Italo Spinelli attends MAMI film fest

The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image’s (MAMI) 14th Mumbai Film Festival, which kicked off yesterday, includes the biggest ever retrospective of Italian films. The segment will trace the history of Italian cinema and will include recent films as well as classics such as Maciste (1915) and Inferno (1911). Celebrated Italian film director and film academician Italo Spinelli is at the centre of this intitiative along with the Embassy of Italy in India. Excerpts from an interview:

A still from Gangor
Harsh reality:  A still from Gangor

How did you get interested in Indian cinema?
My relationship with the complex plurality of the many different worlds of Indian films, involved a long process of falling in love that matured and grew over the past thirty years. Like many in my generation, the first revelation happened while I was in London, with films directed by Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak at the end of the sixties. This passion then increased when I discovered the parallel cinema of the seventies with films directed by G. Aravindan, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. My enthusiasm then moved to the world of great Hindi films, such as those directed by Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor and the supremacy of Bombay’s popular movies. Although my cinematographic training improved, thanks to European and American cinema — I studied cinema at New York University — this passion became increasingly explosive to the point of becoming a fatal attraction. My passion for films had been preceded only by a sudden obsession with Ravi Shankar’s music, as well as my hunger for contemporary English language Indian literature and the art produced on the subcontinent. This lasted until I first travelled abroad, in 1971. But that was another India, another world. I therefore began to make many documentaries linked to India, to its social-political context, as well as its literary context and, of course, its cinematography. I encouraged two great directors, Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci to accept invitations from various Indian festivals. This same passion led me to organise the Asiatica Festival devoted entirely to Asia, always with a privileged relationship with India, a festival I have directed since 2000. It arose with the same sense of urgency that Aruna Vasudev felt regarding the birth of Cinefan in those same years.

Italo Spinelli
Maverick: Italo Spinelli

Tell us about your experiences while working on the book, Indian Summer: Films, Filmmakers and Stars between Ray and Bollywood.
Indian Summer was written during an important retrospective of Indian films I curated for the Locarno Festival, and was the result of research addressed at providing a historical perspective of the many different styles in film production in the country’s different regions. The book was the result of extraordinary co-operation with many authors who made the book unique. In addition to editing the book, I also held a number of interviews: among them I remember the one with the great actor Om Puri. He helped me understand very clearly how, at times, the interest shown by the West in the immense and self-sufficient Indian market, was irrelevant due to the internal market with its powerful and ever-present system closely linked to the media and the economy. Those were the days of the huge success achieved by Lagaan, discovered precisely at the Locarno Festival. In India, we are now seeing a sort of explosion of the world of cinema arising from technological opportunities provided by the market to large numbers of independent filmmakers. That is where we need to look to discover new trends. Communications’ technological revolution is experienced in India just as it is in Italy, and provides new impulse and identities yet to be discovered and understood.

As a non-Indian student of Indian cinema, what according to you has been the biggest advancement that has taken over this industry in the last decade?
In my opinion, the most interesting phenomenon is the new approach provided by a new generation of directors, authors, musicians, actors and actresses who, together with young producers, are starting to renew mainstream Bollywood circuit with films that don’t adhere to stereotypes. This is a generation of independent filmmakers now entering the world of official productions and addressing the expectations of millions of viewers. Most of these viewers are young, urbanised and tired of purely commercial and routine films; they are attempting to recognise themselves in films acknowledging the many facets of the globalised world we live in.

How did Gangor happen?
Gangor was inspired by a collection of short stories a friend in New Delhi gave me in 2000. The book was called Breast Story and written by Mahasweta Devi. For years, I had been searching for a story that did not portray India from a Western perspective; instead, with real Indian stories and characters. The short story, Choli Ke Peeche, immediately seemed to me as a story of extraordinary impact, strongly written and straightforward. With my brother’s help, we set up the first co-production between Italy and India. The film won dozens of acknowledgements and awards, proving that the intuition that this story would appeal to an international public was correct. I would very much love to continue and make another film with the wonderful crew Indian cinema has, especially in Mumbai.

Are there similarities between Italian and Indian cinema?
We are all aware of Italian neo-realism’s influence — ranging from (Roberto) Rossellini to (Vittorio) De Sica — on India’s auteur cinema in the sixties. Much has changed now. We live in a globalised world, bombarded by images from across the continents. There are, however, themes that are still shared by these two worlds of films. For example, the family and its values which are so widespread in our respective societies: I am referring to the traditions of both, drama and comedy to which Italy has contributed so much and that, albeit slightly jaded, continues to influence Italian authors. Unfortunately, we also share the issue of corruption poisoning our societies. The female presence in the stories presented by the new independent Indian cinema and by young Italian scriptwriters, especially those from the south of our country, show special attention paid to women’s rights and to women’s emancipation. They are often very well made films directed by women. In general, I think that when Indian cinema investigates relations between public and private images, the multiplicity of the realities and its interpretations present subjects that can be appreciated by international viewers, such as in films like The Tortoise, an Incarnation directed by Girish Kasaravalli, which will be shown at Mumbai’s next International Festival.

What can the audience expect from the Italian film segment at this year’s fest?
The Celebration of Italian Cinema is a unique opportunity for seeing great Italian films. It is the largest and most important retrospective ever organised in India. It will present a fantastic collection of films not screened previously in India and made by the most important contemporary directors. These films present a unique knowledge of Italian culture and customs, starting with silent films of 100 years ago and including the most recent films acclaimed at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. This celebration will be an opportunity for appreciating all the directors that have made Italian cinema great with their films. It is an opportunity that should not be missed!

MFF continues till Oct 25. Log on to for the complete schedule. 

About Gangor
The film tells the story of Gangor (Priyanka Bose), a young tribal woman in Purulia, West Bengal. Upin (Adil Hussain), a photojournalist, visits the village to cover the atrocities against women and meets Gangor. A married man, his feelings for the subject of his story are ambivalent. He returns home and Gangor is raped and shunned by her fellow villagers. A haunted Upin goes to Purulia once again and discovers the complex nature of violence against women. 

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