IFFLA Executive Director Christina Marouda, Festival producer Noopur Sinha, and Co-Director of Programming Ritesh Mehta give the lowdown on this year’s lineup

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The curtain rises on the 21st edition of the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) 2023 on October 11 (Wednesday). The five-day festival will showcase six narrative features, two documentaries and 16 short films. While the festival will open with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Khufiya, writer-lyricist-actor-comedian Varun Grover’s semi-autobiographical drama, All India Rank, will be screened on the closing day. In this interview to The Federal, IFFLA’s Executive Director Christina Marouda; Festival producer Noopur Sinha, and Co-Director of Programming Ritesh Mehta give the lowdown on this year’s lineup and other highlights. Excerpts from the interview:

Over the past two decades, IFFLA has played a key role in promoting South Asian cinema and its diaspora in the United States. As the festival enters its 21st year in 2023, could you talk a bit about how it all began? Christina, how do you think it has had an impact on the broader conversation around Indian films and filmmakers in Los Angeles, and the recognition of South Asian filmmakers and talents in the US?

Christina Marouda: It all began in 2001-2002. Back then, there wasn’t a platform for Indian cinema in the US. I worked at the American Film Institute’s AFI FEST, which would showcase over 150 films every year from all over the world, yet Indian cinema was always overlooked. The same goes for other international film festivals both in LA as well as in other cities across the country. To me, this did not make sense given the volume, magnitude and legacy of Indian cinema. I happened to love Indian cinema as I watched some Indian films in Greece as a teenager (I grew up in Crete). 2001-2002 was also an interesting time for Indian cinema crossing the boundaries with (Ashutosh Gowariker’s Aamir Khan-starrer) Lagaan being nominated for Best Foreign film, and the success of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham that I felt it was the right moment for IFFLA to launch.

Over the last 21 years, we have established ourselves as the premiere platform for new and exciting Indian, and now South Asian cinema. We take pride in presenting a highly curated programme. We have discovered new talent and have introduced it to the Los Angeles audiences as well as the local film industry, Hollywood, the capital of the American entertainment industry. Such talent includes Anurag Kashyap, Vikram Motwane, Vasan Bala, Atul Sabharwal, Neeraj Ghaywan, Alankrita Shrivastava, Richie Mehta, Tanuj Chopra, Guneet Monga, Nisha Ganatra, Smrithi Mundhra, Prastant Nair, and many more.

IFFLA has offered over 1,000 alumni a strong platform in the U.S. Many have found representation through our signature One on One programme, which brings industry executives and our filmmakers together to meet and discuss their projects. We provide opportunities for the filmmakers to visit Los Angeles and introduce themselves to the biggest entertainment industry in the world.

IFFLA has showcased a wide range of films, from narrative features to documentaries and animated works, over the years. Could you talk about the selection process for the festival’s lineup? Christina, what criteria do you consider when curating a diverse and culturally rich programme?

Christina Marouda: We watch over 350 films and select less than 10% of those. This year, we are premiering 25 films. We have a team of seven who watch all films, each film being screened by at least two members of the team and if it passes this first stage then everyone watches it. We make diversity an intentional priority in our curatorial process. Diversity in terms of languages spoken, parts of South Asia and its diasporas represented in the stories we showcase, subject matters being explored, genres, storytelling sensibilities, filmmaker background, and more. We try to achieve diversity in two ways: by prioritizing extensive research and outreach efforts as we try to source film submissions from a variety of regions and backgrounds, and second, by ensuring diversity within our programming team itself, so that multiple voices can be heard within the selection process.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Khufiya and Atul Sabharwal’s Berlin both have their world premieres at the festival. Christina, can you tell us about the importance of holding these premieres and how they symbolise the festival’s commitment to presenting groundbreaking independent cinema from South Asia and its Diasporas?

Christina Marouda: These two films are indeed among the top highlights of this year’s festival. Both are directed by IFFLA alumni whose past films have been screened at IFFLA. However, none of them were able to come to IFFLA. So, we’re extremely excited to be hosting Vishal and Atul, along with the premiere of their new work. Khufiya and Berlin are both thrillers yet with a very different style; both showcase exceptional cast, and boast of incredible storytelling and direction that will have the audiences captivated. The selection of these two gems and the fact that we identified these two visionary filmmakers from the very early years of the festival (2004 onward) shows our commitment to presenting groundbreaking cinema from South Asia.

Anurag Kashyap; Christina Marouda and Pan Nalin

The documentary feature, The World is Family by Anand Patwardhan and The Golden Thread by Nishtha Jain are having their US premieres at IFFLA. Ritesh, could you talk about the importance of documentary filmmaking in portraying the diverse narratives and social issues from South Asia?

Ritesh Mehta: Documentaries and social issues are easy correlations in the broad public imagination. What Anand Patwardhan and Nishtha Jain, the directors, respectively, of The World is Family and The Golden Thread, accomplish so masterfully is bringing in the specificity and sweep of quite different Indian histories to their non-fiction narratives. The legendary Patwardhan, in his most personal film, makes himself vulnerable by showing us how much he is indebted as a documentarian to his parents and their contributions to the Indian freedom struggle; he charts the socio-historical as a means to reveal the personal. Jain gains remarkable access to the one of the last standing jute mills in West Bengal, and goes on to immerse herself into the craft of sound and camera to reveal something poignant about the history of industrial labour movements in India. Both films unearth a nation that used to be in order to reveal what the nation today has lost and still stands to lose.

Poster of Vishal Bhardwaj's Charlie Chopra & The Mystery Of Solang Valley; Co-Director of Programming Ritesh Mehta

The film industry has undergone a big change, particularly in the last five years. The pandemic, too, has brought about some transformations. Noopur, how has IFFLA, which returned on-ground last year after a brief hiatus, adapted to these changes, and what strategies have you employed to ensure that the festival remains relevant and impactful in the arena of independent cinema?

Noopur Sinha: The pandemic did indeed bring a number of changes in the film industry. People have started choosing what to watch differently. They decide often based on what’s readily available that they can watch at home and what can keep them engaged amid many distractions. But we’ve seen the hunger for good storytelling only increase. This is really exciting for filmmakers, and especially the independent industry globally, which has risen to the challenge of developing highly specific, increasingly personal yet universal stories for every type of viewer. At IFFLA, we have been following these trends and adapting accordingly. In 2020, we cancelled the festival due to the pandemic and instead presented the free online showcase IFFLA Over the Years; 125 films from the festival’s past 17 years.

In 2021, we presented the festival online, and in 2022, we came back with an on-ground festival amidst lingering concerns of Covid-19 and with many filmmakers not able to get their visa on time to travel to Los Angeles. This year, we’re thrilled to be presenting our 21st edition in what promises to be the first time after three years that we welcome audiences in big numbers, with a record number of filmmakers in attendance. In 2024, we plan to launch a new programme which was announced and scheduled for June 2023, but due to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes was postponed to 2024.

IFFLA Industry Day is a first-of-its-kind, day-long forum in Los Angeles for rising and established South Asian film and TV creatives, executives, and their audiences. This new event expands IFFLA’s reach by helping connect influential executives and visionary creators to emerging South Asian writers, directors, and producers. In a structured, conference-like experience, IFFLA Industry Day fosters participation by providing a space to share strategies and processes, while showcasing the breadth and depth of the stories being developed by the Los Angeles community and beyond.

Christina, could you highlight some of the most memorable moments or films that have left a lasting impression on you personally, and why?

Christina Marouda: There have been so many films we have put the spotlight on and that have affected me personally. It is hard to pick one. Some of the highlights for me both because of the films and also because of the talent the directors showcased through them include Nishikant Kamat’s Dombivli Fast, Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar, just to name a few.

Ritesh, could you share some of the challenges and opportunities that come with incorporating films from the South Asian subcontinent and its diasporas into IFFLA's programming?

Ritesh Mehta: It’s definitely challenging to narrow down the best of South Asian cinema to such a tightly curated lineup, especially since there just are so many exciting voices that we could highlight. Take the example of our shorts programmes. We received a record number of shorts’ submissions this year, significantly higher than the previous year, and for the first time, nearly half were from North America. We were pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed, because we felt we had to do justice to both LA- and US-based narratives, which we ended up doing, since half the shorts are US-based.

At the same time, our programming team feels very strongly about representing SA diasporas out of North America. While we did get a few submissions, we supplemented with extensive research and outreach, resulting in inviting a film like Bambirak from our alum Zamarin Wahdat, about the experience of an Afghan father and daughter in a hostile German city. The upside is an even more inclusive lineup, and having unique and specific immigrant narratives from different corners of the world, something that our audiences in LA, a city of immigrants and new arrivals, can definitely relate to.

OTT has revolutionised the way we consume content today. Ritesh, how do you look at the changing landscape in India with regard to filmmaking?

Ritesh Mehta: There's a lot to be said on this subject but just one point here —OTT is not the be-all-end-all, in India or anywhere. Audiences and filmmakers are hungry to interact with each other in a communal cinema setting. A maestro like Vishal Bhardwaj might get the chance to make his own TV show, such as the recently released Charlie Chopra & The Mystery Of Solang Valley, for a streamer in a way he may not have been able to a decade ago. But the danger with OTT content is that it can get stuck within the streamer's own libraries, never to be discussed in a productive manner. At IFFLA 2023, by flying in Bhardwaj for the opening night film Khuifya and by having him host a masterclass, we are addressing the exact gap that OTT opportunities have not been able to fulfill.

IFFLA has also facilitated mentorship, workshops, and networking opportunities for emerging and established filmmakers. Christina, how do you envision the future role of IFFLA in nurturing and supporting South Asian filmmakers, both within and outside the festival?

Christina Marouda: As we enter our third decade, we are moving towards year-round programming and also a more focused mentorship approach, institutionalizing our 20+ years of support of emerging storytellers of South Asian descent. In 2024, the pinnacle event of IFFLA Industry Days will be Launch Pad: A Pitch Competition, where pre-selected projects in development will be presented by their creative teams to a diverse panel of executives. Invited projects will receive immediate feedback from the panelists who, upon completion of the event, will award one project a $10,000 development grant.

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