One of the things that Chittagong filmmaker Bedabrata Pain co-invented,
in his days as a scientist, is the CMOS digital imaging technology which
has enabled the digital camera revolution that is at the heart of the
independent filmmaking movement today. No tech innovation has more
directly impacted independent filmmaking the world over.
The revolution gave us the Arri Alexa which according to cinematographer
Roger Deakins brought us to a point where “digital is simply better” and
The RED camera system which was used by Steven Soderbergh to shoot
Che, The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant, and which was also
used to shoot the science fiction movie District 9. Recent Indian movies
shot on RED range from the independent Chittagong to Karan
Johar’s very mainstream Student Of The Year (this was shot
partly on a film camera as well).
Cameras like the RED and Alexa provide a strong alternative to
film, even if not an inexpensive one. But even when costly to rent,
digital cameras still manage to slash production costs. They are a
lot more maneuverable than traditional film cameras and do not
require the additional spend on cans of film.
However the true champion of the indie filmmaker has been the
DSLR, especially the highly popular Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The
DSLR’s 1080 lines of progressive scan resolution at 24 frames
a second resembles the film-look most closely. Infinitely more
affordable than cameras like the Arri Alexa and RED, they have enabled filmmakers to achieve results that are as close to film as possible – adding even more maneuverability. They have given the filmmaker greater options of playing with depth of
field and shooting in areas where there is low light, with hardly
any additional equipment. With the ability to view their shots
immediately after and the fear of wasting film out of the way,
filmmakers can now truly experiment with the medium and hone
their craft. In 2011, Canon and Nikon together sold nearly 12 million DSLRs.
A close second for technology that has revolutionized indie
filmmaking are advances in digital video compression. These have
enabled shooting HD (High-Definition) footage at reasonable file
sizes on easily and cheaply available consumer-level memory
cards which allow the footage to be transferred and edited on a
laptop. They have been key in taking post production out of the
Also, most exhibitors have transited to digital projection. The company
leading this transition is UFO Moviez, a satellite networked cinema. Some
would argue however that this last leap has actually hurt independent
cinema more than helping it get anywhere. Digital exhibition has ensured
that the mainstream movie can be at all places at once, conquering
every theatre, occupying every screen, in exchange for a fee that, for it, is
negligible. This leaves little room for the indie to try and squeeze in.
But let’s come back to the digital cameras and changes in post production.
They have led to a flooding of the market with good, bad and ugly films –
each calling itself a true indie. “A lot more independent films are being made and a lot more are being shelved,” says filmmaker Rajan Khosa. Then he laughs. “I’m sorry.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive.” Khosa, an independent filmmaker for
well over a decade, is best known for the critically lauded films Dance Of
The Wind and Gattu. The latter was shot with a digital camera. It was a
first for Khosa. “I usually always shoot on 35 mm (film),” he says.
For Gattu he chose the 5D because it gave him the opportunity of being
more “mobile” during the shoots. While Khosa agrees that the new
toys “make a little less dent in your budget” and are “more practical and maneuverable” he also thinks that it might be a little early to start celebrating.
This is because the final post-production for distribution and
exhibition still requires many independent filmmakers to go into
a specialized facility. Khosa discovered while working on the post
production of his film that most movie labs “don’t really know the tech when it comes to digital”. He wanted to mix computer graphics with shots of live action, for instance, and this became a problem because the labs “had no knowledge of how to work with 5D footage”. So, according to Khosa, his post production work on Gattu with the labs had to be figured out on the basis of “trial and error”. Many filmmakers feel that the labs
don’t really invest in research and development when it comes to digital
because it’s not where the bulk of their business comes from.
This leaves the Indian indie filmmaker high and dry. “You think that
shooting on digital will give you the same quality as shooting on 35 mm
film, and that your movie will live up to international standards,” says
Khosa. “But when a mainstream movie shot on film is played at the
screen next to yours, you’re always seen as falling short.”
Khosa feels that while it’s great that the indie in India is seen as a “four
man film”(meaning something that can be executed with a four person
crew), cinema “isn’t a four man medium”. “It’s great that the indie is
driven by passion,” he says. “But if we don’t put a workflow in place that
passion will die once the footage goes on to the editing table.”
The myths, trials and triumphs of the Indian indie. A narrative report
28 year old Karan Gour is setting his second film in a fictional nation. He has a pact with other filmmakers who will follow in his act and set their films in this ‘country’ too. The idea came about when Gour was spending time with a group of Indonesian and Singaporean independent filmmakers he met at the Shanghai International Film Festival. They were lost on the streets of Shanghai. No one understood the languages they spoke, not even the address they read out, because their accents made it unintelligible.
He thinks of it as building an imaginary nation for independent filmmakers. “It’s a large piece of land that exists between the US and the UK,” he says. “A First World country.” We’re at his one-bedroom flat in Andheri, Mumbai. All that’s in it is a mattress, a wobbly table that’s holding Gour’s Macbook Pro and the 2 chairs that we’re sitting on. Paint peels off the walls. Gour is wearing a faded T-shirt and a pair of shorts. He asks me for a cigarette.
“It doesn’t have any history or culture,” he says. “We’ll create it as we go along.” He says he’ll begin building it, then other filmmakers will take over. “I’ll define some things in this movie. Where a specific city area ends. Things like that.” Another filmmaker will determine what lies around that city. Yet another will decide what the people are like and “who conquered what, back in the days… “. Gour’s nation might be in its nascent stages but he is very excited at the prospect of having a place in the world for independent cinema– even if imaginary.
There’s no phrase more bandied in the Indian film media today than ‘independent cinema’. Or ‘indie’ cinema. The Indian indie. The hindie. The last coinage, often credited to Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Artistic Director Cameron Bailey, refers to relatively small budget, offbeat Hindi feature films, with no big Bollywood stars. But Indian independent cinema could mean much more. It could mean shorts, documentaries and of course alternative films in regional Indian languages.
The focus here, however, is to look into Hindi, or English, or Hindi and English feature films that aspire to provide a counterpoint to standard Bollywood fare.
Here too the lines could blur. This Indian indie could be one of the 11 films, made on shoestring budgets, with barely recognizable actors, and granted limited releases this year in an initiative, launched by one of the country’s leading multiplex chains, called PVR Director’s Rare. Or it could mean six off-beat films, with budgets higher than these but lower than Bollywood blockbusters, mostly without stars, which have seen mainstream releases this year, and critical as well as commercial success.
One of the latter films is Gangs Of Wasseypur (GOW). While Guneet Monga, one of its producers, calls it an independent film Manoj Bajpai, who plays a key role in it, says in the Times Of India: “While Black Friday and Paanch by Anurag (Kashyap – the director) were independent films, GOW falls under the category of ‘new wave Indian cinema’.” As if defining one new phrase wasn’t hard enough.
The Western definition of independent cinema is, simply, the films produced mostly, or entirely, outside the six major US studios: Paramount, Warner Bros., Walt Disney/Touchstone, Columbia, Universal and 20th Century Fox.
In India independent cinema, like everything else, is harder to define. The studio system crumbled in the fifties. A system of stars and formulae emerged in its place which guarantees, in most cases, that a film will command a decent profitability. The best way to define the Indian indie is to say that it seeks to be independent of this system. It does not aim to make a movie that appeals to the maximum number for the maximum profit. It aims to sustain.
This isn’t new. Hindi movie watchers had an ‘art’ cinema, way back in the 1940s, with filmmakers like V Shantaram and Chetan Anand. And a ‘parallel’ cinema after that, with filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Saeed Mirza. “We disliked the term ‘parallel’ because it seemed to assume that mass audiences would dislike our films,” says Shyam Benegal. “But today you see Bollywood being influenced by Indian off-beat films and trying to break out of its own formulae. This was unheard of in our times. Perhaps that’s why– ‘parallel’.”
The Hindi independent cinema made today sets itself apart from the parallel movement of the 70’s in more than one way. Its abbreviation of ‘hindie’ is an attempted infusion of coolth. It signifies a wider audience that its makers see for it as compared to that of its predecessors, generated by the proliferation of multiplexes and the internet. This audience is mostly young and either exposed to world trends, or aspiring to be. And there is a greater distinction. India’s art and parallel cinema subscribed to a left leaning socio-political world view, however subtly contextualized, and was often influenced by the new cinema being made in Europe at the time. The hindie, subject to a wider and more contemporary range of cinematic influences, prides itself on being independent of political and moral obligations.
Some filmmakers would prefer to narrow this definition of independent cinema down to the money it is made with. They would say an indie has to be made cheap with money from sources who are removed from the network of financiers and producers who fund Bollywood. But this trounces any hope of independent cinema evolving into a self-sustaining economy. Even in countries like the US, where the indie movement clearly avoids the major studios, an independent film like Sex, Lies, and Videotape had to be produced by a Robert F. Newmeyer (who was Vice President at Columbia Pictures before this), before it ushered in the cinematic revolution ascribed to it. In India, while independent films have been funded through crowdfunding or investors who’ve never invested in a film before – often the filmmakers themselves or their friends and family, we also have stories of a UTV financing Dibakar Banerjee’s no-star, small-budget debut Khosla Ka Ghosla. Or of a Bohra Brothers, which has spent half a century making mainstream Hindi movies, backing Hansal Mehta’s Shahid or Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan.
The apparent flourishing of Indian independent cinema in the last five years has been put down to the rise or resurrection of institutions that have broken existing rules, and laid out new ones. While this is heartening, there is much to be done, and much to be watched out for. While more exciting Indian independent films seem to be coming to the fore today than earlier only a few actually push the envelope and make for excellent cinema. Fewer find the distribution and exhibition outlets they deserve. And some of the institutions spearheading this change may just be discarding one set of formulae only to instill in their place another.
THE POSTER BOY
In 2002 filmmaker Anurag Kashyap was playing a character named Fanidhar in a play called Sir Sir Sarla. Fanidhar, a brilliant, passionate young man, had trouble expressing himself. With unkempt hair and bloodshot eyes, he mumbled and stuttered through the play– pitied or mocked by other characters. The only time he let himself be heard, loud and clear, was a scene where he found himself alone in a room. He screamed out poetry in a recitation that stole the thunder. Kashyap was 30 then. He had made Paanch, a dark, gritty morally ambivalent movie that was stuck at the censors.
In 2005 I had approached Kashyap at his Versova flat in Mumbai with a facetious questionnaire for a lifestyle magazine. Paanch still hadn’t released. And his second film Black Friday, an account of the 1992 Bombay bomb blasts, was held up because the case on which the film was based was subjudice. When asked what he would like to change about himself Kashyap said: “I want to make a releasable film”. What’s your greatest fear? “That I become corruptible, insecure, lose originality and make a film for any other reason than the desire to make it.”
Kashyap, who turned 40 this month, is now called ‘the poster boy of Indian independent cinema’ by the media. Paanch is still unreleased but he has made seven other “releasable” films – Black Friday, No Smoking, DevD, Gulal, That Girl In Yellow Boots and Gangs Of Wasseypur (GOW) 1 and 2. And he’s made them pretty much on his own terms, on dark, unconventional subjects, mostly with no big stars. 2 years ago he set up his own production house Anurag Kashyap Films Private Limited (AFKPL) which has produced and released 3 of his own films—That Girl In Yellow Boots and GOW 1 and 2—and 2 films by new directors: Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan and Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan. They have 5 more productions in line which also promise to stand apart from the run-of-the-mill Bollywood movie: Michael, Monsoon Shootout, Tasher Desh, Shahid and Haraamkhor.
It’s not that filmmakers like Dibakar Banerjee or Tigmanshu Dhulia aren’t suitable candidates to represent the hindie, but what makes brand Anurag Kashyap the best bet for kicking up a storm over independent cinema, more than his recent successes, are the lower depths of his past. Every report on him resuscitates his long years of struggle, and the irony of the fact that his first film hasn’t seen the light of day. The stories have been repeated often enough to fortify his brand: the firebrand messiah of new cinematic talent. A recent Cadbury ad shows him yelling into his cell phone at his casting director for not being able to find actors for his latest film. Kashyap is not asking for stars. He is asking for actors with the precise typicalities that his characters have. 4 girls on the next table cannot contain their excitement when they overhear him. They meet his requirements exactly. When Kashyap turns around and notices them he grins wide. He has found his cast.
This brand is what the poster boy uses to lobby for the release of films that are stuck, promote indies he likes in the press and on social media, pick battles with Bollywood heavyweights, build a network that connects financiers to aspiring filmmakers, and, if nothing else, allow a fledgling filmmaker to write “Anurag Kashyap presents”.
This year, AKFPL’s 2 entries into the Festival de Cannes – GOW and Vasan Bala’s Peddlers – have added substantially to this brand. This is AKFPL’s second season at the coveted film fest, the first being when Motwane’s Udaan was admitted in 2010. It is through such trysts with the international that the production company has built a reputation for discovering channels of distribution and funding for its films in countries as far off as Japan, Norway and Brazil.
Guneet Monga, Kashyap’s partner at AFKPL, has been the force behind opening up many of the above mentioned channels. Kashyap has often called her “our hero”. Her twitter tagline reads, “Let’s all come together to support the Indian indie”. She met me on July 24 in her sparse office that lies inconspicuously on a dirt track in a quaint Versova neighborhood called Aram Nagar.
High on the success of GOW, she seemed indefatigable. GOW 1 and 2 had been made for Rs 40 crores, she claimed, including publicity and release expenses. GOW 1 had already netted Rs 30 crores. It had just opened in Singapore and France. It had been running for over 4 successful weeks in the UAE. GOW 2 was yet to release. But with the satellite sales of GOW 1 Monga said “the film is already in profit”.
Bala’s Peddlers, on the other hand, has been made for just Rs 2 crores. Rs 1 crore was crowdsourced from Facebook, from ten investors who paid Rs 10 lakh each – the minimum an investor had to contribute. Another Rs 1 crore comprised promised payments to cast and crew, which were deferred until after the money was made up. The Indian exploitation rights for the film have been sold to Eros International Media Ltd., which has bought into it for a 50% partnership with AKFPL. The film is slotted for a January release here, whenever Monga finds a “freer Friday” on at least 200 screens throughout the country. And the international exploitation rights are being handled by The Wild Bunch, who have also been agents for The Artist, in return for a commission. On the day of our meeting, they already sold rights worth $ 150000 (over Rs 81 lakh) for France, Germany, Geneva, Brazil and the Scandinavian countries. Monga is also planning to earn money from Video On Demand (VOD) for Peddlers, and from sales to American universities after it “gets admitted into a major North American festival which I don’t want to name now”, but which, presumably, was the Toronto International Film Festival this month where Peddlers was shown in the City to City section. Monsoon Shootout is following the same path with a lot of international names involved at various stages of its production and distribution. Similarly, AKPL’s Lunchbox has been partly financed by the Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, a government body, in Germany.”They said we had to spend 150% of the money given by them in Germany,” says Monga. “We couldn’t shoot the film there, so Berlin is where we’re doing the post-production.”
Almost as if to sign off on its international cachet, AKFPL is co-producer for Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna and No Man’s Land Director Danis Tanovic’s next.
Monga says the way in which they choose their movies is “a personal process”. “Anurag reads the script, and I meet the director,” she says. “We have to fall in love with both the script and the director.” This process naturally precludes a lot of talent that does not personally appeal to the AFKPL head honchos. Indie filmmaker Hemant Gaba, who made Shuttlecock Boys said in an interview with IBN Live: “I did get in touch with his (Kashyap’s) production house.” “My film did not match the criteria of the kind of films he endorses. They prefer more like a gritty, hard-hitting, dark film.” He doesn’t hold this against Kashyap however: “Anurag is the face of independent cinema but he cannot be the father of all films.”
Detractors seem skeptical about whether the films produced by AKFPL, besides those directed by Kashyap, will see a theatrical release. Monga believes in waiting. She believes January, February and March are the best months to launch an Indian indie. She doesn’t want to compete with the blockbuster releases around the Diwali-Dussehra season, or even the Christmas releases. Hence the delay.
There is more criticism. Some indie filmmakers have, on record, yet on condition of anonymity, expressed reservations about GOW being called an independent film. And this is not just because it has been co- produced by Viacom 18 Motion Pictures (also called Studio 18), owned by Viacom Inc., which, ironically, also owns Paramount – one of the 6 major studios in the US. While Monga believes indie filmmaking is about “entering a newer space” away from “formula cracked content” one of these filmmakers believes GOW “uses the formula as much as an ’80s blockbuster does”. “Independence is about breaking new ground,” says another. “But stylistically GOW is a return to Satya (a 1998 film by Ram Gopal Varma that Kashyap wrote).” The fact that none of these voices agreed to having a name put to them for seemingly innocuous, constructive criticism of the categorization of Kashyap’s magnum opus could be an indicator of Kashyap’s perceived clout as the messiah of the indie. Or perhaps the insecurity that is known to plague the Mumbai film industry at large has also trickled down into its ‘independent’ circuits.
Meanwhile, Kashyap has commented on this blurring of boundaries between ‘parallel’ and ‘commercial’ in GOW. “You’re right in that GOW is straddling two worlds,” said Kashyap in an interview to Starblockbuster.com. “We have an unconventional cast, but the film is as commercial as Bollywood… ”
Still, it is this “unconventional cast” which allows GOW to retain a defiance of the mainstream: it is sans the aura of Bollywood stardom that would typically envelop such an epic.
Kashyap’s next directorial venture Bombay Velvet will feature Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor. “But AKFPL isn’t producing Bombay Velvet – Phantom (Films) is,” says Monga, defensively. “And that (the fact that it has a mainstream star) is exactly why.” Phantom Films is Kashyap’s newest baby, a production house that he launched last year with protégé Motwane and producers Vikas Bahl (former head of UTV Spotboy) and Madhu Mantena (who produced Ghajini). The same production company, financed partly by Studio 18, is also producing Lootera, directed by Motwane, starring Ranveer Singh and Sonakshi Sinha. To some filmmakers, Phantom is the sign of Kashyap slouching towards Bollywood.
This wouldn’t have really been a problem if Kashyap hadn’t, wittingly or unwittingly, become the poster boy of hindie. Independent cinema with a poster boy is a bit like communism with a dictator: too much hinges on too little. Kashyap is simply being asked to stand up for what he’s been seen as standing for. His working with stars is being seen as one would see Anna Hazare joining politics – it’s not wrong, as much as inappropriate. Also because stars, while often guaranteeing numbers at the box office, overwhelm cinema with exactly the kind of baggage an indie filmmaker wants to avoid. Shonali Bose, who made Amu, was approached by a big production house she doesn’t want to name for the script of her next movie Margarita, With a Straw. “They wanted to try and cast someone like Kareena Kapoor or Priyanka Chopra in the lead character of a paraplegic,” says Bose. “I refused.”
Yet this debate begs questions of a more complex nature. After having proved himself as a filmmaker who does not need stars to fund his films, must Kashyap continue to refrain from casting a star? Even if the star in question has proven his mettle as an actor? It may be difficult to categorize Bombay Velvet as an independent film but it does have a little bit of the spirit that pervades indies—the spirit of thinking out of the box—because there is something to be said for the fact that its script has been written by Gyan Prakash, the Dayton Stockton professor of History at Princeton University, one of the most prominent Indian historians today. At a time when the Hindi film industry has been crying out for good writers, and not being able to look for them beyond its immediate ambit, Kashyap has taken inspiration for his film from a critically acclaimed non-fiction book written by a hard-boiled academic.
Ten years after he played Fanidhar, Kashyap might be closer to Bollywood that one could have imagined but not enough for his worst fears to come true. I’m at a Versova cafe called Chai-Coffi. 3 struggling actors at the next table begin a discussion about whether the films being made nowadays are really different, and better. One of them claims he was a part of the theatre troupe that staged Sir Sir Sarla. “Do you know the story of Paanch?” he asks his companions, and begins its telling. Like every other newspaper report on Kashyap he tries to recreate that image of a man shouting out poetry from within a room. Only now the doors and windows have been flung open, and people have gathered to listen. Here’s hoping he does not run out of breath.
THE NEW MONEY
On September 12, as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was going on, a headline on the page of a new crowd-funding site called Wishberry.com read: “Mumbai Cha Raja Conquers The World”. Manjeet Singh’s Mumbai Cha Raja, an intimate film which revolves around the lives and friendship between two Mumbai street kids, had been selected for TIFF but Singh needed money to put finishing touches to the film. He put out a simple message on the crowd-funding site.
“Ours is the only film in the City to City section at TIFF without a known name involved. To make a mark at TIFF we need your support urgently… The money that you contribute will be used to complete the films post- production and promotional activities.”
On September 12 the film had already raised Rs 3,39,500 from 28 contributors. Singh’s target was Rs 15 lakh, the highest target for an indie film on Wishberry yet.
Wishberry.com, one of the country’s most prominent crowd-funding sites, is managed by a core team of three entrepreneurs in their twenties – Priyanka Agarwal, 27, Anshulika Dubey, 26, and Samiksha Mehta, 21 – based out of Mumbai. It allows social or creative projects to raise money from contributors from India and abroad. The site went live in January 2012. They invited indie filmmakers to use it this April.
Contributors don’t get their money back but are promised tokens of gratitude such as T-shirts, special passes to events or simply a thank you note. Indie filmmakers promise contributors anything ranging from a mention on their film’s website to a co-producer credit to an opportunity to appear in the movie being made.
Singh’s is one of 10 indie film fund raising campaigns that have been on Wishberry.com so far. 4 of these have actually raised up to 80% of the money they set out to raise and closed their campaigns. The others are still on. In all, Wishberry has hosted 12 campaigns for creative projects and 1000 for social projects. The minimum contribution is decided by the filmmaker but it could be as low as Rs 1, (which is what The One Rupee Film, a Bengali docu-fiction on no-budget independent filmmaking in India, asks for). In return, Wishberry takes 10 to 12 percent, depending on the nature of the project, of the money raised. Also, they offer (optional) marketing and strategic advice to filmmakers which could cost them between Rs 2000 to Rs 5000.
Crowdfunding for films began to be taken seriously in March this year when filmmaker Onir’s I Am, an ensemble of four films exploring sensitive themes like child abuse and homosexual relationships, which was partly crowd-funded through Facebook and Twitter, won the National Award for Best Hindi Film and Best Lyrics. Also, when Vasan Bala’s Peddlers, crowd funded through Facebook, was accepted at the Cannes. Besides raising funds, crowd-funding is a means for filmmakers, both famous and unknown, to publicize their films before release. “An established filmmaker like Anurag Kashyap could easily raise Rs 5 lakh for his film through Wishberry,” says Wishberry Vice President Anshulika Dubey. “1000 people would easily pay Rs 500 each, and news of the film would spread as well.” In fact, the first film fund-raising campaign on Wishberry was for Chauranga, directed by Bikas Mishra but produced by Onir and actor Sanjay Suri – both relatively known names. But some indie filmmakers are averse to this trend. Bhubaneshwar based filmmaker Surya Shankar Dash, for instance, pointed out to The Hindu: “If tomorrow, Shah Rukh Khan says, ‘I will make a film with your one rupee’, lakhs will pour in. Who will then support the indie guy who actually needs the one rupee?”
Dubey tells us that a lot of funding for the Indian indie on Wishberry is coming from NRIs. “Perhaps because even a contribution of Rs 500 is only $10 for a contributor, say in the USA, so there are larger, even if fewer, contributions coming in from abroad,” she explains. She categorizes contributors into: “people who know the director directly; those who know ‘of’ the director; those who simply like the concept.” She says most of the contributions for the Indian independent films are coming in from “the friends and family of the filmmaker” or “friends of the filmmaker’s friends and family”. As for those who simply like the idea and fund it, Dubey feels these contributors are “random” and “you can’t bank on them much”.
While Mumbai Cha Raja has set itself the highest fund-raising target for an indie film on Wishberry, Greater Elephant by Srinivas Sunderrajan is the independent film that has actually raised the most money on the site: Rs 5,26,000. The movie, Sunderrajan’s second film, is a dramedy about a mahout who has lost his elephant in a city, and the colorful array of characters who join him in looking for it. Sunderrajan plans to use this money just to “release the film”. It has already been made with Rs 23 lakh. Humara Movie, a Mumbai based company which creates short indie films and distributes them on its website is co-producer on the film with Sunderrajan’s company Enter Guerrilla. Greater Elephant is the first full- length feature Humara Movie has produced, and it intends to produce another one soon. It was begun last year by Marketing Consultant Vinay Mishra, Corporate Lawyer Pallavi Rohatgi and Preety Ali, a producer involved in films ranging from Black Friday to Namaste London, who co-founded PI films with her husband, filmmaker Imtiaz Ali.
Mishra and Rohatgi met Sunderrajan through a common friend. “We approached Srinivas to work on a short film for us,” says Rohatgi. “He said he had a script for a feature film instead – which we read and really liked.” They finally decided to finance Greater Elephant after they saw Sunderrajan’s first film The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project.
Sunderrajan, 28, financed his first film out of his savings. The film was shot over thirty days, but because he had to work around whenever his actors and crew (they were working for free and held other jobs) had time to shoot on their holidays, it stretched to a year. They shot it digitally, often on location: by bribing the waiters at a bar so they could shoot there for a few hours before it opened, or on the streets of Mumbai, without permission from the authorities. Sunderrajan didn’t have money to create sets. When an old house he was shooting in collapsed, he just re-wrote the script.
The film, a meta-fiction, has as one of its primary characters an indie filmmaker named Srinivas Sunderrajan who asks another aspiring filmmaker to fork out money so he can bribe a municipal officer whom he refers to only as “the system”. “That’s what indie filmmaking is all about,” says Sunderrajan. “The indie spirit.” Made for Rs 45,000, The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project was advertised as India’s first mumble core (a genre defined amongst other things, by a really low budget) film. Anurag Kashyap had promoted it as a “one thousand dollar film”.
Ironically, Sunderrajan had to pay much more to actually release this film. Here’s the break-up: Rs 15000 for the virtual print fee paid to Scrabble Entertainment Pvt. Ltd., the digital systems supplier who actually showed the film; Rs 8000 for print banners and standees to be put up around the theatre; Rs 32000 for cess fee to the Central Board of Film Certification and the renting of a theatre to show the film to those who would certify it. This totals up to Rs 55,000 in all. This was despite him having taken on Real Image Media Technologies Pvt. Ltd. as “digital partner” to digitize the film so it could be exhibited. Else this would have cost him another Rs 30,000. Also, this is despite the fact that PVR, his exhibitor, didn’t charge him anything. The film was shown as part of an ongoing initiative to promote indie cinema.
At The Bagel Shop, a cafe in Bandra, Mumbai, Sunderrajan laughs at the irony of his having to pay more to release The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project than to make it. He has a neat goatee. He is dressed simply in a T-shirt and a pair of knee-length shorts. His only accessory is a pointed umbrella that he seems to carry around with a sense of purpose, interrupted every now and then with an impish smile. Sunderrajan is resonant with the indie spirit that he speaks of; part of a group of ambitious, young and middle-class independents pushing to get their films made and shown—tapping into every resource available to them and juggling other jobs.
For a large number of them film finance, like charity, begins at home. Many of the new indie films, including those that are crowdfunded, have been financed by filmmakers’ friends and family, or by the filmmakers themselves. Karan Gour, for instance, who made the award winning Kshay began working on his film when he got Rs 1 and a half lakh from his father in 2007. “He wanted to buy me a car,” says Gour about his father. “Instead I asked him to give me money to begin work on my film.” Then he managed to raise close to another 6 lakh in bits and pieces- all from friends and family, some of who contributed as little as Rs 1000. He began shooting in 2008. Shooting stalled whenever funds dried up, then resumed when money came in. Kshay was finally completed in 2010. “The film would actually have taken Rs 20 lakh to make,” says Gour. “But many people worked for free, or on an understanding that they would be paid later if the film made any money. We got a lot of the equipment in the same way.”
The new breed of indie filmmakers might not be wealthy or from filmmaking families, but they have to be extremely resourceful.
And Bedabrata Pain, 49, is resourceful. A NASA Scientist, he has produced, written and directed his film Chittagong– on the historic Chittagong armory raid of 1930. Chittagong was supposed to be produced with money from American investors, which didn’t happen because the the 2008 recession did. Pain finally financed it himself from money he received out of patents on his inventions. He completed the film in 2010, but its release was stalled because Ashutosh Gowariker’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, a blockbuster starring Abhishek Bachchan on the same theme, was released when it should have been. Then came controversy, typed out on a Facebook post by Anurag Kashyap. He claimed that distributors “decided to sit on it (Pain’s film) because of a phone call from someone, because that someone was trying desperately to save his son’s career… “.
Pain had refrained from commenting on this controversy when it had occurred and he refuses to do so now, except to say that it’s been made on “1/10th the budget of Khelein Hum… ” The Chittagong that he had called his “12 year old son” when it was due to release in 2010—because that’s how long it took to work that seed of an idea into a film—has turned 14 now. He is looking forward to its release in October 2012.
“Today’s independent cinema cannot be esoteric,” he says. “It has to talk to an India of new sensibilities.” He believes India’s “300 million strong middle class” can provide a “sizable mature audience” to independent cinema and yet let it remain “true to its spirit”. He has a grin that brims over with optimism that belies his years of struggle.
If those who are financing Singh and Sunderrajan’s small budget films make up one kind of new investor in the Indian Indie, there are those that make up the other. Bollywood biggies like Sunil Bohra, Vikram Malhotra, Vikas Bahl and, surprisingly, Ekta Kapoor are the names that top this second list.
Take Bohra, of Bohra Brothers, whose twitter handle and website identifies him as ‘Sunil The Bohra’. Founded in 1947, the first Bohra Brothers production was a romance and a family drama called Lachak, released in 1951, with yesteryears stars Amarnath and Geeta Bali. The films that made the Bohra Brothers a name in the 1990s include Saajan Ka Ghar, starring Rishi Kapoor and Juhi Chawla, Mard, starring Mithun Chakraborty, and Takkar, starring Suniel Shetty. Between them these movies encompass the length and breadth of 1990s Bollywood formula. Today, Bohra has co-produced Anand Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu, Ram Gopal Varma’s Not A Love Story, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster and Kashyap’s GOW.
Of these Tanu Weds Manu is a low budget version of a standard Bollywood romance and Not A Love Story, another one of Varma’s failed experiments. But both Sahib, Biwi… and GOW are amongst oft-cited examples of the triumph of a new kind of Hindi cinema.
Tracking the co-producers of some of these films is like finding your way through a maze. Malhotra, COO of Viacom 18, produced Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani, Luv Ranjan’s Pyaar Ka Punchnama, Kashyap’s GOW and Bombay Velvet, Sachin Kundalkar’s Aiyyaa and Supavitra Babul’s Bittoo Boss. Both Bohra Brothers and Viacom 18 produced Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan and Kashyap’s GOW. Bahl, as creative head of UTV Spotboy, has produced Raj Kumar Gupta’s Aamir and No One Killed Jessica, Kashyap’s DevD, Shyam Benegal’s Welcome To Sajjanpur and Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan. Udaan, Shaitan and GOW were also produced by Anurag Kashyap Films Pvt Ltd (AKFPL). Then Bahl left UTV Spotboy and began Phantom Films– which is co-producing Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet.
Alok Thakur, who works at Sunil Bohra’s office says AKFPL, Bohra Brothers and Phantom Films are like “one big family”. The co-producers have transformed cinema into a neatly functioning hedge fund. They invest in many small budget productions, mostly each others, instead of packing their eggs in one basket. And if any of these (like a Kahaani which, made for Rs 15 crores, entered the ‘hundred crore club’—meant to classify box office grossers which pass that figure) becomes a sleeper hit, they more than cover their losses.
Yet, while some of these new producers can be seen as consciously seeking to make a different kind of cinema, others seem to be merely investing in films because they are relatively ‘low budget’, but marketing them as alternative cinema. A name that might fall into this category is Ekta Kapoor, whose Balaji Telefilms Ltd., alongside endless family soaps and vulgar sex comedies like Kya Supercool Hai Hum, has produced Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, Shor In The City by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D K, and Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture. Balaji Telefilms Ltd. categorizes these films in an interesting way. In 2001 it began a subsidiary called Balaji Motion Pictures which produced Bollywood turkeys like Kyo Ki… Main Jhuth Nahin Bolta and hits like Kyaa Kool Hai Hum. Then, in March 2010, they released Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD) under a new edgy looking banner: Alt (presumably short for ‘alternative’) Entertainment. A source from within Balaji Telefilms Ltd. says that they actually spent more on marketing LSD, than in making it because they “wanted to make the multiplex audience aware that a film like LSD exists”.
The same banner also produced the star studded Once Upon A Time In Mumbai. Shor In The City was co-produced by Alt Entertainment as well as Balaji Motion Pictures. As was Dirty Picture. Now, Kya Supercool Hai Hum has been produced under the Alt Entertainment banner too. Balaji Motion Pictures CEO Tanuj Garg explains this by saying: “We have a portfolio approach, which implies a mixed bag of films.” On their process of selecting scripts, Garg says: “Ekta supported by our creative team takes narrations and/or reads submissions.” He says a good idea or script is always the starting point but that the company only backs content that is “cutting edge” as well as “commercial” and “entertaining”. The source from within Balaji Telefilms Ltd. makes it clear that the company “isn’t looking for festival films which are hard to market – which we would find difficult to release in India”.
Balaji Telefilms Alt Entertainment, like a UTV Spotboy, takes after ‘independent divisions’ set up by major studios in the US, like Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage or the short lived Warner Independent Pictures. UTV Spotboy is producing Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana with AKFPL. Another co-production. Since the departure of Vikas Bahl it has been headed by Siddharth Roy Kapur, who also heads UTV Motion Pictures. Another clear indication that ‘alternative’ is no longer ‘parallel’ to the mainstream.
In some cases, the low budget movie provides the same sort of guarantee a cheap share does in the stock-market. If nothing else, then a good sound-track can ensure money is recovered.
This barrage of big investors in the off-beat, comprising old film families, new turks and multinational corporations received a huge fillip in 2010, when investing in big budget productions had turned risky for the financier. Big budget productions like Guzaarish and Kites registered losses. Smaller films like Ishqiya and Tere Bin Laden were seen to work.
Yet for all the praise heaped on this brigade for having transformed India’s cinemascape there is a lot of waiting and watching. They hedge their bets, avoiding taking a risk on a truly independent film that has great potential. What still seems to be missing is a producer who has the creative intuition of knowing which film to back, and how to back it.
“We need that producer who, when asked for (Rs) 3 crores for a film, recognizes it’s potential and gives you (Rs) 5 crores,” says Bedabrata Pain. “People here feel that because a film is ‘independent’ it is made in the spirit of: Kisi bhi tareekein se film bana deten hain (Let’s make a film, however we do it)”. Pain feels this compromises the quality of the films made, “which is sad, because we’re great storytellers otherwise”. Pain is still waiting for Chittagong to release and is planning a 250 screen launch for it, and more. He hopes for a big US release for his film too. He wishes production houses like “Viacom18 and UTV had that vision too”.
One of the things that Chittagong filmmaker Bedabrata Pain co-invented, in his days as a scientist, is the CMOS digital imaging technology which has enabled the digital camera revolution that is at the heart of the independent filmmaking movement today. No tech innovation has more directly impacted independent filmmaking the world over.
The revolution gave us the Arri Alexa which according to cinematographer Roger Deakins brought us to a point where “digital is simply better” and The RED camera system which was used by Steven Soderbergh to shoot Che, The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant, and which was also used to shoot the science fiction movie District 9. Recent Indian movies shot on RED range from the independent Chittagong to Karan Johar’s very mainstream Student Of The Year (this was shot partly on a film camera as well).
Cameras like the RED and Alexa provide a strong alternative to film, even if not an inexpensive one. But even when costly to rent, digital cameras still manage to slash production costs. They are a lot more maneuverable than traditional film cameras and do not require the additional spend on cans of film.
However the true champion of the indie filmmaker has been the DSLR, especially the highly popular Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The DSLR’s 1080 lines of progressive scan resolution at 24 frames a second resembles the film-look most closely. Infinitely more affordable than cameras like the Arri Alexa and RED, they have enabled filmmakers to achieve results that are as close to film as possible – adding even more maneuverability. They have given the filmmaker greater options of playing with depth of field and shooting in areas where there is low light, with hardly any additional equipment. With the ability to view their shots immediately after and the fear of wasting film out of the way, filmmakers can now truly experiment with the medium and hone their craft. In 2011, Canon and Nikon together sold nearly 12 million DSLRs.
A close second for technology that has revolutionized indie filmmaking are advances in digital video compression. These have enabled shooting HD (High-Definition) footage at reasonable file sizes on easily and cheaply available consumer-level memory cards which allow the footage to be transferred and edited on a laptop. They have been key in taking post production out of the editing studios.
Also, most exhibitors have transited to digital projection. The company leading this transition is UFO Moviez, a satellite networked cinema. Some would argue however that this last leap has actually hurt independent cinema more than helping it get anywhere. Digital exhibition has ensured that the mainstream movie can be at all places at once, conquering every theatre, occupying every screen, in exchange for a fee that, for it, is negligible. This leaves little room for the indie to try and squeeze in.
But let’s come back to the digital cameras and changes in post production. They have led to a flooding of the market with good, bad and ugly films – each calling itself a true indie. “A lot more independent films are being made and a lot more are being shelved,” says filmmaker Rajan Khosa. Then he laughs. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound dismissive.” Khosa, an independent filmmaker for well over a decade, is best known for the critically lauded films Dance Of The Wind and Gattu. The latter was shot with a digital camera. It was a first for Khosa. “I usually always shoot on 35 mm (film),” he says.
For Gattu he chose the 5D because it gave him the opportunity of being more “mobile” during the shoots. While Khosa agrees that the new toys “make a little less dent in your budget” and are “more practical and maneuverable” he also thinks that it might be a little early to start celebrating.
This is because the final post-production for distribution and exhibition still requires many independent filmmakers to go into a specialized facility. Khosa discovered while working on the post production of his film that most movie labs “don’t really know the tech when it comes to digital”. He wanted to mix computer graphics with shots of live action, for instance, and this became a problem because the labs “had no knowledge of how to work with 5D footage”. So, according to Khosa, his post production work on Gattu with the labs had to be figured out on the basis of “trial and error”. Many filmmakers feel that the labs don’t really invest in research and development when it comes to digital because it’s not where the bulk of their business comes from.
This leaves the Indian indie filmmaker high and dry. “You think that shooting on digital will give you the same quality as shooting on 35 mm film, and that your movie will live up to international standards,” says Khosa. “But when a mainstream movie shot on film is played at the screen next to yours, you’re always seen as falling short.”
Khosa feels that while it’s great that the indie in India is seen as a “four man film”(meaning something that can be executed with a four person crew), cinema “isn’t a four man medium”. “It’s great that the indie is driven by passion,” he says. “But if we don’t put a workflow in place that passion will die once the footage goes on to the editing table.”
THE STATE OF SMALL THINGS
The Indian face for state support to the movies is the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). Its mission statement says that it “aims at fostering excellence in cinema and promoting the diversity of its culture by supporting and encouraging films made in various Indian languages”.
Instituted in 1975, and run by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (I&B) the NFDC got into producing movies only in the eighties (state funded films before this were produced by the Film Finance Corporation or the FFC). And did some sterling work. It co-produced Gandhi and produced films like Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Ketan Mehta’s Bhavni Bhavai and Mirch Masala, Govind Nihalani’s Party, Saeed Mirza’s Naseem and Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro and most of Mani Kaul’s films. The government would subsidize the NFDC hugely by the fee it charged on the import and export of films. But this revenue stream dwindled, with liberalization in the 1990s, and the downslide began. The NFDC resorted to broadcasting its films on Doordarshan for advertising revenues – but even these dried up by 2002-03 with advertisers switching to satellite TV. A profit making PSU (Public Sector Unit) till then, this was the year the NFDC turned sick. It managed to stay afloat only by means of a government loan of Rs 19.77 crores. By 2005 there was talk of shutting the NFDC down. Filmmakers claimed the company’s failure lay in its inability to distribute and exhibit its films. On paper the NFDC had initiated a scheme of theatre building around the country, but it never took off. With the state, as with independent filmmakers, distribution is a Rubik’s cube that is still to be set right.
On 16 September 2010 the government infused fresh equity of Rs 32.4 crores into the company. Rs 19.77 crores of this amount was the writing off of the loan the government had granted the corporation, by converting it into equity. Rs 8.63 crores was a similar conversion of interest due on this loan.
Nina Lath Gupta has been the Managing Director of the NFDC since 2006. An ex IRS officer, one of the first things she did to spearhead the company’s resurrection, was to institute the NFDC’s Film Bazaar. The film market held annually, just after the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, comprises labs which enable members of the Indian film industry to interact with experts from around the world on subjects ranging from production, screenwriting, direction, editing to the marketing and distribution of their films. Scripts are worked on, films in a work- in-progress stage are improved, and marketing and distribution plans are developed. Guneet Monga, who’s been to the Film Bazaar three years in a row now, claims to have done “serious business” there. She has placed AKFPL scripts in the workshops and been a part of the production lab herself.
Gupta works from within a glass walled cabin at the NFDC office in Nehru Centre, Worli, Mumbai. A diminutive lady, she seems somewhat dwarfed by the huge desk she sits at, but you forget this as she begins to speak. Media savvy and quick with her replies Gupta makes it a point to smile formally after every retort, as if meaning to ease its sinking in.
The NFDC has commissioned 23 productions across 12 Indian languages in the last five years. Among these are Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl In Yellow Boots and Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai. It has been criticized for backing these films, because they were made by established filmmakers who aren’t really seen as being in need of the NFDC’s aid. Gupta says that the NFDC co- produced these films because “they applied”. “It is not as if we only worked with new talent in the past either,” she says. She cites Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi and Mani Kaul’s films. Neither of these were first films.
NFDC has a script selection committee that comprises members of the film fraternity. They’re the ones who shortlist the films NFDC must back. Vikramjit Roy, General Manager (Production) at NFDC says “we don’t give out names of our (the script selection committee’s) members”. He doesn’t have a clear answer on why. All he says is they’re “a good mix of people from the field of arts and culture who have a love and understanding of cinema”. “It’s not a state secret, but we would like to keep it confidential,” he says. “There’s a certain dignity which comes with the job and we would like to maintain that.”
The shortlist made by the script selection committee finally goes to the board of directors at the NFDC who take the final call. The board, appointed by the Information & Broadcasting (I&B) ministry comprises six people currently. The “Part-time Chairman”, according to the NFDC website, is veteran filmmaker Ramesh Sippy, who took over from actor Om Puri in January this year. Then there is Gupta. And Director (Finance) Sahab Narain, who has a history of working with Public Sector Units (PSUs). Another director is D P Reddy, an IAS officer who is Joint Secretary (Films) at the I&B Ministry. Finally there are two gentlemen who occupy positions of “Non-official Part-time Director”, who have also been appointed this January, along with Sippy . They are adman and (non-film) music composer Jawahar Lal Wattal, who is also a Padma Shri awardee. And cinematographer A K Bir.
When asked if there is a difference in the kind of films NFDC backed in the 70s and 80s and the kind it backs now, Roy simply says, “I believe cinema was as good then as it is now”. He then goes on to list out the general criteria the NFDC keeps in mind: “It should be a good story; something that pushes the creative envelope; that goes out and creates an impact in international markets; and the films should reflect the diversity in Indian culture; and showcasing promising talent.”
NFDC’s production policy guidelines lay down clearly that it will finance an entire film only if it is a filmmaker’s first feature. In the last five years the company has produced 13 such firsts. Among these is Gurvinder Singh’s Punjabi film Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan: a heart wrenching tale, masterfully told, about a day in the life of a farmer and his family who are caught in the middle of circumstances that are beyond their control or comprehension. The film has won National awards for direction and cinematography and the $ 50,000 Black Pearl Trophy at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival. It is also one of the only 5 of the 13 that has seen a theatrical release. The other 4 are Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s Konkani film Paltadacho Munis (completed in 2009, released in two Goan theaters in 2010), K. M. Madhusudanan’s Bioscope in Malayalam, Joydeep Ghosh’s Bengali film Mayabazaar (made in 2009, released in 2012) and Bidyut Kotoky’s bi-lingual (Assamese and Hindi) film Ekhon Nedekha Nodir Xipare (made in 2009 and released in 2012 after, among other happenings, the Minister for Development of the North Eastern Region Bijoy Krishna Handique wrote a letter to I&B minister Ambika Soni requesting it be released).
Other filmmakers have been anxious about when the NFDC might be able to release their films in the theaters. Aijaz Ahmed, for instance, is director of the Hindi film White Elephant which still hasn’t seen a release though it was completed two and a half years ago. “For NFDC to be as good a platform for the independent filmmaker as it is made out to be,” he says. “It has to be able to release its films.” He had said in 2011 to Mumbai Mirror: “(The NFDC) say NDTV was supposed to release the film in India, while NFDC was looking at selling it overseas. But NDTV has withdrawn from the project.”
Partly, the reason for NFDC landing in this soup again (the failure to market their content was what had set them back even a decade ago) is that they’ve co-produced these films with partners (such as an equal partnership with NDTV for four films) who were supposed to handle the distribution and marketing of the films, and didn’t. “These collaborations were way beyond our control,” says Gupta. “I won’t comment on the deals.” When asked to clarify whether she means the decision of who to collaborate with was beyond their control or the execution of the deals, Gupta simply repeats: “I won’t comment on the deals.”
But Gupta does admit that “Distribution has been a critical failure in NFDC from its inception. During the restructuring we had to build up many skill sets and one skill set we never had, and we needed to build up is distribution.” Gupta clarifies that by distribution she means a whole gamut of activities: theatrical releases, TV rights, home video labels, VOD platforms, overseas sales. She doesn’t see the sense of having “a 100 screen release in empty theaters”.
“We’re still recovering from 30 crores of loss in the last decade,” says Gupta. “We can’t burn ourselves out on the theatrical release of one film.” Besides, says Gupta, “a theatrical release shouldn’t be the benchmark for distribution.” She points out that both Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Gandhi were commercial failures in India at the time of their release.
Instead, the money-spinning potential of NFDC films lie in their shelf life. “An Anhey Ghodey… will not be burnt and die in three weeks of theatrical release,” says Gupta. “It will be watched even after twenty years.” Which is possibly why it takes pride of place in NFDC’s recently launched DVD series called Cinemas Of India. This series will be used to distribute new films produced by the NFDC as well as older classics. More than 79 older films have been restored. 30 have been released. Writes film critic Jai Arjun Singh in The Caravan: “For the Indian film buff who believes that aesthetic pleasure is vital to the movie-watching process (even when the movies themselves are “serious”) and who has been exposed to brilliant prints of international classics, these restorations are a first step in what will hopefully be a more rigorous approach to preserving our filmic past.” Refusing to comment on the actual sales figures of these DVDs, all Roy says is that “they’re selling like hot cakes.”
Yet there is no denying that the movie theatre is the ultimate bastion for any film. Even Gupta, whose answers are peppered with phrases like “measured decisions” and “the last mile”, is invested in the idea of a chain of specialty theaters that the NFDC has tried to put in place for decades, in vain. “The difference (between other countries that do have these and India) is that India is a vast, diverse country,” says Gupta. “To build one or two would be only a drop in the ocean.” She says she cannot “commit to a timespan” for these theaters because a “huge capital investment” will be needed for them. She cites the losses that have been carried forward from the last decade again.
Truth is, setting up these theaters might be too mammoth a project for the NFDC. But considering exhibition, more than production, is the prime obstacle for the indie filmmaker today, perhaps the I&B ministry should consider building the promised theaters as a separate initiative.
And if the initiation of a theatre building project is too challenging, the least the I&B ministry could try and arrange is tax exemptions and subsidies to exhibitors who show Indian independent films that are below a certain budget. Countries like France and the USA are known for the tax breaks it gives to those who invest in the movies. France, which used to contribute significantly to funding cinema has now, post the recession, chosen to continue this support by implementing a lucrative tax scheme for wealthy individuals who want to invest in the industry.
“We are charged a 12 % service tax,” says AKFPL Producer Guneet Monga. “The bigger players may not be affected by this but at least those who produce their films for less than Rs 5 crores should be given an exemption or tax cut?” Then there is the issue of entertainment tax that is levied on the ticket sales by the state governments. As a result entertainment tax in India could vary drastically. It could range from 25% (on the net ticket price) in Goa, for instance to 40% in UP and Maharashtra. “Indian filmmakers are complaining about the high rate of entertainment tax,” said the I&B minister Ambika Soni at IFFI last year. “The Central government is trying to bring entertainment tax under the Goods & Services Tax (GST).” But the GST, a unified tax code for the centre and states, is still a long way off. Till it arrives, some states enact vague, often parochial criteria for an exemption from entertainment tax. Tamil Nadu,for instance, exempts all movies that are in Tamil, provided there is “no overdose of violence, adult content, obscenity… “. Similarly in Maharashtra Marathi movies receive an exemption. Yet we rarely get to hear of exemption specifically for low budget movies. Or for films that have won awards or are of a certain quality, or which address relevant issues – especially when such films don’t have stars in them.
These exemptions could also be made up of smaller measures. For instance, the Central Board Of Film Certification charges the producer for renting the hall that a film will be seen in as well as Rs 20,000 (Rs 10,000 for regional films) as a ‘cess fee’ to the Government. For Sunderrajan who made The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project the latter amount came to nearly half the cost of his film.
“PVR Director’s Rare is an initiative, and PVR Director’s Cut is a property,” says Shiladitya Bora, who heads PVR Director’s Rare. Bora, 30, seems like a young man in a hurry. A man who wants to be the next big thing by finding the next big things. His Facebook profile picture is a still from Cinema Paradiso– the village boy in a projection room who would go on to become an acclaimed filmmaker.
Bora is a small town boy from Jorhat, in Assam. An engineer who also has a post graduate degree in business, he once enrolled in a two year filmmaking course in the US only to drop out of it because he felt “it would take too long”. Back in India, ventures which he began, before moving on, include a start-up that was to produce short films and a film club for “alternate content” in Ahmedabad. He joined PVR in January 2011 to work on PVR Director’s Cut, a luxury theatre in Vasant Kunj, Delhi that was launched in October 2011. The theatre initially hosted older classics like Godfather along with regular fare. Then Bora watched the indie film I Am Kalam at a showing in Delhi’s Habitat Centre. The high audience turnout there got him thinking. He had heard from a friend about an indie movie called Good Night, Good Morning directed by Sudhish Kamath, a film critic from Chennai. He spoke to Joint Managing Director of PVR Cinemas Sanjeev Bijli about the possibility of screening such a movie to a mainstream audience. Bijli agreed.
They launched PVR Director’s Rare, an initiative to screen offbeat independent films, in 24 screens spread across 6 cities with a weeklong showing of Sudhish Kamath’s Good Night, Good Morning. A source from within the theatre chain says it sold only about 2200 tickets. The occupancy was 15%. Once bitten, the next Director’s Rare movie, Rajshree Ojha’s Chaurahen was released for one week across only five screens in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and Ahmedabad and saw a similar occupancy of around 15%.
The filmmakers first send trailers of their films to Director’s Rare, with a synopsis and a mention of awards the film has won or festivals it has been to, if any. Then Bora goes through these films, sometimes entailing the help of the PVR programming head Prakhar Joshi. The films they pick are usually shown to Sanjeev Bijli for approval.
“We decide on the number of screens after consulting the filmmaker,” says Bora. “It depends on what kind of popular appeal the film is likely to have, which parts of the country the film is likely to receive an audience in and whether the producer is willing to pay for that many screenings.” Let’s look at how much the producer has to pay to get an indie screened. Every film showing costs the director approximately Rs 1100 (with taxes) as Virtual Print Fee paid to Scrabble Entertainment Ltd., a Mumbai based digital cinema system supplier that has a tie-up with PVR, for showing the film. Bora says Scrabble Entertainment Ltd. charges mainstream releases “around twice this amount”. PVR doesn’t charge anything but half the ticket sales, after tax is paid, for the first week (in the second week it charges 60% of ticket sales, and so on). This being the case, it is unlikely that a producer will refuse to screen a film at a platform like PVR for Rs 1100 per show, after having spent many times this amount to make and release it.
The initiative has released nine more films since Chaurahen in the following order: Ashvin Kumar’s Forest, Sandeep Mohan’s Love Wrinkle Free, Karan Gour’s Kshay, Faiza Ahmed Khan’s Supermen Of Malegaon, Srinivas Sunderrajan’s The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project, Amir Bashir’s Harud, Hemant Gaba’s Shuttlecock Boys; Gurvinder Singh’s Anhey Ghodey Da Daan and Prashant Nair’s Delhi In A Day. These make up 11 releases in 8 months. In the coming months Director’s Rare will be releasing possibly only one Indian indie a month.
The other releases will comprise off-beat foreign cinema, short-films (four or five films shown together) and documentaries. “But documentaries and short films are also indie films,” says Bora, when I mention that the number of Indian independent films they’re hosting will go down.
He points out that Supermen Of Malegaon, a documentary on Malegaon’s no-budget filmmakers, was one of the biggest earners of Director’s Rare. This doesn’t really count for much, as the truth is that of all the films hosted only Kshay has made up its money, that too, after earning prize money of 25000 USD (Almost Rs 14 lakh) for winning Best Film at the Shanghai International Film Festival. Love Wrinkle Free was another of the “big earners”. The rest of the films didn’t fare even as well. The biggest occupancy you hear of is 45%. Some of the films have been shown on very few screens (The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project was shown only on two screens daily, for a week, though Sunderrajan was offered a morning slot for another week, which he declined). This coupled with the timing of the shows (many films have been given one screening a day in the evening at a time when office-goers might miss the movie) is cause for disillusionment among the filmmakers. If a film is less than eighty minutes long, for instance, it is squeezed between two blockbusters. Hardly a cause for celebration for the indie.
Also, there’s been uproar about the fact that these low-budget films are often being screened only at PVR’s Luxury theatre at Vasant Kunj for their Delhi shows, which charges a minimum of Rs 850 per ticket. This was the only theatre which screened The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project and viewers had to pay Rs 850 to watch a film made for Rs 45,000. Predictably, each show had an audience of only a handful of people.
Bora has heard this criticism once too often. “There are some indie films we’ve had to screen just there because we didn’t have any other theaters free,” he says. “But people should understand that only a handful of people in such a theatre can make them more money than a houseful somewhere else – 12 tickets sold at PVR Director’s Cut will make you as much money as a house full show at PVR Juhu.” Also he cites an exception: Delhi In A Day which had a 64% occupancy at PVR Director’s Cut.
Bora also flags another crucial issue- the necessity for tax breaks for initiatives like PVR Director’s Rare to be successful. If a PVR ticket costs Rs 100 in Mumbai, for instance, a whopping 31% on the gross amount (40% on the net price) has to be paid to the state as entertainment tax. This leaves only Rs 69 to be divided equally between the producer and the theatre.
However both Bora and some filmmakers agree, that these screenings, while not remunerative in themselves, give indie films a great platform – as with a continuing film festival. The media writes about them. There is word of mouth. Bora believes “the audience for independent films is still to grow”. Till they do PVR will not risk more screens on them. It is looking instead for other ways of monetizing this initiative. It has entered into a partnership for the satellite rights of a lot of these films for instance. Bora says this is only the beginning and they will be exploring other options too. “Pehle kuch nahin hota tha (Earlier nothing would happen),” is what he says indie filmmakers are telling him. “Ab kuch ho raha hai (Now something’s happening).”
Meanwhile Bora is getting ready to make his own indie film soon. “I don’t want to talk about it till it goes on the floor,” he says.
A RELEASE LESS ORDINARY
Shyam Benegal remembers a party in 1972 which changed his life. An ad filmmaker then, he ran into an old acquaintance who asked him why he wasn’t making the film he had written a script for two years ago. He asked him by way of a joke: “Will you make it?” The acquaintance, Mohan Bijlani, said yes. Bijlani, along with Freny Bariava, owned Blaze Films Enterprises, which produced Ad films. Ankur, Benegal’s first film was completed in 1974. Because Blaze Films owned ad spots in theaters throughout India it had enough clout to ensure the film was shown all over the country– even in small towns. Made for less than Rs 5 and a half lakh, Ankur grossed Rs 1 crore. A ‘parallel’ super hit. Benegal had found the right producer – and the right distributor.
In July 2012 Rajan Khosa’s Gattu, became the first film out of those produced by the Children’s Film Society Of India (CFSI) that saw a mainstream release (CFSI is an autonomous body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting set up to produce, exhibit and distribute films and TV shows for children). This was primarily because its distribution was taken over by Rajshri Films, among India’s biggest producers and distributors, that is owned by the Barjatya family. A little known fact about the Barjatyas is that they had also released Ritwik Ghatak’s Bhuvan Shome in 1969, to fantastic box office collections. Khosa says the Barjatyas saw the film and said to him very sentimentally: “Is mein mitti ki khushboon hain (this has the smell of our land)”.
And so Gattu, the story of a boy in a small town who is obsessed with kite flying, that weaves within it evocatively so many issues ranging from child labour to the right to education – without sounding preachy once, was released in over 25 cities around the country to seventy odd theaters. Few independent films can actually dream of releases such as these.
The moral of both stories is the same. “Exhibition and distribution is at the heart of every indie filmmaker’s struggle today,” says Khosa. It’s where they all stumble– Anurag Kashyap, the new producers, the technology, the NFDC and initiatives like PVR Director’s Rare. You can produce your indie, but when you try to distribute it there is little hope of multiplex chains around the country accepting it.
The reason for this, simply, is that multiplexes are very expensive to run. “You need an average occupancy of about 60% to break even,” says Khosa. This being the case the multiplexes really need movies with A- list stars who will ensure a draw. For the same reason multiplexes often refuse to offer a producer a screen, unless he strikes a sort of package deal with them. Says another independent film producer, on condition of anonymity, that an exhibitor “asked me to take 20 screens in one city or none at all”. Most indie filmmakers can’t afford such deals, and they back out. Finally, indie filmmakers don’t have much money to spend on publicity. What they rely on to publicize their films is word of mouth. But unlike in the 1980s and 1990s when, according to Khosa “a film would stay on in a hall for a month at least”, and let word of mouth spread, indie films today get about a week to prove their worth in the theaters– before they’re removed.
The huge number of films made every year in corporatized Bollywood is to blame for this partly. Also the amount spent on publicizing them. “Some mainstream films have a publicity budget of Rs 10 crores for their publicity,” says Khosa. On the other end of the spectrum, Srinivas Sunderrajan is trying to figure out how he can best use the Rs 5,26,000 he has raised from Wishberry to create an awareness about Greater Elephant. But he can’t get beyond obsessing about the price of a 4 by 4 inch ad in the Times Of India. “Rs 18,000,” he has said to me twice since we’ve spoken. “How can an indie filmmaker afford that?”
The only way out of this, believes Khosa, is “state subsidies” or the “building of alternative theaters”. Gattu was tax-free, but Khosa feels tax exemption isn’t enough. For one, a producer would have to go to each State Government to procure an entertainment tax exemption. While this might be easier for children’s films like Gattu or Taare Zameen Par it would be very difficult for darker films, such as those made by AKFPL, for instance, which have a difficult time getting past the censor board to begin with. For another, says Khosa: “While reducing a ticket price helps, it won’t make people choose an independent film over a blockbuster on a weekend.” Particularly, the class of audience most of these films are targeted at. In other words, the multiplex chains will still refuse to take the indies in, unless they’re given lucrative incentives by the state – for instance tax cuts on all the films they show, or other subsidies that will make up for the loss of running shows that will possibly be only half full.
Khosa has spent a considerable amount of time living abroad, particularly across Europe, and he doesn’t understand why India can’t have a system of state funded art house theaters like Italy, France and Germany do.
Filmmaker Saeed Mirza remembers a meeting held at his house in the early 1980s to launch the Forum For Better Cinema, an initiative comprising not just filmmakers but artists, musicians, architects and other creative professionals from various fields. They drew up a plan to have at least one small theater in every Indian state that would show alternate cinema. A business model and membership scheme was thought of so that the Rs 25 lakh that each of these theaters would cost would be made up in 3 years. They wrote to the I&B Ministry. It came to naught. “It was completely viable,” says Mirza. All he remembers for why it didn’t work is that: “The people who were liaising from the government’s side got too involved with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (co-produced by the NFDC), and the Forum For Better Cinema took a back-seat.”
Pallavi Rohatgi of Humara Movie, the company producing Sunderrajan’s Greater Elephant feels art house theaters can create a community of indie film watchers “like in New York”. She juxtaposes this sense of an intimate indie world with the aloof studios of Hollywood, in LA. It is such a community that Rohatgi and her partners are trying to create at their website humaramovie.com. The website, launched this March, shows independent short films, hosted on YouTube, for free. It makes a meagre income out of ads, but Rohatgi understands that it will take time for Humara Movie to develop into a sustainable brand. Her calculations run somewhat like this: “India is supposed to have the second largest number of YouTube users in the world. A YouTube user from India spends an average of 27 minutes on YouTube in a day. So we’ll begin with short films – because these will suit the attention span of our online audience.” She hopes to be able to host feature films on Humara Movie one day, when broadband connections get better and attention spans for good cinema expand. “It’s bound to happen,” she says. “And we’ll be ready when it does.” She cites the success of Netflix, the world’s leading online movie and TV show subscription service, as an example and says: “But Netflix didn’t own the content they were broadcasting, so they ran into trouble. We do.”
With theatrical exhibition a far cry, platforms such as Rohatgi’s website, Pay Per Views and Video On Demand as well as more conventional DVD and satellite sales bring some hope to the indie filmmaker. However these platforms also expose a movie to every filmmaker’s nightmare: piracy. File sharing websites like torrentz.edu and thepiratebay.se thrive to remind indie filmmakers that greater connectivity can be a double-edged sword. “There’s no way to fight it,” says Sudhish Kamath, who made the indie film Good Night, Good Morning. “People who want to download a film will do so, one way or the other. I think we have to account for it as leakage.” When the Good Night, Good Morning DVD came out, says Kamath, they sold about 30% of the stock put out in the first month because there were no pirated prints in the market. In the second month, when the movie was out on torrentz.com the sales fell to less than 5%. Yet Kamath feels piracy may be a blessing in disguise for indie movies. “It creates an awareness about them,” he says. “It creates new markets.” Kamath says that if people don’t know about a film anyway they’re not going to buy it. But he knows people who’ve actually watched a movie on torrentz.edu (a file sharing website), liked it, then gone and bought the DVD.
The other thing about new media is that it simply cannot match the romantic lure of the big screen. “No matter what, I want to see my movie in the theaters,” says Mohcine Besri. Besri is an independent filmmaker from Morroco who’s just made his first film Les Mecreants, which was inspired from a story about a suicide bomber who went and blew himself up in a graveyard. He’s at Delhi’s Osian Cinefan Film Festival and finds it interesting that indie filmmakers from India suffer hurdles similar to his. For instance, Besri was so adamant on having his film shown in the theater once that he said he would pay for the tickets of those who came to see it. “It shocked the woman on the ticket counter no end when she saw that the name on the credit card and that of the director on the ticket was the same,” he laughs.
The world’s first independent film movement was in the 1900s. The ‘Edison Trust’ (Thomas Alva Edison, one of its founders, had also invented the motion picture camera) owned most of the patents relating to motion pictures, including that for raw film. A conglomerate of nine major film companies based out of New York, it would mercilessly bring suits and receive injunctions against independent filmmakers in and around the city. Around the same time, in early 1910, filmmaker David W Griffith arrived at a friendly little village, near Los Angeles, to shoot a period drama called In Old California.
This led to aspiring film producers such as Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle and Harry, Albert, Samuel and Jack Warner moving here to get away from The Edison Trust. These independents went on to found, respectively: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios and Warner Bros., which laid the groundwork for the studio system. The village was called Hollywood.
Then United Artists, the first independent American studio, was founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charles (Charlie) Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith. Richard Rowland, the face of the Hollywood establishment then, and head of Metro Pictures, is known to have said: “The inmates are taking over the asylum.”
Each of these events define independent cinema in their own way. The first tells us it is about moving away from an existing system and creating a brave, new world. The other indicates that it can also be about reforming the system from within. Either way, independence is shown to be an act of madness and chutzpah. The kind of madness that gave us Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, the 1969 counterculture road movie that prompted the studios to usher in what is now called ‘new Hollywood’, spearheaded by movie brats like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and George Lucas among others. Or the kind of chutzpah that made brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein take it upon themselves to distribute Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape which every studio had rejected.
Yet in India both the producers and the filmmakers who call themselves indie seem to be holding back. Where producers and distributors are concerned we still need a Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Films and then The Weinstein Company who, for all his shades of grey, knows The Artist when he sees it. Even if it is a black and white silent film with a French cast and crew. Weinstein will not stop at ensuring The Artist makes up its money. He will promote it, lobby for it and go the whole hog in making it the next big thing in cinema.
But, to be fair, if we haven’t found our Weinsteins, we are also yet to find our artists. The majority of the films that one would call independent today rebel against the norm in one way or the other but stop short of breaking new ground. They rebel but they hardly ever excel. While one does pray and hope that PVR is able to afford its rare directors better releases one also hopes the fare being shown rises above the quality expected from graduate films. This throws up a chicken and egg conundrum for the Indian indie. Would an Easy Rider bring forth the visionaries that could take it places? Or will the market visionaries inspire a new vision. Whichever comes first, we hope it does. And soon. We have been on the brink too long.
” …OUR HANDS ARE TIED BECAUSE THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH PROVISIONS.”
69 year old Ambika Soni is a minister who believes in being heard. Known for being close to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Soni has been one of the Indian National Congress’ foremost voices on everything from the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project issue to the Anna Hazare movement. Her proximity to the Congress President, coupled with her own initiative, ensures that the Rajya Sabha member can get a lot of things done.
Between 2006 and 2009, for instance, Soni has held two ministries– of Culture and Tourism. Her tenure has been marked by a successful ‘Incredible India’ campaign and World Heritage Site status for the Red Fort. Critics say, however, that a lot more was expected of Soni. The overhaul of Indian tourism infrastructure was one. The liberation of cultural institutions from the fiefdoms they were subject to was another.
As Minister of Information & Broadcasting (she took over in 2009) Soni started off on the right foot. She revived the NFDC by injecting fresh capital when it had all but shut down. Today, while she does take time out to deal with key party matters such as negotiations on the FDI and fuel price hike issues with Trinamool Congress boss Mamata Banerjee, the I&B Minister is also always at the forefront of debates pertaining to censorship and the authentication of TRP ratings. Here, she answers our questions about what the state has done for independent cinema, especially in her tenure, and what it intends to do.
We’d like to know what the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry is doing for the promotion of independent and alternate cinema – particularly with reference to its distribution and exhibition.
We try through the NFDC (the National Film Development Corporation) to not only produce films but particularly help first time directors to make their films, which are quite often a new kind of cinema. Also the NFDC does a lot of marketing: at the IFFI in Goa, and by participating in international festivals. In the last two years our presence in (the Festival de) Cannes has acquired a much higher profile. We’ve given the responsibility of all of this to the NFDC. Also we have signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the Ministry of Tourism for the promotion of film tourism (one of the things this MoU states is that the Ministry of Tourism will provide budgetary support to certain film festivals). So the Minister of Tourism Subodh Kant Sahai and myself have synergized our efforts. This has really opened up a lot of doors.
In the last three years I’ve seen to it myself that the delegation going to Cannes does not comprise only of officials, other than the bare minimum. The Secretary (at the I&B ministry) goes for the inaugural because he is in charge of the reception. And there is another official for the final ceremony. But we have promoted four or five new directors who made good films by getting them to go to Cannes, and we’ve paid for all the expenses. These are things we’ve done to give them exposure and experience.
Now we’ve also signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, where Rajiv Mehrotra, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Sharmila Tagore are trustees. Here too we are encouraging them to help make films with new directors on smaller budgets, especially documentaries.
This is good work that has been done over the last few years, especially in connection with film production. The money that has been put into NFDC seems to have paid off. But where most independent or parallel or alternate films are getting stalled is in the exhibition. How do we take it to the next level, cross the next major hurdle?
I was going to come to that point last. I had requested a meeting with the Central Board of Film Certification and had a chance to meet their chairperson (Leela Samson). They invited me to meet with their members five days ago. They had an extensive meeting. Most of the members of the CBFC, as you may have noticed, are professionals. This is, I think, after a very long time that the board consists of so many faces who have something to contribute, or who have a profiling of their own. So they were most concerned about this ‘new cinema’. About it not being able to pass the muster from the certification board because sometimes the films are not understood by those who are certifying it at the regional level. Also, they sometimes come under the ‘adult’ category – so they can’t be shown more extensively on television. So the ministry is now in the process of facilitating a meeting between the certification board and a broadcaster’s association (the Broadcast Content Complaint Council). Now if that comes about and they can make an arrangement then it will be a big step forward for mass viewing, because television is supposed to reach a hundred and forty million houses. So that is one thing that has come out from our discussion with the certification board.
But what of theatrical exhibition? A few decades ago there was a Forum For Better Cinema which agitated for smaller alternative theaters built throughout the country and funded by the government for the theatrical exhibition of alternative cinema – including films produced by the NFDC.
Yes, but I think that hadn’t worked out at all. You might know that the government had already taken a call on winding up NFDC altogether. When I joined the ministry in 2009 Nina (Lath Gupta, Managing Director, NFDC) came to me and said: “Madam this is a farewell call”. So then we really took some out of the box decisions and they are today doing so well. So I think the question of the government getting into (building) small theaters or subsidizing the showing of alternate cinema… I don’t know we’ll have to look at it. It can be a proposal and the ministry will have to study it and see how we can arrive at a sort of joint venture or participation of all the stakeholders. Because there is such little budgetary provision for this ministry. Because somehow the impression with those who distribute our resources always is that: “Filmmakers are rich people”.
That’s unfortunate because that’s not the case. I’ve been to Pune (where the Film and Television Institute of India, or FTII, is) and to the Satyajit Ray (Film and Television) Institute in Kolkata and now we are going to upgrade those institutions by bringing an act in Parliament—it’s almost in the last stages—to make them institutes of excellence. So that will be a great encouragement for people training there to make new cinema. But the thing is the market also has to be developed. I think maybe, if there are suggestions, in the next few months we can try and have some workshops around the country to sensitize people to this. And why don’t we get the larger filmmakers, who make up to Rs 250 crores, to participate and ask them to help the younger people trying to make new cinema to move forward? It will have to be a joint effort with the industry because, much as some of us may want to do things our hands are tied because there are not enough provisions. But it’s a good idea, let me talk to some of my colleagues and see how we can take this forward.
Keeping Up With The Indie JonesesArticle
Rishi Majumder is Senior Editor at The Big Indian Picture.