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.

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Keeping Up With The Indie Joneses

September 2012
By Rishi Majumder

Rishi Majumder is Senior Editor at The Big Indian Picture.