The Indian Panorama
image from article, with caption: Aroon Shivdasani, the festival's driving spirit and its executive director
The New York Indian Film Festival was the first festival in the United States devoted to Indian films and has grown to be the largest and most influential, helping to set up several other Indian Film festivals in the US. Claus Mueller speaks with the New York Film Festival Executive Director Aroon Shivdasani on the progress story and the problems encountered.
Celebrating its 16th anniversary from May 7-14, 2016, the New York Indian Film Festival was the first festival in the United States devoted to Indian films and has grown to be the largest and most influential, helping to set up several other Indian Film festivals in the US. It is part of a comprehensive program in the arts offered by the New York based Indo-American Arts Council. As other specialty or niche festivals, the NYIFF has a unique programming profile devoted to features, documentaries and shorts made in the Indian Diaspora, or by Indian independent film makers. Its goal is to foster an understanding of India and its culture and to contribute to improving US Indian relations. The festival is attracting a growing number of Americans. Individuals of Indian ancestry account for 60% of the audience. That group encompasses about 700.000 persons in the tristate area. As other Indian Americans they are characterized, according to census data, by a very high educational achievement and part of the richest ethnic group in the US with an average household income of about $100,000. As other programs initiated and organized by the Indo-American Arts Council the New York Indian Film Festival has been growing. Whereas 53 films were screened in 2015 this year’s edition will show 79 films and added two more screening days. Yet in spite of this expansion of the program, inclusion of production from other South Asian countries and an opinion shaping upscale audience the festival faces challenges common to other niche festivals. First there is the perennial funding problem and second is the question of how to best serve the Indian American community and others interested in Indian culture. This interview with the festivals driving spirit, its executive director, Aroon Shivdasani, presents her perspectives.
Claus Mueller: What is the status of the New York Indian Film Festival?
Aroon Shivdasani: We started this film festival in 2001 because we wanted to showcase Indian Independent and Diaspora films in the US -something that had not been done before. Less than two decades ago, nobody knew about real Indian Cinema in North America. We are the oldest Indian film festival in the US – older than any of the other Indian film festivals that have now cropped up all over the country, like those in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, and many others. We started as an Indian Diaspora film festival screening films made by Indians living all over the world – outside India. We conceived of a program to which the North American audience could relate -before bringing in Indian independent, alternate and art house films. Our first festival opened with the Godfather of Indian diaspora cinema, Ismail Merchant. The Merchant-Ivory film SHAKESPEAREWALLAH had won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and featured Madhur Jaffrey and Shashi Kapoor. We closed the festival with Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding to a packed audience of people sitting in the aisles and standing at the back. ...
CM: What is your current principal problem?
AS: Money. Funding has become a major problem. Indian and US corporations don’t seem particularly interested. We made some small steps this year. I hope their experience with our festival leads them to get more involved next year. They were really happy with the exposure they received, the festival itself, as well as our audiences. Limited funding precludes expansion and, equally important, it prevents providing better services to our audiences.
CM: What about public funding?
AS: We receive small amounts from the federal, state and city governments. However, they are extremely small amounts to start with, and have been further slashed due to the economy.
CM: Can you identify other potentials sources?
AS: We have approached several corporations; I hope some of them come through. Individual giving has, to date, been extremely important. This means individuals who believe in our organization, its mission and are equally pleased with the execution and results.
CM: What about official Indian agencies? They come to mind since I had a very positive response by government and private sector officials to a presentation I gave in New Delhi several years ago in New Delhi on the important role of Indian films in propagating Indian culture overseas through public diplomacy projects.
AS: ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) and the Consulate General of India. The ICCR used to send us artists – that has changed with new Indian and US Government rules. The Indian Consulate General gives us in-kind support by hosting some receptions, and the Indian Tourist Office (Incredible India) has, in the past, sponsored us with small amounts of cash. However, that too has stopped as per new orders from India. There is no significant monetary support from Indian Government agencies.
CM: Do you detect any shifts since India is rapidly becoming a major international power?
AS: Unfortunately, I don’t see any visible signs of change. In fact, besides verbal bravado, the small amounts of funding we previously received have also been cut off. ...