Interview: Cary Rajinder Sawhney

Everything you need to know about The London Indian Film Festival by its Director

Posted: 14.07.15

Starting out was like grabbing a surf board and riding a wave that got bigger and bigger
I have always been fascinated with film, Indian cinema especially, as I love the music. When I was a kid we lived out in the countryside so we often didn’t get a chance to watch movies but we would make a big effort to drive to Southall to watch Bollywood films when my aunts and uncles came over from India. I’ve worked in film for many years – at the National Media Museum in Bradford, right through to the BFI and had organised many festivals. I then decided to freelance and got the mad idea to set up this festival. At the time, the new wave of Indian cinema was coming out and it was like grabbing a surf board and riding a wave that has got bigger and bigger and it has been really exciting to travel with it.

It’s like having a house party, I get nervous wondering if anyone will turn up
I worry about our special guests especially and think ‘oh god are they going to turn up, did they get on the plane, did their visa turn arrive?’. In fact one guest was about to board a flight and realised he didn’t have enough pages in his passport, he was in New York with an Indian passport which we are still trying to sort out! But I have a great team around me, all crazy, like-minded people who are passionate about cinema, it makes a difference, travelling that journey together. The festival is ramping up every year which is staggering and our audience is responsive, they come back year after year because they love what we do.

LIFF isn’t just about sitting back and eating popcorn
The festival offers more than just the chance to watch films, we also show you the filmmaking process, giving you a chance to see how the industry works. Usually we watch films but we don’t think about the people involved in making them but for each film you watch there is someone controlling sound, costume, make-up, then there’s the producers, investors…it’s a grueling task to bring one film to the screen that lasts and hour and a half, it may have taken three to five years to make. At our Q&A sessions, which follow some of the screenings, you can hear directly from Directors. We try to showcase new independent talent, filmmakers that have small studios and sometimes small budgets whose stories show a realistic portrayal of South Asia.

LIFF Volunteers 2014

Don’t live in London? Don’t worry!
Over the last five years we’ve had many people coming down to London by coach and car to watch the films and many asking why don’t you bring the festival to Birmingham, so we thought, why not? There is massive market for the festival there and it’s a real opportunity to do something new in the city. We’re starting with around six to seven films this year but we’re hoping to have more next year.

Don’t be surprised if after the festival, you find yourself booking a flight to India
Especially Goa! One of our films Nachom-Ia-Kumpasa is about a jazz festival in Goa and it has already sold out so we’ve put on another screening. We also have really powerful political films that will make you question the state of the world today, for example Tigers is set in Pakistan and is about a man who sells baby milk to the local community then realises it is killing babies so he takes the company he is working for to court, and it’s about the fight to survive against people who don’t want the story to get out. We show films in different languages, shorts and documentaries giving you a real flavour of India and South Asia.

Director Mani Ratnam is taking part in a Screen Talk on 19th July at the BFI

We’re offering a rare chance to hear from Director Mani Ratnam
He hardly does interviews so our Screen Talk with him and Director Peter Webber who Directed The Girl With The Pearl Earring will be special. His cinema is really exciting, it’s known for strong political messages and powerful reflections of India as a nation with evocative, romantic songs that you will never forget. He made one of my all time favourite films, Bombay. It’s the film’s 20th anniversary so it’s great that we also have actress Manisha Koirala for a special charity screening to raise money to rebuild houses following the Nepal earthquake.

Don’t forget to vote!
Every year we have The Audience Award. It’s an important part of the festival, everyone who watches a film can vote for their favourite, and it’s great to see that previous winners have received a lot of press and PR for winning, which is great for the future of the film.

One more thing, you may just catch the filmmaking bug yourself!
As well as running the festival I have been making short films for the last couple of years and was lucky enough to win an award for my last one in the US. Now I’m working on a bigger budget film called Secret Heart. It’s a romantic film set in the present and world war two, it’s a period drama which has involved a lot of research. I have to get the right background, costumes, atmosphere – I have to do it properly as people will know if it doesn’t look right. It centres on a Jewish girl and a Caribbean man and it’s a reflection of the Britain I know. London is the most multi-cultural city in the world and there are many stories that don’t get told.

Maybe next year, you’ll see this one making an appearance at LIFF…

The London Indian Film Festival runs from 16th to 23rd July in London and 21st to 26th July in Birmingham. See the full programme online.

Interview: Momtaz Begum-Hossain



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