1955. Filmmaker Satyajit Ray storms the cinematic scene with his debut feature offering Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), the first from the Apu Trilogy. It wins the prestigious Best Human Document Film Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and many more such honours wherever it goes—home and abroad. Ray, who had no prior experience in filmmaking, brings a new vision of India to the screen—raw, rustic and real—and, to a great extent, lays the foundation of independent or indie cinema.
2018. Self-taught filmmaker Rima Das does a Ray and goes on to do the impossible with Village Rockstars. She scripts, produces, directs, and even shoots and edits her film, and as a single-member crew, goes on to top the awards charts, winning four at the 65th National Film Awards and a plethora of accolades at the national and international film festivals.
A bevy of rockstars a la Das from across the length and breadth of the country have stormed the indie scene, revolutionising the way cinema is made and watched. And coming to a theatre near you this month-end are Leena Yadav’s Rajma Chawal starring Rishi Kapoor and Nandita Das’s directorial debut Manto.
Indie-wise: Maverick filmmaker Anurag Kashyap with a string of projects remains the most celebrated name. With Black Friday, Paanch, Gulal, Ugly, Gangs of Wasseypur, he has proved that to satiate one’s cinematic sensibilities one need not be a mute follower of mainstream trends. “Independent means the freedom to say what you want. But it is not an easy job. There will be chaos on a daily basis but being part of such a creative venture is gratifying,” says actor Tannishtha Chatterjee, who is set to make her directorial debut with Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
Number Game: The mainstream model of cinema has loads of money and is backed by an enviable star cast. But realistic cinema makes no song and dance of real-life situation, hits hard with its gritty portrayal of characters and takes the plot to another level. Filmmaker Sudhir Mishra says, “Independent cinema is the one that is financially independent or a non-studio cinema. The films are made by those who are independent in the head, and the films feature non-formulaic artistes.”
Money is a major stumbling block for a few good men who want to redo the way film as an art form is made and viewed. In the mid-90s, US-returned techie Nagesh Kukunoor invested all his earnings to make Hyderabad Blues. Shot over 17 days, and made with a shoestring budget of `17 lakh, it was the first commercially successful independent cinema in recent times. In many cases, a filmmaker can’t do it alone. One of the greatest indie outings, Masaan, which got two awards at the Un Certain Regard section of the Festival de Cannes, was produced by Drishyam Films, Macassar Productions, Phantom Films, Sikhya Entertainment, Arte France Cinema and Pathé Productions.
On the other hand, Das’ Village Rockstars whom filmmaker Nila Madhab Panda calls “the greatest discovery in recent times”, was self-funded. “I was two-films-old. I didn’t want interference. It was difficult but it is heartening to see that my film has achieved what I had aimed for,” says the village girl. Making is not the hardest but marketing and distribution are. “In the star-dominated market, a creative person’s piece of art has to struggle to survive,” says Panda. His next, Halkaa, slated for an early September release, has won the Grand Prix for best film at Kinolub Festival for Children and Youth, Poland. It had a world premiere at the 21st Montréal International Children’s Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix De Montreal.
The indie cinema largely depends on mavericks who cobble funds on their own, borrow from friends or relatives or find a producer who is not a part of the film world. “Due to the disorganised structure, we have not been able to make the kind of impact as the European, Iranian, Korean or even Thai cinema,” says Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president, films & TV, Saregama India, whose Hamid starring Rasika Dugal is awaiting release.
Making films is a risky business. Actor Naveen Kasturia says, “Many of them don’t get a decent release. We showed Sulemani Keeda to a lot of people, in vain. One of the biggest distributors wanted my director to change the lead actor and take Siddharth Malhotra instead. After a digital release, it was watched by many.” Kasturia debuted in Amit Masurkar’s Sulemani Keeda, went on to act in Hope Aur Hum, and in between kept working in web shows, including Hansal Mehta’s Bose: Dead or Alive. Actor Vikrant Massey says, “Unlike a mainstream film where you are catering to the masses, Indie cinema is to satisfy your creative soul. Goings for an indie film are definitely not as easy as a mainstream film. But things are changing and it is for good.”
Support System: In the sweltering heat of May, Harish Vyas’ Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain with Sanjay Mishra as the 52-year-old protagonist Yashwant Batra and Ekavali Khanna as his wife Kiran came as a breeze of fresh air. The characters, and their stories, that move along the lanes and bylanes of Varanasi, found many takers. The non-starrer outing was co-produced by Vyas’ friend Manav Malhotra of Drumroll Pictures in association with Shiny Entertainment and National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC). Says Vyas: “I could make this film because Manav and Swaroop Chaturvedi believed in the story. Also, NFDC’s presence added a lot of credibility. The agency’s support lifted our spirits and made us go full throttle.” But more than anything, it exemplified the tenacity with which Vyas stayed put. “The film is one among many such attempts by passionate filmmakers who are making a sincere attempt to redefine cinema, and we are proud to be a part of this journey,” says Deepti Chawla, head, distribution, marketing, syndication, NFDC.
Dubbing indie filmmaking as sporadic, Kumar says, “We at Yoodlee firmly believe that talent can be developed if the same individual can make film after film and explore their artistic self.” Once a filmmaker is able to garner audiences’ support, he comes up with something remarkable. Like it happened in the case of Das, who made her first short, Pratha, in 2009. Its selection in festivals gave her the confidence to make Antardrishti in 2011 and follow it up with Village Rockstars.
However, not all projects are struggling; some are making waves with the backing of bigwigs. For example, ad filmmaker Deb Medhekar’s Bioscopewala, a loose adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s classic Kabuliwala, was produced by Sunil Doshi and backed by Fox Star Studios. With Danny Denzongpa in the titular role, the film had a world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October last year. In another development, Ronnie Screwvala and Siddharth Roy Kapur came together for National Award-winner Vinod Kapri’s Pihu, which is awaiting release. The film had been screened at prestigious international film festivals such as Vancouver, Palmsprings, Iran, Morocco and Germany, and it was also the opening film at the International Film Festival of India, in 2017. Kapri had earlier helmed Miss Tanakpur Haazir Ho.
Nothing Starry: The struggle encountered by a few indie films at the hands of exhibitors and distributors explains the biases. “Production, marketing and distribution remain a challenge. The limited resources make the directors do the job of a producer,” says Chatterjee. Plus, no distributor is willing to back a small film without a star. National Award-winning actor Konkona Sen Sharma, who marked her directorial début with the critically acclaimed A Death in the Gunj and topped it with her performance in Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha, doubts the sustainability model: “It is great as a one-off project but when we think of long-term, how can one receive this process?”
On the distribution tangle, Vyas says, “We managed to get barely 113 screens and 200 shows.” What adds to the woes is the clash with a big-ticket release. Kumar says, “If people who love and want to support indie cinema, don’t go and buy a ticket and watch it, they are murdering it. If the audience doesn’t write and request broadcasters and VOD platforms to play more indie films, they are helping kill it. When a distributor takes indie cinema off theatres after a week, why aren’t there protests?”
Manish Mundra of Drishyam Films, who backed films such as Ankhon Dekhi, Masaan, Dhanak, Umrika, Kadvi Hawa and Newton, appears optimistic.
“In the past few years exhibitors and distributors have become curious and conscious about supporting such films.” The demand for realistic cinema is growing. The way forward is to take care of promotional and distribution woes. Actor Shweta Tripathi, who starred in critically acclaimed films such as Masaan, and Haraamkhor, says, “Such films can do well only if they are not being relegated to poor timings.” To this, Kumar has a solution: “There should be a mandate from the audience to the distributors, exhibitors and maybe the government to get a decent slot.”
While lauding the efforts of NFDC in producing more than 300 path-breaking films in the past, actor Adil Hussain seeks greater involvement, “The NFDC should be given `500-1,000 crore so that the government plays an instrumental role in hunting talent, training filmmakers, and encourage the young bunch.”
Digi Smart: The digital wave is empowering indie cinema in its own way. Das recounts how she not only funded her project but also used her own camera. “With the advent of digital mode of shooting and distribution, filmmaking has become easier and cheaper. Digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, among many others, have given such films a new lease of life,” says filmmaker Onir. “It promises a great revenue model,” says award-winning scriptwriter Zeishan Quadri of Gangs of Wasseypur. The digital medium has made monetisation easier too. “Digital technology and internet are affording new filmmakers to take the plunge and make films without worrying about costs. There are newer avenues for distribution online,” chips in filmmaker Amit Masurkar whose Newton was adjudged the Best Film at this year’s National Film Awards.
Hussain, who won two special mentions for his sterling performances in Mukti Bhawan and Maj Rati Keteki at last year’s National Film Awards, says, “Digital platforms are a boon for content-driven cinema. The audience gets to enjoy them sitting in their living room, and the actors get their share of appreciation.” Internet release will be the norm in the days to come. “Digital wave will change cinema 20 years from now,” says Mishra. Actor Tillotama Shome agrees that digital has allowed a multiplicity of narratives. “It does seem to have made the playing field more even. However, the comfort and power of a community experience of watching a film in a theatre cannot be ignored.”
Filmmaker Rahat Kazmi, who has made Mantostaan, an omnibus of four Partition stories by Urdu litterateur Saadat Hasan Manto, says, “The digital world has made it more accessible to shoot, edit and release, and utilise platforms to garner funds, and market it too.” The social media has not only taken film promotion to another level, but in some cases, it has helped the cause of indie cinema. Actor-director Rajat Kapoor’s last film, Ankhon Dekhi, which bagged several awards and garnered immense critical acclaim, could see the light of the day only after he tweeted about his struggle to get a producer. Mundra backed the movie after the actor’s tweet. The scene in indie cinema in regional languages is not all that bright too. Mithila Makhaan, the first Maithili language cinema to win the National Award two years ago, is yet to have a theatrical release. Its Singapore-based producer Samir Kumar says, “A small-scale release to recover the cost is feasible. But this won’t do justice to the team.”
Festive fervour: When a film travels to foreign shores, it gathers momentum and marketing possibilities open up. But subtitling holds the key here. Award-winning subtitler François-Xavier Durandy explains: “It is for scriptwriters, directors and producers to demand that their films be translated by skilled professionals, with perfect command of the original language and a thorough knowledge of Indian culture. Subtitlers should be integrated at an early stage: you can’t do a good job when you’re given just a few days to subtitle a film. Translators must be made part of the postproduction team, just like editors. At the end of the day, subtitles are often the first point of entry into a film.”
As audience, the onus is on all of us to protect indie cinema.
Ticking the right boxes: Indie films of 2018
Nandita Das’s Manto
Actor-filmmaker Nandita Das’s Manto is a journey through the four tumultuous years (1946-50) of the writer Saadat Hasan Manto, set in Bombay and Lahore. It stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rasika Dugal, and Tahir Bhasin. The main producers are HP Studios, Viacom 18, Filmstoc and Nandita Das Initiatives.
Biju Kumar’s Painting Life
Prolific filmmaker from Kerala, Dr Biju Kumar, switches from his usual Malayalam to English in his latest film. It centres on a film crew arriving in a tiny neglected tribal Himalayan village in Sikkim. Produced by Silicon Media and Blue Ocean Media, the film has actors from different regions.
Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Ee.Ma.Yau
Kerala-based director Pellissery offers Ee.Ma.Yau, a title short for ‘Eeso Mariyam Ouseppe’—meaning RIP. The film journeys into a complex web of human relationships, customs, rituals, and beliefs that express and mark life and death.
Kushal Srivastava’s Vodka Diaries
Set in Manali, the film follows a mysterious woman who leads Assistant Commissioner of Police Ashwini Dixit on a wild goose chase over a series of murders that occur over a single night. The film stars Kay Kay Menon, Raima Sen.
Kamakhya Narayan Singh’s Oh Shit!
This promising debut feature deals with a dire problem that plagues rural and even urban areas: the lack of toilets. It is about a girl asking for nothing more than what is every Indian citizen’s due. Produced by Anjani Kumar Singh with Creative Producer Abhinandan Sekhri.
Harish Vyas’s Angrezi Mein Kehte Hein...
Starring Sanjay Mishra, this family drama explores changing relationships between a middle-aged couple. It’s about the realisation that sometimes just loving someone is not enough—expressing that love is equally important.
Leena Yadav’s Rajma Chawal
The film revolves around a father-son and their generational divide. It has the highly selective actor Rishi Kapoor in the lead with Anirudh Tanwar playing his son. Rajma Chawal is shot by Donald McAlpine, the Oscar-nominated, Australian cinematographer of the film ‘Moulin Rouge’.
Samit Kakkad’s Ascharya F#*k it
Kakkad presents his latest venture, produced by Yoodlee Films. The film exposes what underlies the dazzling veneer of Mumbai’s film industry. It stars Priyanka Bose, Vaibhav Raaj Gupta, Ankit Raaj, Santosh Juvekar.
Sange Dorjee’s River Song
Dorjee has single-handedly spot-lit his state of Arunachal Pradesh. He presents his second feature film that talks about lone bachelor Tashi living in a defunct fuel station on the outskirts of a town. The film is produced by Jar Pictures.
Onir’s Kuch Bheege Alfaaz
Produced by Saregama’s production wing, Yoodlee Films, Onir’s last release features Zain Khan Durrani and Geetanjali Thapa. In a world of pings, likes, tweets, shares and comments, two strangers, RJ Alfaaz and Archana, connect over a mis-dial and WhatsApp their way into each other’s hearts.
A Good Beginning
Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar that bagged the coveted Grand Prix at French Riviera was inspired by the Italian neo-realism. Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen that won the Prix International at the Cannes Film Festival along with Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’ Dharti Ke Lal paved the way for Satyajit Ray and many others of his ilk such as Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, who followed and were influenced by the French New Wave and Japanese New Wave in the 50s and 60s. These handful of filmmakers went on to start the independent movement in Indian cinema, distinctively different from the popular mainstream films made in Bombay.
What set them apart was the realistic portrayal of characters and situations. It slowly grew and became a parallel movement in the 70s with the likes of Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gulzar, who followed the cinematic sensibilities of both art house and mainstream.
It continued well till the mid-80s when Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Syed Akhtar Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Sai Paranjpe, Ketan Mehta, Sudhir Mishra, Mani Kaul, MS Sathyu, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Kundan Shah came, saw and also conquered the fancy of cine lovers with their slice of life cinema, many of them with the backing of the National Film Development Corporation, the central agency established to encourage good cinema in the country. The era also saw some stellar performances by actors, some of whom came armed with degrees from premier institutes such as the National School of Drama, and Film and Television Institute of India.
The likes of Farooq Sheikh, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Deepti Naval, Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapoor, Om Puri, Anupam Kher, Supriya Pathak, Neena Gupta stayed true to the acting conscience, giving it all they had. “Slowly, materialism crept in, and idealism went away. Cinema became glossy and glittery, triviality became the mainstay,” states actor Adil Hussain, an NSD alumnus, adding, “Cinema is one of the most powerful mediums of art in the history of human civilisation because of the nature of potential intimacy that it can create between the audience and the content. But there were and are still a few who have remained faithful to this thought and maintained its sanctity.”