BizAsia talks to Cary Sawhney about LIFF 2015

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The London Indian Film Festival (LIFF) will mark it’s 6th year in 2015 and it seems to be getting bigger and more influential as the years go by. With interesting topics being brought to light with every year that passes and guests who compliment the entire film festival experience, LIFF caters to the average cinema goer as well as the clued-up film buff.

BizAsia caught up with Cary Rajinder Sawhney, Executive & Programming Director of LIFF, about the much-awaited annual festival.

Cary Rajinder Sawhney

During your association with LIFF, how would you describe how much it’s evolved?

The Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival was set up to provide a platform to champion Indian independent cinema with UK audiences, critics and distributors as I found this emerging area of world cinema had been greatly ignored in the UK, entrenched as we are in our love of Bollywood (Indian commercial cinema). In our first year, mainstream critics constantly couldn’t get their head around the idea that there was a whole new Indian cinema out there which wasn’t Bollywood. Opening the festival with ‘Love, Sex Aur Dhoka’ director Dibakar Banerjee in 2010 certainly helped shake things up! Six years later on we have a faithful London audience and UK mainstream critics who are now fully aware of the debates around Indian independent cinema in all its regional diversity, this gives us a sense of achievement. We next need to convince more distributors to take the risk on such cinema. Box office success films like ‘The Lunchbox’ are helping.

What makes each year’s festival unique – and in particular, what about this year?

Every year we have new partners coming on board as funders, but also often as passionate friends which is exciting. This year we welcome the Bagri Foundation who has encouraged us to pursue our love of documentary filmmaking which has an increased part of our programme this year. Short films platformed in the Satyajit Ray Short Film Competition we inherited from the BFI and Satyajit Ray Foundation, but this is now firmly established at the heart of LIFF. Every year the feature film programme grows slightly and the language range of films differ. For example, this year we are focusing on Tamil cinema by profiling one of India’s greatest living directors Mani Ratnam and it’ll be super cool to have him with us. Our dedication to profiling the work of women filmmakers continues to grow and blossom with at least 5 talented women filmmakers’ work shown at the festival this year and a number of high quality female actors including the unforgettable Nepali icon Manisha Koirala, Bengali actors Churni Ganguly and Konkona Sen Sharma and we are fingers crossed for Punjabi Soha Ali Khan who is in our World Premiere ’31st October’ on Saturday 18th July.

Film festivals are nowadays much more than just cinema. What, of what you remember, is the proudest thing outside of films that you’ve witnessed the festival to achieve?

I think one of our coolest moments was last year when we screened the film Hemalkasa about the suffering of tribal peoples in the forests of interior Maharashtra. Nana Patekar came along, as he played one of the doctors who sets out to save these people and local animals. We passed the bucket around the auditorium and an emotionally moved audience donated over �800 to help build a hospital – amazing to have the opportunity to give something back. This year we are raising much needed funds for re-building homes in Earthquake torn Nepal and Manisha Koirala and Mani Ratnam are donating their time to support a special charity screening of ‘Bombay’ (it’s the 20th anniversary), and a sit down dinner at Grange Hotels on 21st July.

How do you and the LIFF team decide on which films to include each year?

We hunt for films all year long and watch out for what is happening at our sister festival globally. Cutting this range of product to just 20 titles is the ultimate challenge and we try to show films in a range of Asian languages which relate to different UK Asian communities eg. Punjabi, Gujarati, Tamil etc.

In your words, what makes the London edition so significant and how did the Birmingham idea come about?

This edition will showcase our most diverse selection of cinema yet and probably our highest quality with so many of the films being Indian national award, or international award winners – don’t miss any of them! Our partners of the London Festival DesiBlitz.com are based in Birmingham and our Brand Ambassadors Sunny and Shay have moved to Birmingham so it seemed a perfect moment to grow as we know there is a huge Desi community in the Midlands who are currently under-served in terms of cultural cinema. BFI supported us with this and this year we start our engagement in UK’s second city.

What are you personally most excited about for this year’s festival?

So much, I don’t know where to begin… The Opening Night with the feel-good film ‘Umrika’ starring Suraj Sharma is a brilliant starter which we hunted down at Cannes Film Festival. It’s a real coup to get this and we are expecting some great talent. Our closing film ‘Death of A Gentleman’ is super controversial – about the underbelly of world cricket and we have the first London screening of this – it’s already sold out and we are putting on another screening to cope with demand. There are also the smaller delicate films like the highly romantic Bengali film ‘Labour of Love’, or ‘Sari Raat’, the Gandhian value drenched ‘Gour Hari Dastaan’, and then up to epic scale with the immense Monsoon shot in 4K which charts the arrival in India of the biggest weather system on Earth; rare shots of wildlife and insights into every day Indians lives. Another favourite is the documentary ‘The Last Adieu’ about a woman filmmaker who goes in search of her lost father India’s greatest documentary filmmaker from the swinging 1960s. Another near sell out already is the Goan Jazz film ‘Nachom-ia Kumpasar’ – by popular demand we are trying to put a second screening of this film too.

What would you say you’ve learned about audience interaction since your association?

I think that our audiences have grown with us and what is lovely is how much they appreciate what we are trying to do and our army of charming volunteers are much loved too. Our audience get a chance to vote for their favourite film and its often a film that makes them proud of being Indian or sometimes a issue that can’t be ignored like last year’s winner ‘Sold’ about female child trafficking.

What do you wish that audiences/volunteers/participators take away from LIFF this time round?

We hope that our audiences will come on a journey with us through cinema into one of the most complex and magnificent group of cultures on Earth, where cinema itself is a god celebrated in many diverse manifestations. You for sure will learn something from the films on offer, some films and talks may inspire you, others may even shock you. Hopefully you will be hungry for even more next year.

The London Indian Film Festival 2015 begins on 16th July.

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