She is Greek, lives in Los Angeles and runs a festival of Indian films. Yes, that’s right. Christina Marouda, director, Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), is quite used to the gasps of surprise this information elicits. After all, she has been getting startled looks ever since she founded her own film festival in 2003 — the only one in North America dedicated to Indian cinema.
But Marouda, 31, is slowly becoming a familiar face in the film industry. For instance, Shyam Shroff of Shringar Films joined her advisory board last year. And critics like Uma Da Cunha have been on the board since it started. Besides, filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap have attended her festival.
Kashyap’s Black Friday and Madhur Bhandarkar’s Page 3 were screened at IFFLA 2005. As was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black. But it isn’t just Bollywood films that Marouda wants Western audiences to appreciate. Rather, IFFLA screens regional cinema as well as documentaries and short films. “Our focus is on films made by Indian film-makers or films that have an Indian theme, and films that haven’t been screened in LA before,” she says, who enjoys the “ride from laughter to crying” that a mainstream Hindi film can take you on.
Over the last couple of weeks, Marouda has been meeting film professionals and scouting for films for IFFLA 2006. Last week, she headed south for the International Film Festival of Kerala and she’s already gathered a pile of DVDs to watch when she returns home.
“We’re not looking too much at Bollywood since there are already outlets for this kind of cinema,” says Marouda, who is a fan of Mani Ratnam and loves films like Kandunkondain Kandukondain and the Apu Trilogy. Though she feels that Bollywood is now looking for ways to reach out to a ‘white’ audience. That’s where her festival can help, she feels. About 60 per cent of the festival’s audience comprises sophisticated South-Asian viewers while the remaining 40 per cent is from other nationalities.
The IFFLA has certainly grown in leaps and bounds since it started. For instance, as against around 4,000 people in its first year, it drew around 7,000 people this year. Thirty films from seven countries were screened in 2005 as against 26 in 2003. These included Kaushik Ganguly’s Shunyo E Bukey, Jahnu Barua’s Tora’s Love, Ilan Ziv’s documentary, Litigating Disaster, on the Bhopal gas tragedy, and short films like Czech director Ivan Zacharias’ Bollywood-style musical, Mulit.
More importantly, the festival is now eligible for grants as it’s been running for two years from local organisations like the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles. The festival runs on grants, sponsorships and donations. Also, the box office accounts for 25 per cent of revenues.
Marouda has also added new features to the festival each year — a children’s festival in 2004 and a segment on music videos this year. Three music videos were screened: Huzefa Lokhandwala’s Kesariya Balam, Ganges Dreaming by American directors Eric Hiss and Rafael Simon, and Don’t Search the Gardens (Baagan Na Jaa), a narrative music video of the bond between a Hindu schoolteacher (Anupam Kher) and a Muslim boy (Rahul Bose) set to a Kabir song sung by Shubha Mudgal. Next year, Marouda plans to add a segment on films made by NRI film-makers.
Marouda’s love for Indian films began as a teenager in Crete. “I grew up on Satyajit Ray and Nargis. I felt close to the culture and was amazed by the talent,” she says. She was able to access Indian films locally and through her sister’s Indian friends. Says Marouda, who first visited India in 1999, “We watched everything from mainstream Bollywood to Bengali to Tamil films. But at that time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to work in the film industry.”
So after graduating in international relations in Athens, she worked as a marketing executive in Italy and Spain. But she soon found her way to the US, where she did an MBA at California State University. Once in LA though, she couldn’t resist her love for films. So she joined the marketing division of a leading independent studio, Lions Gate Entertainment. Simultaneously, she pursued a part-time programme on film marketing and distribution at the University of California.
In her two years at Lions Gate, Marouda helped market films like Monster’s Ball and Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking' Her introduction to the film festival world began in late 2002, when she worked for the American Film Institute’s AFI Fest.
“It is very different from the way Hollywood works because while the people do see the business side, they’re passionate about films,” she says. The following year, she worked on the LA Film Festival. “At that point, I was educating myself to run a film festival,” she says.
That’s also when Marouda realised that Indian cinema was poorly represented in the city. “That didn’t make sense as India is the world’s largest film industry,” she says. Her research showed her that this was a niche waiting to be tapped, especially since LA and the surrounding Orange County had an Indian population of almost 100,000.
“There was also a lot of interest in Indian culture because Lagaan had just been released and everyone was interested in yoga,” she says.
Marouda gathered support from people like AFI’s executive director Christian Gaines, and founded IFFLA as a non-profit organisation. She hosted her first festival in 2003.
But starting up wasn’t easy and she met with some scepticism, though she admits that her being white actually worked with the Indian community. “It took a while to convince people. But the fact that I was not Indian created a sense of professionalism the Indian community was looking for,” she says.
Besides roping in a local programmer, Marouda also set about building a marketing team to raise money and create brand recognition. She roped in film consultant Carla Sanders and film-makers like Mark Burton, founder of Wonderfilms and producer of Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist and Mira Nair’s Water, and Rana Joy Glickman, who owns independent production company, Shakrah Films, onto her board. IFFLA has 20 people working for it today, many of them on a pro bono basis.
Besides screenings, IFFLA also conducts seminars and arranges sessions between Indian film-makers and Hollywood executives. She and her team also manage events like film premieres — like the publicity for the LA premiere of Bride and Prejudice (with Miramax).
Marouda is also a programmer for two film festivals in Greece. Moreover, she has now stepped into production and is working on two projects — a short film by Andrew Scoles and a feature film on a classical Indian dancer living in the US.
“I felt producing was the closest I could come to film-making,” she says and hopes to start shooting the feature film by Fall 2006. But it is the world of film festivals that remains her first love. As she says, “It’s been worth it. Every year, the day before the festival, everyone is so tired that we don’t want to work on another festival again. But on the fifth day, we’re crying that we have to wait another year for it.”