A still from the series The Crown, which was shown at the British Film Institute, London. Pic/Netflix
It's always been a dream of mine to help foster a film hub in Mumbai, where watching films is as important as hanging out after, with a congenial atmosphere for post-screening question-answer sessions, animated addabaji, with affordable yet great food and drink. Basically, a great way to spend evenings and weekends, by creating a stimulating community of like-minded people.
Last week, I was lucky to see a pinnacle of such a film hub in operation—the British Film Institute (BFI), among the great film institutions in the world. The BFI has commissioned me to be Guest Curator, UK-India Year of Culture 2017, for which I have curated a series of India on Film seasons that will play throughout the year, from April to December, at the BFI Southbank cinema in London, right on the Thames. This gave me a chance to see how the organisation ticks from the inside.
The BFI works to promote film, preserve the history and artefacts of film and television culture, and make them available to as many people as possible. Its wonderful BFI Southbank, a four-screen cinema venue, shows over 2,000 contemporary and classic films each year. This year, it started with a season on Martin Scorsese, that included Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, Q/A with the director, and coincided with the release of his new film Silence in January. Amazingly, their programme included a Film Scores Live Series, in which they had a 'Taxi Driver in Concert,' with the original score performed live by the BBC Concert Orchestra, along with the film screening.
What was wonderful is not only its location, right by the Thames river, from where you can watch the world — and boats — go by, but two lively cafes, the Riverfront Cafe, Bar and Restaurant where you could while away hours hanging out with friends over a single ginger beer, if you wished, and nobody would disturb you, or at the posher Benugo's fine dining bar and restaurant upstairs.
Their programmes feed into high quality television and online series as well. For instance, they had a ticketed panel event on the popular, Golden Globe-winning Netflix series The Crown — a lavish dramatisation of Queen Elizabeth's II's life — with executive producer Stephen Daldry, actor Claire Foy and others.
One of my first and delightful introductions to the BFI Southbank was chatting with a gaggle of excited and chattering school children who had turned up in wondrous costumes for an 'Alice through the Lens' event. The ethnically diverse children with roots in China, Ethiopia, Romania, Argentina, Spain, Japan and Qatar, were participating in a costume competition, dressed as their favourite Alice in Wonderland character, including rabbit ears, pinafores and an enormous, one-foot-high, green top hat.
It is hard to imagine that these incredible film offerings come from the BFI, which is in fact, a registered charity that depends largely on private funding. It organises or supports the BFI London Film Festival, BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival and London Indian Film Festival. Its BFI Film Fund uses National Lottery funds to develop and support UK films, as well as audiences. It offers a treasure trove of critically acclaimed films online on the BFI Player, where you can watch world cinema, including British films like Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, Indian and archival films. They produce the superb Sight and Sound film magazine, and have a mediatheque, a film library, education and outreach programmes. And the BFI IMAX theatre is a stone's throw away at Waterloo.
Some of the highlights of their India on Film programme include a screening of the restored Franz Osten's Shiraz of 1928, with live music composed by Anoushka Shankar. They are also making available nearly 300 rare, digitised archival films on India, shot in India between 1899 and1947 on BFI Player. There's one enduring image from last week: at the BFI's Stephen Street offices, I was surprised to see a staffer knitting in the lobby. She was using her lunch hour to knit sweaters for a charity. Her mindfulness will always stay with me.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at email@example.com
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