It seems like the much-awaited yearly art bonanza, the 16-year-old Mumbai Film Festival (MAMI to most and MFF to some) will not see the light of the projector this year.
The reason is as old as civilization – lack of a few rupees. Ok, a lot of rupees. Obviously the much fabled large-heartedness of Mumbai, home to 26 billionaires (ranked 6th in the world) and 2,700 multi-millionaires, where Rs 100 crore films have become a norm of sorts, has failed to find the pennies needed to make up Rs 5 crore (less than 1 million USD) to run the festival.
Apparently, all doors have been knocked on. The ancient Mumbai behemoth with majority stakes in art and charitable trusts have said a polite no and everyone knows that this crisis erupted after a conglomerate that perhaps makes Rs 5 crore every minute and which had graciously supported the festival for the last few years, pulled out ("MFF is boring a abyssal hole into our profits," a board member there must have argued). Many of the other Mumbai conglomerates to whom Rs 5 crore would be loose change, it is heard, were also gracefully cordial in their rejection.
Think about what this means: the city that is the cinematic capital of the world's largest film making industry is left an orphan, without any film festival worthy of this great metropolis. And that one of the richest cities in the world cannot find the little money to run something that had become an institution over a decade and a half.
The questions to ask then, which the companies approached to fund it must have asked – is this: Why fund a film festival? What use is it after all?
Indeed, what benefits can a festival accrue? Strictly speaking, they are money losing ventures. You show the best films of the year at hugely concessional rates, give away prizes worth a lot of money, get a lot of people a lot of publicity, yet what does the festival get in return: bad press from people who were not treated like royalty at the festival and little recovery of the money spent. Why bother running a film festival? Why bother funding it at all, unless it is a Cannes Film Festival (over half of whose money is given by the government of France and the city of Cannes)?
Corporates approached to fund it would have asked themselves more questions: Does it fall into our branding requirements? Is there any returns of any type at all for us? Can our Public Relations folks make it seem like it brings any value to the company, city, state, nation or the world?
For, isn't everything in the world today, a business – including life and everything to do with life? And anything that is not business, that does not bring in profits, is either worth discarding or at best belongs into the Corporate Social Responsibility aka CSR basket. And the modern image of CSR, which very few take seriously, is of photo opportunities with people with disabilities, with tree plantations, with kids in some workshops, with poor slum dwellers etc. Photo with some film director or actor does not look like CSR, does it?
The problem with the Mumbai Film Festival, is hence of valuation. How do you value it? How do you value art? How do you value that which promotes art and culture? How do you judge its importance in the life of a city, nation and world? Of course, we rarely think to consider how everything of real value in the world – a mother's love, friendship, brotherhood, happiness, peace etc. - escapes narrow valuations, especially of the monetary kind.
How then do you value the worth of a film festival that may be the lifeblood of a city's cultural space but unlike a painting or sculpture you cannot touch or put up on display and which may show 200 films but finishes in a week? Do you mean to tell me that it is not even worth a paltry Rs 5 crore a year?
Hope! Can you put a price tag on hope, can you define love with money, chart passion on excel sheets. Mumbai Film Festival, in the last 16 years, has been just that for million not just across Mumbai, but many across the rest of India and the world. It is a personification of hope, love and passion not just for cinema, because strangely most regular patrons of the festival have nothing to do with cinema.
Over the last 7 years that I have reported on the festival for different publications, I have met different kinds of people. There are many groups of office going friends and businessmen who take a break from work for a week every year to do nothing but watch films.
I have met students from small towns, newly minted Mumbaikars, who expand their world view with the films at the festival. Many of these students will tomorrow be MD's, Directors, Chairmen of billion dollar corporations with the power to deny future film or art festivals paltry monies. Those of them who will become ministers, chief ministers and prime ministers, will claim that cinema is a waste of time.
I have met people who looked for inspiration to make films and found it in MFF. Young girls who have found the courage to stand up to injustice against them at home and outside after watching a film, people with disability who travelled the world on the big screen and delved into lives they are not allowed to delve into in real life, old men and women who found a new lease of hope and enthusiasm that surged over them when they saw films about people their age in the festival. How do you put a price tag to this?
Lost and dejected, I have wandered into a film about love and loss, about injustice and suffering, about lost moments and lost people and I have wept with these films. I have wept for the brave protagonists battling raging storms, often losing despite well fought battles. I have cried because some obscure scene in some obscure film I would never have watched otherwise, had touched a raw nerve somewhere, some that have led to realisations, to understandings that I knew not I was capable of. And all of these within the confines of the Mumbai Film Festival. How does one determine what this is worth?
I have stood up, with every one of the 300 odd people in the dark theatre, tears streaming down the face of every single one of our faces happy to have witnessed something so magical, clapping endlessly as the directors, unsure about their film before this premiere moment, had often found it unable to contain themselves as well. How do you put a brand value to this?
In the protective, sheltered spaces created by the festival, I have met and talked to budding filmmakers who will become the next Satyajit Ray, Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg, Raj Kapoor or those who one day will charge way over Rs. 5 crore to direct a 500 crore blockbuster, talked to actors who as stars one day will take Rs 5 crore simply as a signing amount (and demand money to even visit the MFF as many Bollywood 'stars' have done in the past), filmmakers who inspired by something they had seen at MFF will make a 100 plus crore blockbuster themselves? How do you plot these into a profit-loss sheet?
Besides, consider what Rs. 5 crore is worth in Mumbai today? It is worth one song in a blockbuster film. It is worth less than half the money spent in hundreds of marriages in the city every year. It is the money given to a film star to cut a ribbon for a big showroom. It is the money given to a star to dance at a marriage by a father who wants to give his princess daughter a fairy-tale marriage.
Rs 5 crore is less than the money earned per episode by a TV comedian on a dumb comedy show, or a film star on a dumber TV reality show, an older star on a quiz show or by a good-intentioned star on a hard-hitting show on social reality of the nation. It is the budget of hundreds of 10 second commercials made every year in the city, 10 seconds that will earn them tens of hundreds of crores.
Rs 5 crore is less than the cost of the premiere, or success party thrown for their latest Hollywood hit by the 'reliable' conglomerate who pulled their benign rug from under the feet of the festival. It is less than the money spent by big corporate houses on exclusive parties, international weekend getaways for their top management. It is the money spent by a producer or director on advertising and PR to show off to the world that he now belongs to the exclusive 100 plus crore blockbuster club. It is the cost of one car brought by dozens of rich Mumbaikars every month, cars they will promptly discard in a few months for something more expensive.
Rs 5 crore is a lot of money, yes. Yet, Rs. 5 crore is not so much money either.
All you custodians of money with brand consciousness and PR skills, your sham CSRs and blind PR activities, your money rotting and stinking in Swiss banks, you who understand the price of everything but the value of nothing, you who equate everything to profit and loss who try to draw the map of the human heart over balance sheets… how can anyone show you what a film festival means to the life and breath of a metropolis you yourself reside in.
I understand your arguments, your logic against why the festival should not go on, about how it does not fit into your brand parameter, or scope of your activity, or the reach of your PR basket, but do you understand my arguments about why this festival, and many others like this, is important? And why it deserves the pittance you can give without making a dent in your purses?
Perhaps you won't. Because without your knowing, you are part of an ancient conspiracy against art and culture. The conflict between art and commerce is old. Both are required in the world. But commerce has always had the upper-hand against art. Yet, never has commerce been as powerful as it is at this point of history, at a time when there is more money and resources to do almost any and everything – end world poverty many times over, fund thousands of film, dance and music festivals.
Tacitly you have become a part of a greater conspiracy, one that is waged without being explicitly stated, which has begun to be associated with the survival of capitalism - that art, and spaces of art be selectively and with an efficiency only capitalism can muster, be hacked, clobbered, and smothered to death, that everything is worth only if you can plot it in a profit and loss sheet.
The closing down of the Mumbai Film Festival this year, and the next and perhaps forever, would be just one instance of this global war against terror of the arts.
The world won't come to an end if a film festival in a small corner of the world does not exist anymore. Yet, many things of value will die with it. Mumbai would die just a little bit more with the death of the Mumbai Film Festival. And so will something in the heart of each and every Mumbaikar.
And all for the want of a few pennies we couldn't find in our pockets.
Epilogue: Many films have been made by crowd funding. How tough can it be to run a film festival on crowd funding? I pledge to give Rs. 10,000 to the festival. And I can convince at least 10 people to give the same amount. Couldn't 500 citizens of Mumbai, get together to not only themselves donate 10,000 (put their money where their mouth is) but also find 10 others who would do the same? Can't the 99% reclaim another public space from the uncaring 1%? There's a thought worth a penny…
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(Satyen K Bordoloi is an independent film critic, writer and photojournalist based in Mumbai. His writings on cinema, culture and politics have appeared nationally and globally.)