agencies and -distributors here pay more -attention to the project that we select," she concedes. "They might be looking for the next Slumdog Millionaire." "The writer [of Slumdog ] was -British and so was the director," she notes. "It would have qualified in terms of its theme for our Film Fund, but it wasn't a case where we said: 'Look what worked, let's figure out a programme for us to launch.' That wasn't the process." Still, Slumdog Millionaire points to the broader marketplace in which Hollywood and Bollywood operate even though neither has fully -integrated into the other's territory. Hollywood has struggled in the vast Indian market. "It failed -because of the rich tradition India has had of its own -entertainment," says Arnold Peter, an LA entertainment lawyer from Goa. "The thought that you could just dub Mickey Mouse cartoons into Hindi didn't fly there. Indians -really had choices and they chose to connect with content that they had a much greater -affinity with." Indian films, while -occasionally rallying US critics, have -barely aroused audiences in North America. British films with Indian themes, characters or settings have performed better. Even as the industries draw closer, it's too soon to see much evidence of a new Slumdog market effect, -although studio executives speak of it. When Hong Kong movies found a broad US audience in the 1990s, the director John Woo shifted smoothly into Hollywood, playing into the market's taste for the -action films that he had been directing for years. Some wonder why Indian film had no parallel US penetration. Kaante, Sanjay Gupta's 2002 -remake of Quentin Taratino's -Reservoir Dogs in Los Angeles with Indian actors and Indian songs, bombed in the US. So did Lagaan (2001), the Oscar-nominated -Indian-British epic set around a 19th-century cricket match. And the US male youth market that -distributors target is unlikely to go to Indian thrillers or to Bollywood musicals. US distributors have so far failed to market those musicals to the young women and families that might want to see them, says Chute, who hopes that those films will reach a US public. "Movies with songs, movies with an epic feeling to them, that's what I would advise them to do - not to try to emulate the West, not to try to do what people in Hollywood are -already doing, which lots of people in the US are already sick of," he says. Insiders point to Indian capital moving into Hollywood, citing -Reliance, which has infused cash into DreamWorks. (IFFLA honoured the Reliance head Anil Ambani in April.) But like the -Slumdog effect, the Indian capital effect hasn't been seen in studio content yet. Indian diaspora directors are also seeking funding in India, notes -Peter. "India, unlike many other places, has had a rich tradition in the -entertainment industry. It's just a natural collaboration occurring that I don't think would be possible with any other part of the world. "It's so much easier to do -business in India," he adds. "In China, one the day the government is your partner, the next day they're your competitor. Also, English is -widely spoken (in India) and it's the -language of business." Peter offers a prediction: "I believe that in the next 10 years, one of the biggest Hollywood stars is going to be someone of Indian background, not necessarily born in India, but someone of Indian background." Peter cites the actress Aishwarya Rai in The Pink Panther 2 and the actor Kal Penn, whose film and -television career was rising when he left the Fox series House for a post in the White House Office of Public Liaison. Yet a recent incident at Newark, New Jersey's Liberty Airport -exposed the distance between the two -entertainment and political cultures. As the actor Shah Rukh Khan was entering the US on a trip to promote a new film about the racial profiling of Muslim men -after September 11, his name raised a red flag among customs agents, who -questioned the movie star for more than an hour. The American agents had no idea who the hugely popular Khan was. At IFFLA, Marouda is working on closing that cultural distance. "There are certain taboos and -certain misconceptions about -India. Everyone talks about -Bollywood and songs and dances, but that's one misconception -because there's so much more. In the filmmaking world there, there's so many other films - regional cinema and the -independent cinema from Bombay - in the new wave of filmmakers," she says. Marouda looks ahead toward -the IFFLA's own new wave: "I would love to see some of the content that will be produced with help of the grants that we offer to be showcased and premiered at the festival, so the festival can become an institution that produces and creates content, showcases it, and then helps it find distribution." Stay tuned.