International Film Festivals Connect You With Global Distributors Who Can Take Films to Wider Audiences

 - Sakshi Post

Neeraj Churi is an Indo-British producer based in the UK. His credits and collaborations include feature films like “Evening Shadows” (winner 24 International awards) and other critically acclaimed films including Sisak (winner 59 international awards), U Ushacha (winner 8 international awards), The Last Letter (winner 2 International awards) and Sheer Qorma (2021)  starring Shabana Azmi, Divya Dutta and Swara Bhaskar in lead roles (winner 4 International awards).  

In an exclusive interaction with Sakshipost, Neeraj Churi tells Reshmi AR about his journey so far.

1. From information science management to cinema...how did the switch happen?

It was more of a gradual journey. Video editing always fascinated me, and even when I worked full-time in that USA, I dabbled in video art and live video mixing for events at some of the biggest clubs in New York City. My interest in editing got me in touch with some of my friends in India who were pioneers in making LGBT+ films in India. These filmmakers made me aware of scant opportunities for the community to tell their own stories, the challenges they faced finding actors, and limited options to screen/distribute their films. Growing up in India, the few LGBTQ+ characters depicted in films were either villainous or used for crude comedy. This false representation in media motivated to back the LGBT+ filmmakers in India by providing them opportunities to make their films to help permeate the positive portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters. With each project, I got more involved in various aspects of script development, casting decisions, line production, and distribution strategies. I see film production as my way to give back to the LGBTQ+ community.

2. Tell us about your journey. Was it difficult to get a foothold in the industry?
My journey started by helping people finance their short films. Realizing that there was no formal grant for making lgbt+ films, I started one in conjunction with Kashish MQIFF - the largest lgbt+ film festival in Asia. This soon progressed into other film-making aspects like honing the script, hiring actors and crew, managing post-production and distribution. I got into the industry because there was no interest in working with the lgbtq+ community to give them a chance to tell their stories. So getting a foothold was never a problem.

3. Your comments on nepotism in the film industry?
Nepotism is in every industry and not just film. Nepotism will open the door for you, but ultimately there is pressure on the actor to work hard and get the audiences to like them. Nepotism is a kind of privilege, and much like any privilege, it offers an opportunity to do good for others. If you have come into the industry due to your connections, why not hold the door open for others with no contacts?

4. You have several critically acclaimed films to your credit. Do you think it is hard to please the critics?
For me, the most prominent critics are the LGBTQ+ community. They ought to feel that they are being represented with authenticity and positivity on the screen. We work hard with our filmmakers to ensure we do sufficient research into the topics and involve the right advisers from the community to ensure that each project reflects the community's reality and aspirations.

Like any art form, cinema is subjected to interpretation, and everyone doesn't need to have the same opinion about it. Room for a plurality of views makes a society thrive. We are always excited to see how those within and outside the LGBTQ+ community receive our films. This keeps us honest and fuels our growth.

5. What's your take on movie reviews?
Movie reviews provide a view of how various society sections have received the film. It helps us gauge how effective we were in getting our message across. Your reviewers need not be professional critics, but they can also be our LGBTQ+ audiences eager to see an accurate portrayal of their struggles and hopes on the screen.  

6. The QDrishti grant that he gives out through the Kashish film festival every year is to help aspiring queer filmmakers. Elaborate on this.
Most developed nations have a formal structure of providing grants via semi-government bodies or trusts to the underprivileged communities to make films about uncommon subjects. We didn't have a formal mechanism of funding lgbt+ films and lgbt+ filmmakers in India. Hence we decided to team up with Kashish MIQFF to start an annual grant about seven years ago. We chose to double the grant amount in 2020. We also enhanced the format to bring the process along with other international grants.

Along with the financial grant, we offer mentorship to hone the script, subsidized equipment rental where possible; guidance and feedback at each stage from writing to final edit; festival, and distribution strategy. Our jury panel and mentors comprise esteemed industry professionals, actors, and writers. We are delighted that the film My Mother's Girlfriend, made by the 2020 grant winner, went on to win the prestigious Best short fiction award at the 2021 International Documentary and short film festival of Kerala.

7. This is an age of OTT, yet you want to stay away from digital platforms?
Not at all. We want our films to permeate as far and wide in all parts of the world. We work with all possible distribution channels (digital and conventional). We, however, want to strike a balance to ensure that even the LGBTQ+ community members from financially deprived strata can access the content without having to pay for it.

8. The audience that watches movies at the film festivals is a niche segment; don't you think you are restricting your film from reaching a wider audience?
The festival journey helps elevate the film's profile, and that of the filmmaker creates excitement and buzz about the film in India and internationally. The awards and publicity gained at the festivals help get movies a place on the OTTs. The filmmaker career graph gets a positive boost too. The international film festivals also offer an opportunity to connect with global distributors who can take the films to wider audiences.

9. What next?
We are embarking on a feature films project set in India that was recently chosen among the top 20 global projects to pitch at the UK Film London production finance market. The same project was also selected at the NFDC script lab under the mentorship of award-winning filmmaker Umesh Kulkarni.

We recently launched a YouTube channel for our original content and curated LGBTQ+ films made by other filmmakers to provide upcoming writers/directors to display their creativity. Stay tuned for an exciting project underway benefitting India's trans community.  


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