Now the Indian film industry is making more noise on the world stage, its film festivals are also starting to attract a more international crowd. One of the best known outside India is Mumbai-based Osian's Cinefan Festival of Asian & Arab Cinema, which this year takes place July 10-20 in Delhi.
It is now the only major film festival to take place in the Indian capital since the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) moved to Goa. A two-day taster held in Mumbai in June has helped widen its reach and pique interest levels.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, Cinefan was launched by the team behind Asian cinema magazine Cinemaya, including Aruna Vasudev, Latika Padgaonkar and Indu Shrikent. The festival has been growing steadily over the years, drawing attendees from India, East Asia, North America and Europe. It serves a dual purpose in introducing Indian audiences to cinema from all over Asia and the Middle East, and also showcasing non-mainstream Indian films.
In 2004, the festival merged with arts auction house Osian's, founded by Neville Tuli, and widened its programme to include films from North Africa and the Middle East. While focused on Asian and Arab cinema, it also screens films from other regions in sections called Cross Cultural Encounters and In-Tolerance.
The festival also hosts Talent Campus India in association with the Berlinale, a series of masterclasses and a seminar programme snappily titled Infrastructure Building for Minds and Markets (IBM2).
This year, the festival will screen around 150 films from more than 40 countries, including Johnnie To's Berlin competition film The Sparrow, which will open the festival on July 11, the world premiere of local title Ketan Mehta's Rang Rasiya, Wayne Wang's A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers, Arturo Ripstein's The Beginning And The End and Alexi Tan's Blood Brothers. Two new competition sections have been introduced to the existing Indian and Asian & Arab competitions: First Features and In-Tolerance, previously a non-competitive section for films that deal with issues of intolerance. Prize money across the competitions and lifetime achievement awards has been raised to $250,000.
In addition to the annual festival, Osian's is also launching a development fund for film-makers from Asia and the Arab region. The festival will see the official launch of Food: The Film Fund - Osian's Originating Development, which aims to 'help young film-makers move towards bold new experiments in cinema', says Tuli. He explains the fund will reach out to young Indian film-makers in its first year and to Asian and Arab film-makers thereafter.
Underscoring its commitment to non-mainstream cinema, Osian's will open an arthouse cinema and arts complex in 2009. The Osianama is being constructed on the site of the old Minerva theatre in Mumbai. In addition to programming world cinema, it will host lectures, auctions, installations and a digital post-production facility, as well as display some of Osian's vast archive of world cinema posters and artwork.
'Our constant effort is to interlink the fine arts, literature and poetry with cinema, revealing the many common creative threads we all ignore on a daily basis,' Tuli says.
Promoting arthouse cinema
While India remains a Bollywood-obsessed market, there are signs the festival has had an impact in promoting local and international arthouse films to Indian audiences. In its early days, the festival mostly attracted students, the media, intelligentsia and clients of Osian's. But in recent years the public audience has widened, and local distributors and sales agents are starting to attend, acknowledging a nascent market for non-Bollywood films.
'We find sales agents in India buying the rights to films that we have shown in the past, and also investing in the works of directors whom we have promoted,' says Shrikent, who is co-director of the festival with Padgaonkar (former director Vasudev is now honorary president). Such films include Shivajee Chandrabhushan's Frozen, which won the special jury prize at Cinefan last year and was subsequently picked up by iDream Independent Pictures.
In addition, the huge audience success of a Wong Kar Wai retrospective at the 2004 festival encouraged local distributor Palador Pictures to go out and buy the Indian rights to the Hong Kong director's films. 'Until they screened at our festival, no-one could really gauge the audience reaction,' Shrikent says.
Although the focus remains firmly on filmmakers, it is expected there will be an increase in attendance from distributors, sales agents and exhibitors this year. A panel examining India's potential as a co-producer is also being mooted.
Among the international names expected to attend are writer-director Paul Schrader, who is hosting a screenwriting masterclass, producer David Weisman (Kiss Of The Spider Woman) and Oscar-winning costume director Milena Canonero (Marie Antoinette). Lifetime achievement awards will be presented to Indian film-maker Mrinal Sen and Filipino writer Jose 'Pete' F Lacaba.