In the Tamil feature film Alpha Adimai (Alpha Slave), a youngster who works as an aide to a weed peddler, recognises an opportunity to rise up and become a kingpin, in the middle of a raid. "We will be having a 'world premiere' of Alpha Adimai. People are going to see this film for the first time in our digital film festival," says Harsh Narayan, founder and creative director of Indus Valley International Film Festival (IVIFF) which is set to begin on August 1.
Narayan is seeking to replicate the experience of visiting a physical film festival by holding what he calls, "the first digital film festival in South Asia." There will be an inaugural speech by Vishal Bhardwaj, followed by the screening of his last feature film Pataakha. There are workshops and masterclasses, interaction and concerts, and a closing film. "We will close the festival with Nandita Das' Manto. I have received the film from Viacom18 Motion Pictures (which produced Manto). They say it is the first time they are giving their film to an online film festival," says Narayan, hinting at the reluctance of filmmakers and producers to part with their works for online festivals.
Last year, Narayan wanted to begin work on his cross-border love story Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke in a volatile political atmosphere which barred actors from Pakistan to work with Indian filmmakers. That project is still on hold. Instead, he is now hoping to present a bouquet of films and documentaries from the Indian subcontinent, hoping to create a buzz around films from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. There's Bangladeshi blockbuster romantic drama Nolok, starring Shakib Khan, who is as big a star as Shah Rukh Khan in the neighbouring country. "Shakib will be available for interactions," says Narayan. The Pakistani drama film Moor (mother in Pashto), Narayan assures, is in the same league as a Satyajit Ray or an Akira Kurosawa work. "The director of Moor, Jami, is one of the finest filmmakers of Pakistan. He took five years to make Moor," says Narayan.
Other feature films in the nine-day festival include Thanha Rathi Ranga (Between Yesterday and Tomorrow), a Sri Lankan film about a few friends from Colombo who travel to Jaffna after the fall of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and 20-minute documentary on an endangered music artform, Qasida of Dhaka.
Thanks to the pandemic, this is a season of online film festivals. The successful YouTube festival held in May, 'We Are One' organised by Tribeca Enterprises in New York, set the ball rolling by offering the idea of a lifeline to stalled or cancelled big-ticket film festivals around the world. It offered films culled from more than 20 international festivals. Even as we speak, there's the 20th edition of New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) taking place virtually till August 2. Even though Cannes and Telluride has been cancelled this year, the Venice Film Festival will go ahead as planned and will open on September 2 online. The Kerala chapter of the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI) began its online film festival for Indian language titles on July 27 to overwhelming response with 'No Registration! No Password! No Charges! Just Click and Watch 24X7'.
In the West, the format and feasibility of online festivals has begun to divide the film community. Even though they have begun experimenting with systems which integrate streaming, ticketing and scheduling along with audience data for online film festivals, there are concerns being flagged. Apart from digital security, negotiations with filmmakers and distributors is a complicated, long-drawn out process. It is often perceived that prior exposure in an open platform like YouTube or Facebook might hurt OTT and theatrical deals later on. Hence, there are few major 'world premieres', and more revisiting of older titles to reach a larger audience. Besides, the community-driven, highly interactive business model can't be replicated online.
But some independent filmmakers also recognise an opportunity in online film festivals thrown by adverse circumstances. And a chance to evolve with the changing times. "Giving your film to an online festival is not the last option. It is the only option now," says Ridham Janve, whose mystical debut feature, The Gold-Laden Sheep & The Sacred Mountain, on the Gaddi community had earned much praise on festival rounds in 2018-19, adding, " If your film is good and watched by 10 or 1,000 people, you would still find buyers and strike the right deals."
Janve cites Prateek Vats' Eeb Allay Ooo and Arun Karthick's Nasir which generated a great buzz after their screening at 'We Are One'. "Online festivals are a new format and it will take time to settle. They will find better ways to do it properly," Janve said.