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.

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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.