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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



MFF 17, by Jio-MAMI, Festival Diary, I


MFF 17, by Jio-MAMI, Festival Diary, I                                                                                                        (Coming up: Part II)

It began in 1997, as the International Film Festival of Mumbai (IFFM). Some International Film Festival of India (IFFI) regulars found the state-organised travelling fest not the ideal option of rooting a film festival. It used to be held alternately in Delhi and one of the other metros of India, comprising Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram. There was a strong sentiment that either IFFI should stay in Mumbai, or Mumbai should create its own festival. Informal discussions were held at IFFIs, of which this writer was a part too. Finally, a trust was constituted, called, very artistically, Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI), and the first festival was held in 1997, when I had already moved to Singapore, to set—up the India-centric service of ESPN.

Headed by Sudhir Nandgaonkar as Director, the festival ran for about a decade without any significant change of guard. Not quite in the same league as IFFI, and bearing the working style stamp of Nandgaonkar and MAMI trustee, studio-cinema owner Kiran Shantaram, it had its own, large band of loyalists, but a few critics too. Then, Shantaram and another trustee, Govind Swarup, former Managing Director of Mumbai’s sprawling Film City, found disfavour with the other trustees, and ceased to part of MAMI. Nandgaonkar, too, exited. Respected film director Shyam Benegal continued to steer MAMI, as Chairman, while S. Narayanan was brought in, first as consultant and later as Director. Narayanan was earlier with the central government run National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), and has produced some documentaries too. IFFM became Mumbai Film Festival (MFF), better known as MAMI, the acronym, which, if spoken in Hindi as ‘mami’, means aunt (maternal uncle’s wife).

Funding has been a huge problem. The local government of Maharashtra provides some money, which is a fraction of the financial requirement. The unimaginable but unavoidable had to happen: corporate funding was sought. India’s biggest and richest industrial group Reliance, which was split among feuding brothers Mukesh and Anil after their father, Dhirubhai Ambani’s death, was approached. Anil’s ADAG (Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group) came in as main sponsor, with his wife, former actress Tina Munim, now became the face of the festival.

With sponsorship came glamour, even as the company took control and made the event, at least partly, a public relations and image-building opportunity. Festival regulars found this development jarring. Film screenings, however, remained unaffected. There were more awards, higher prize money, large film-star presence and red carpets—photo opportunities galore. Favouritism crept into the management, and at several events, including the inaugural function, inaugural film screening, inaugural reception, closing ceremony, closing film and closing reception, the only media allowed was cameramen, both television and still. Critics and other film journalists, duly accredited, were told to keep away.

Last year, a few months before the 16th edition, ADAG pulled out. The obvious reason was the end of a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), and ADAG’s reluctance to renew the same. Or, maybe, the terms of a possible renewal were found to be unfavourable by one party. Benegal, Narayanan and the MAMI team probed all possible avenues, but the amount they managed to garner was not enough to cover expenses. As a last-ditch effort, MAMI brought in a group of young film-makers and actors, to take control. Narayanan bid a tearful adieu and Anupama Vinod Chopra, journalist-film critic, for TV and print, and wife of producer-director Vidhu Vinod Chopra, replaced him. The Chair went from Benegal to Kiran Rao, film-maker, also wife of one of India’s greatest superstar-producers, Aamir Khan. Somehow, MFF 16 was managed.

It was expected that by the time the 2015 itinerary was chalked out, everything would be in place. Far from it. Money became a major scarcity again. It beats me why is it so. Just one Indian superstar can sponsor the whole festival, if he is generous enough. More practically, 100 top producers, directors and actors—and there are some 100 on board, either as trustees or supporters—can contribute 1% each. Considering their earnings, this amount would make just minuscule holes in their pockets. Just look at the list of trustees: actor-producer-director Farhan Akhtar, producer-director Karan Johar, producer-director Vikramaditya Motwane, actor-producer Riteish Deshmukh, actress Deepika Padukone, Mr. Anand Mahindra, Chairman & MD, Mahindra Group and film producer, Mr. Ajay Bijli, Chairman and MD, PVR Ltd, the multiplex chain, Mr. Siddharth Roy Kapur, MD, Disney India and Mr. Manish Mundra, founder and CEO, Drishyam Films! With these moneyed individuals around, paucity of funds seems unreal.

Well, not everybody is a philanthropist, so they looked around to get sponsorship money. Guess where did they find it? With the Ambanis! No, not Anil and Tina, but Mukesh and Nita (the two wives have names that read like a re-arranged version of the other). Reliance ADAG was now replaced by Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), in the shape of its Web portal, Reliance Jio Infocomm. The name took first billing, so the first festival under the Jio flag came to be called the 17th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with STAR India, the TV channel getting second billing, as associate sponsor.

Call for entries went out on May 15. A signature tune, the first for MFF, was composed by Oscar winning composer A.R. Rahman and a campaign film was made, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane.  It featured Shyam Benegal, Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Farhan Akhtar, Kangana Ranaut, Nimrat Kaur and Kiran Rao. On October 5, director Ava DuVernay (Oscar nomination for Selma) was announced as Head of the International Competition Jury, and a press conference was called on October 7. At the PC, it was revealed that Mrs. Nita Ambani had joined the MAMI board of trustees as co-chair.

Leading film-maker, Mr. Dibakar Banerjee, said, “This year, the festival received an unprecedented 248 feature film submissions in 29 languages, including Pashto, Wanchu and Jaunsari. The selection of Indian films includes 14 world premières, and 17 India premières. Siddharth Roy Kapur, Managing Director, Disney India, added, “On October 31st, when you walk into Mehboob Studio, you will enter a different world – a world of movie characters, movie merchandising, movie books, DVDs and above all, movie conversations. ”

Later, Anupama fielded questions, and I ventured to ask her something awkward. I have known her mother, Kamna Chandra, as a writer of radio scripts that I was involved in production and voicing. Her brother, Vikram, and I, were classmates at film school. For many years now, she and I are part of a group of film-critics that preview films at press shows in Mumbai. Even then, perhaps I was being a little blunt, but it was a cause worth highlighting. “Under the previous MAMI regime, critics and journalists have been barred from attending key events, like the inaugural and closing functions. Only persons with cameras were allowed, along with a few favourite journos. Now that we have a colleague as Director, can we expect you to stop this discrimination?” She gave a dazed but categorical, “Yes” to that. Another scribe repeated the question, wording it slightly differently. Again a resounding “Yes” was heard. Did Anupama mean it? We were to find out three weeks later.        

(In the picture above are Vishal Bhardawaj, Gayatri Yadav, Niharika Bijli, Dibakar Banerjee, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Kiran Rao, Anupama Chopra and Smriti Kiran).                                                                        

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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