The New York Indian Film Festival

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 IndoAmerican Arts Council theNew 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?

AroonShivdasani, the festival's driving spirit and its executive director
AroonShivdasani, the festival’s driving spirit and its executive director

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: When you focused on a target audience whom did you start with?

AS: We wanted mainstream America to see these films. However, the first festival had an 80%audience from the Indian subcontinent.

C M: Is it currently still that high?

AS: No, it now reaches out to all film aficionados. However, we still have a South Asian audience of approximately 60% – the rest of the 40% is American. You must remember that I am including the second generation Indian-American in the South Asian audience. This demographic is actually American – people like my children who were born in the US.

CM: Has there been a significant change?

AS: Certainly, but there have been several other dramatic changes. The first couple of years most of the diaspora films we received were still immature. Less than two decades ago there were a handful of good Indian Diaspora film makers. Our first film festival had only twelve films because that was the number of good diaspora films we showed that year. Indian diaspora filmmakers have matured over the last 15 years and we now have a plethora of films submitted to our festival. However, we have also added films from all over the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan) which increased our annual submission rise to over 300 for each festival – giving us a problem that we enjoy – plenty of good films from which to choose our final program.

CM; So what is the mix of productions you show this year?

AS: We will screen 35 feature narratives, 36 short narratives, 5 feature documentaries and 3 short documentaries. Now we have more independent films than Diaspora films. Probably 60% are independent/art house/alternative productions and the remainder is from the Diaspora. Over the last years there have been great increases of independent films submitted from India and the rest of the Indian subcontinent, which are quite remarkable in content and quality as well as growth in the number of productions.

CM: How many films were submitted this year, including shorts?

AS: 190 productions were submitted

CM: Do you carry in your festival traditional commercial Indian films such as Bollywood productions?

AS: No – unless we were to program a retrospective of a great Indian Director who has made a significant contribution to Indian cinema. Our mission is to show the real India through our films, to give socially conscious films a platform, to encourage audiences to view a different kind of cinema. Bollywood does not need us to do this for them. They have a large captive audience of their own. We often screen films that have commercial Indian cinema stars or directors – however those films are in the independent stream – smaller budgets, socially conscious plots or plots reflecting real lives and stories. We screen features, documentaries and shorts. I would love to screen Aamir Khan films – I do believe he has turned the tide of popular Indian cinema. Bollywood audiences respond to his films because he is of that world despite the fact that he now produces films in the independent genre which means his independent films receive mass audiences. In addition, there seems to be a turning tide in Bollywood too.several commercial films are also looking at real issues in the Indian subcontinent.

CM: Let’s take another area. If you check the box office results of Indian films in the US, it seems to be limited. Among the top scoring 100 foreign language films ranked since 1980 by Mojo, you will find only three Indian titles, MONSOON WEDDING.PK and OM SHANTI OM. So what is the contribution of your festival to get high quality independent productions and Diaspora films into distribution in the US?

AS: First let us qualify your comment. High quality Indian independent and Diaspora films fall into the same category as the films shown in special venues such as the Film Forum, Lincoln center, IFC, Quad Cinemas, Sunshine and the Angelika. One cannot place “foreign” films in the same category as the top grossing American films – their markets are completely different. If we are talking about distribution, we need to keep in mind that our films are part of the foreign language film group that play in art house theaters, the alternative or specialty film markets. Both known and unknown Indian Diaspora films have had successful screenings in these theatres: Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding & Namesake, Deepa Mehta’s Water, Gurinder Chadha’s Bride & Prejudice, David Kaplan’s Today’s Special, Vikram Gandhi’s Kumare and a host of others. In fact, I would place Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in the same category. We premiered it and it then became a runaway success!!

CM: But that market is also rather small. Foreign language films with box office receipts of more than$100,000 grossed only $ 63.9 million out of a total box office of $10.3 billion in 2014. In 2015 there was a decline. But it is significant that of all foreign language films released to date in 2015 and 2016 those from Indiahad with $16.63 million higher receipts than French and German films respectively. Indian films have a brief theatrical exposure rarely exceeding two weeks. Overall US box officereached $13.9 billion during the same period. Foreign language films continue to lose ground, possibly in part due to use of other platforms but there are no hard data as to their financial returns in alternative distribution.

It is indeed a specialty market. But looking at specialty distribution, have you been able to track the films you are showing with respect to their subsequent use by art houses or theaters specializing in foreign and/or Indian Films?

AS:Yes, recently we have started to track our films. It is still a rather small percentage of Indian films that have received distribution here. I mentioned some of them above – others include Mathew Joseph’s BOMBAY SUMMER, Rajnesh Domalpali’s VANEJA, Srinivas Krishna’s GANESH BOY WONDER, and Shonali Bose’s AMU. Several notable independent films from our program have been screened in mainstream independent cinemas – Mira Nair’ s RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, Deepa Mehta’s MIDNIGHT CHIDREN, Anurag Kashyap’s GANGS OF WASSEYPUR. I am sure many films from our 2013 & 2014 festivals will soon be in the cinemas such as Nitin Kakkar’s FILMISTAAN, Feroz Khan’s DEKH TAMASHA DEKH, Anurag Kashyap’s UGLY and Hansal Mehta’s SHADID.

CM: In some cases, did they have prior distribution deals?

AS: Absolutely! And, in other cases distributors picked them up at our festival e.g. VANEJA, GANESH BOY WONDER, TODAY’S SPECIAL, BOMBAY SUMMER, AMU, UGLY, GANGS OF WASSEYPUR ……actually a large percentage of films screened at our festivals for the last few years have wound up in theatres.

CM: Is there is a general problem cracking the specialty market, even if marketing support is provided?

AS: Correct, we encourage film makers to bring their contacts from the industry. We provide passes to distributors and film financiers but also use the festival to reinforce audience appeal, and work the media. Further the festival program ensures that there is always a post-screening discussion which gives filmmakers a chance to talk to the audience about their films and allows the industry to recognize and approach them.

CM: But you do have an advantage over let’s say Italian or French festival films? There is a sub circuit of Indian film theaters in the US films, not only lots of the mom and pop operations but also theaters that were acquired by the Reliance Theatre Circuit. I understand that the success of these theaters with the Indian language audience has led to neighboring main line theaters to play Indian films now.

AS : No, I don’t think so. For one, mainstream America is already familiar with Italian and French films and filmmakers. Indian Independent filmmakers are still in their infancy with regard to visibility in the “foreign film” audience. With regard to Indian mom and pop theaters – they are reluctant to play the productions we offer because they are not confident of the recurring audiences they get with Bollywood films. Reliance has closed most of their theatres!

CM: What if you have a commercially viable product?

AS: Well, I believe we have to start inviting movie theatre owners to our festival to show them the sold out houses for our films – in English, Hindi as well as all the other Indian regional languages. In fact, we have long lines of wait lists for several of our films.

CM: What about new distribution platforms, Video on Demand, Netflix, Hulu, special cable or satellite channels aimed at the Indian Diaspora audience, specialized circuits? Reliance figures that there are millions of people in this country speaking Indian languages. Have you ever explored these new platforms?

AS: Yes, we are increasingly aware of these platforms. I believe Star TV, Netflix and several other established online distribution platforms are already screening Indian films. Netflix carries about 70 feature films from India, though mostly Bollywood productions, they still have to recognize Indian independent productions. Several smaller ones have approached us to stream our films through them. In 2015 we continue to move in that direction. In 2012 Mela attended our festival to invite filmmakers to stream their films through them; Republic of Brown has approached our filmmakers as are big companies like SONY and MTV. Several small distribution companies have started checking out our festival to acquire films. The large ones have very strict rules of compliance whereas the smaller ones are more laissez faire. We have important Indian film content that can garner a whole new audience of film aficionados for these channels. These companies have approached us because they realize that we have become an important entry point for Indian content. I have heard is thinking along those lines too although I wouldn’t swear to that. Companies realize that there is a huge potential market in streaming good films that are not easily available after a one time screening at our film festival. The Asian Indian population is one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the US, amounting to more than 3 million people now. People attending our festival frequently ask where they and their friends or relatives can view our films. We hope to give them concrete answers after our 2016 film festival.

CM: What about other exposure?

AS: We have been approached by the Museum of the Moving Image, the Indians of Long Island, EKAL, and the Indian Cultural Council of Greenwich to show a few of our NYIFF 2016 films at their venues immediately following our screenings. Also, all of the local Indian media cover the festival, TV Asia, ITV, India Abroad, News India Times, and several others.

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.

CM: Well, I do hope that this will be different in the future. Thank you very much for your reflections.

(Claus Mueller can be reached at