With a new documentary on climate change — featuring heavyweights like Noam Chomsky and Cher — set to release, the cultural impresario and founder of Liberatum speaks about the shoot, his love of art and more
Loneliness, says Pablo Ganguli, drove him to be more creative. “You want to fill the void with something that keeps you happy and fulfilled.” A childhood spent with his nose in books translated into a love of cultures and a gift for languages (he speaks fluent French, Bengali and English, among others), which today helps him curate high-profile, multi-disciplinary festivals across the globe. And while he is acquainted with some of the biggest names on the global map — many of whom he gets on board for his events — the cultural entrepreneur, and founder of Liberatum, the London-based cultural organisation, still “prefers his own space” over social gatherings.
Surprisingly, this stands in opposition to what is oft thought about the 33-year-old — Condé Nast’s managing director, Nicholas Coleridge, once called him a “fearsome networker”. Ganguli admits, “I am the worst kind of networker there is; I hardly leave my house or studio. (He does much of his work online and has confessed that he “wouldn’t exist” without email, Google and his website). But if you are passionate about an idea, then you must communicate with people and collaborate.”
Such collaborations have produced over 15 cultural and literary festivals across cities like Florence, Marrakech, Mumbai and Hong Kong, attracting leading global figures including Susan Sarandon, VS Naipaul, Nicole Kidman and Vivienne Westwood. “I want to connect people from different fields and different walks of life, to find out more about each other, to realise that we have more in common than differences,” he says, explaining why his festivals are interdisciplinary, where you will see a philosopher with an architect or a poet with a painter.
Building on passion
The journey to get to where is he now has been serendipitous, with a dash of romance. The son of a Bengali art historian (who named him after the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda), he was brought up by his grandmother, after his parents divorced. “Although my grandmother never let me feel deprived of affection, I used to feel alone. So I used to read novels and books about various cultures,” confides Ganguli, adding he grew up with a “hunger for culture and knowledge”.
Barely out of his teens, he fell in love with Simon Scaddan, then British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata, and followed him to Papua New Guinea. There, at age 17, in the pursuit of something to do, he put together a film festival and collaborated with regional diplomats to sponsor his maiden organisation, Connect UK. Later, when they moved to Marrakech, he expanded his portfolio by working as PR for Kssour Agafay, a reputed club. Finally, within a few years of shifting to London in 2010, he began making news as the best-connected individual in the city, with famous names on his speed dial.
However, Ganguli brushes off comments that his personal life made his work easier. “People think it’s just, ‘Oh darling, let’s do it’, and it all happens. But it takes months and months of work,” Ganguli once told the newspaper, London Evening Standard.
Ganguli’s talents also extend beyond networking and curating festivals. He has directed two films with his Lithuanian creative partner, Tomas Auksas — Inspiring Creativity (2014), featuring James Franco and other artists, and Artistry/Technology (2015), with Susan Sarandon and MIA, to name a few. Missing in the Indian press for a while now, he’s back in the headlines with his upcoming documentary, In This Climate, the trailer of which has been doing the rounds on social media recently.
How is the film going to be different from others made on this global issue? “There are a lot of documentaries on climate change with footage of ice melting and statistics. I get that, but I wanted it to have a human angle, to show a human connection,” he says.
To propel this connection, he has bagged the who’s who of both the art and science worlds — including pop star Cher, actor Mark Ruffalo, scientist-historian Noam Chomsky and broadcaster David Attenborough — for maximum impact.
Scheduled to release on June 28, Ganguli says In This Climate was delayed (the film was due to release earlier this year) as “we decided to make it a longer feature documentary, as opposed to a 20-minute short as originally planned. So we spent more time shooting (and interviewing people) around the world.”
Excerpts from an interview:
How was it working with leading global figures in your documentary?
To be honest, it’s also a rich experience when you talk to a fisherman, a housewife or a farmer. It’s ultimately about the human experience. We wanted to open a cultural dialogue where people tell stories. We wanted to start a discussion where these great minds come together, imploring people to make a change. Cher will reach a certain demographic that Noam Chomsky can’t, and vice versa.
Tell us more about your interactions with Cher and the others.
Cher was glorious; she was absolutely concerned about the issue. She is also working on a project where the goal is to use virtual reality glasses to see these wild animals instead of going to the zoo. Mark Ruffalo was a gracious gentleman who cares very deeply about the environment. You can see how dedicated he is and how genuine his commitment is.
Experts talk about how there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
You don’t see these issues being covered by the media as often as it should be. We need to talk about how to preserve our rainforests now, ways to protect our planet. People want to know what clothes the celebrities are wearing. For god’s sake, we have better things to talk about. Talk about planting more trees, please.
Did you shoot in India?
I went to the Sundarbans in West Bengal and spoke to the residents. The rising sea level is not only affecting the biodiversity (mangrove forests) but also their socio-economic conditions. We also spoke with the leading environmentalist, Sunita Narain, who is a very vocal figure in India. She says India is suffering because of the West.
What is the process of organising these cultural festivals?
For every new festive summit, we start with a new palette, a new topic, and then decide on the guest speakers. It is definitely not picking up famous names first and then making them talk about an issue. It’s much more organic, well-researched and thought through.It almost takes a year to plan a festival.
What have your biggest challenges been?
The biggest challenge is getting the finance. The costs are different depending on the size of the festivals. Sometimes, it could be about a million dollars for one, and other times more. Most of our sponsors are governments, watch and car companies.
How do you see Liberatum growing?
I would like it to be a strong house of culture. Liberatum is not meant for making money, but to give people the opportunity to have access to the great minds of our time. People who don’t get the chance to go to the Oscars, Cannes or Oxford — I’m bringing these important figures for them. I see my organisation as a cultural university, which is free of charge for everyone.
Why are art and culture so significant in your life?
I am a huge adventurer in terms of experiencing the world. I love creativity in all forms, be it watching documentaries or photography. One thing I have learned is that every culture is beautiful in its own way.
What does it take to be a cultural diplomat?
Agree to disagree and then buy them dinner.
We are working on a big festival in Mexico City. It’s a global cultural diplomacy festival and the goal is to create a strong, exciting annual landmark event that will bring together some of the greatest minds from different fields and connect them with their Mexican counterparts through a dynamic programme open to the public.
This article was originally published on The Hindu, a national daily newspaper in India.