In March, Onirban Dhar's film I Am, a collection of four short films that explored taboo themes such as child abuse and same-sex relationships, won awards for best Hindi film and best lyrics at the 59th National Awards, the highest possible honour in India.
But nearly eight months later, the film has not been shown on satellite TV as the rights are yet to be bought.
"Doordarshan offered me the princely sum of R5 lakh," says Mumbai-based Dhar, aka Onir, with a sardonic laugh, adding that the film was shown on Doordarshan only a month ago. "Seven years ago, my first film, My Brother Nikhil, had been sold for Rs. 20 lakh. This is a joke."
To put this in perspective, the rights for the yet-unreleased Salman Khan-starrer Dabangg 2 have been widely reported to have been sold for Rs. 45 crore to Rs. 50 crore in February, 10 months before its slated December release.
This isn't how things should have played out this year. After all, many people see 2012 as a landmark year for the Indian indie or, as some call it, the new wave of Indian cinema. Over the past 10 months, 14 films have found theatrical releases in multiplexes in major cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata.
"The number of indie films released this year is much higher than in the past five years," says Shiladitya Bora, head of PVR Director's Rare, which has released 12 of these films. An initiative by PVR Limited, Director's Rare releases these films by striking a deal with the filmmakers over ticket sales.
Films such as Faiza Ahmad Khan's Supermen of Malegaon and Aamir Bashir's Harud, delayed for two years and more due to a lack of distributors, finally got theatrical releases thanks to this initiative.
But underneath that optimistic surface is an uncomfortable, if predictable, reality: barely anyone is watching these films.
"It pains me to say this, but a significant chunk of the audience for these shows are friends, family members or acquaintances [of the filmmakers, or others associated with the films] who are there mostly as a show of support," says Bora. The figures speak for themselves: The average occupancy for all indie films released by Director's Rare this year is less than 20%. "Our policy is that if a film has more than 20% per-screen occupancy, we let it run an extra week," says Bora. Roughly half of these releases didn't make it past the first week.
Indie filmmakers argue that this is because of unfair show timings - a 5.30 pm show on weekdays is unlikely to attract indie film lovers, who will most probably be busy with work; exorbitant pricing; and arbitrary schedule changes. For example, New Delhi-based Hemant Gaba's debut feature Shuttlecock Boys, which finally released in early August after four years of toil, was out of theatres after a mere five days to make way for Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur Part II.
This is why Onir and 38 others from the independent film community started an online petition called Save Indie Cinema a month ago (see box What Is 'Save Indie Cinema' All About?), listing their grievances and potential solutions. "This is not a movement against the mainstream," says Onir. "It is the initiation of a dialogue for the cause of good, meaningful cinema which, we believe, can co-exist alongside mainstream cinema."
Filmmaker and film critic Sudhish Kamath, whose Good Night, Good Morning was the first indie film released this year, feels that not enough has been done to nurture the cine-goer. "Our films are highly dependent on word-of-mouth publicity," he says. "With the current week-per-week policy, by the time you hear about a movie, it's Monday or Tuesday. By the time you plan to watch it over the coming weekend, it's gone. We should at least be given a two-week run."
Defending their moves as business decisions, Bora points out that screening indies is not exactly a revenue-spinner. "When movies play to empty theatres, we bear the operating costs," he says.
Bora also feels that there is an issue of quality. Digital cameras and editing software have become so affordable and accessible nowadays that a lot more people are producing films, whether they have the skill or not. "I receive three or four films a week, as requests for releases," he says. "About 95% of them are so bad they don't even deserve a DVD release, let alone a theatrical one." Most of the ones that do get selected, he says, are the cream of a bad crop.
"No doubt some of the films are amateurish and utterly unpolished," says Raja Sen, a Mumbai-based film critic who walked out of the screening of one particularly unbearable indie film in September. "But then, to be fair, some of them are made on budgets smaller than those of ad films."
Unfortunately, the curse of the Indian indie is that it bolsters high audience expectations: If the film isn't exceptional, it isn't worth it. This is especially true considering that those who tend to be discerning viewers would have a lower tolerance for mediocrity as opposed to, say, a die-hard Salman Khan fan.
Some think that regional films may be the way out. "Regional films, if made well, tend to connect better with audiences," says Bora, citing the example of Gujarati film Kevi Rite Jaish, released in April this year, which ran to near-housefull shows for 10 weeks in many parts of Gujarat and had a fairly successful two-week run in Mumbai too. "The indie films that are being made now are far too metro-centric and esoteric. We need earthier films that have a broader appeal." Sen agrees: "The regional film, to me, is much more exciting than the indie."
While independent cinema in India still has a long way to go, here are some recent DIY initiatives from across the country - proof that audiences are showing a definite interest in the genre.
Creative Cinema Circle
What: Organises free film festivals and an event called Sundays with Filmmakers, a paid event where audiences discuss filmmaking and cinema with one independent filmmaker every month.
In September 2011, Atmaprakash Mishra travelled to Sonapani, a village in Uttaranchal close to Nainital, for the first edition of the Sonapani Film Festival. For the Chandigarh-based software engineer, used to watching mainstream Hindi and Punjabi films in his hometown, this was a new experience. "I thought that if something like this could be held in such a remote village, surely there was a possibility it could work in Chandigarh," says the 42-year-old, who then approached Sonapani's festival director Gurpal Singh for help .
He returned and immediately started looking for like-minded people, through Facebook and friends, and was soon in touch with lawyer Harish Mehla, 30, and visual artist Saawan, 27. "Although a lot of people were sceptical, I was convinced that there exists an audience for independent films in Chandigarh," he says.
After nearly a year of planning and amassing funds, which came from their own savings and donations from friends, the trio held their first event - a two-day indie film festival - in August at an abandoned hall where they set up a makeshift screen, borrowed audio equipment and plastic chairs. The festival, in which 10 films were screened, was a success. "We ran out of chairs, so people were standing in the aisles for some of the screenings," says Mishra.
What: Organises paid film screenings, followed by discussions
Before he graduated as an electronics engineer from BITS Pilani in 2011, 24-year-old Kapil Agrawal was a member of his college's film and animation club, CCTV. He still makes short films and dreams of becoming a filmmaker, while working at a leading technology multinational. Seven weeks ago, after more than six months of planning, he managed to turn his passion into entrepreneurship, with the help of his college batch-mate Shivam Srivastav, also a film buff.
"Over the past year, we attended a number of film festivals," he says, "and realised that there is a lot of independent talent in India. However, aside from festivals, most of these films never get watched." The two decided to start holding screenings in small auditoriums in Bangalore.
Their first screening received an enthusiastic response: 100 tickets priced at R100 each started selling out three days in advance. Their next event, a screening of Hemant Gaba's Shuttlecock Boys, will be held in the third week of November, for which they have already sold 30 tickets two weeks in advance. This event will have an interaction between the audience and Gaba, who lives in Delhi, through videoconferencing. "The idea is to package the screening and create a sense of excitement among cinema lovers," says Agrawal.
First Cut by Film Booth
What: Promotes short films and filmmakers at free monthly events
Where: New Delhi
For 28-year-old Gaurav Raturi, short films are like Twenty20 cricket matches. Film Booth, an organisation he co-founded in 2008 with his Delhi School of Economics classmates Mohak Mathur and Nagendara Singh, organises short film screenings every month at the India Habitat Centre as well as Epicentre at Apparel House in Gurgaon. "In two hours, people end up watching up to eight films," says Raturi.
Independent filmmakers, especially first-timers, usually make short films as passion projects or skill-honing exercises. However, as Raturi says, short films can be a filmmaker's ticket to a feature film, especially if they garner acclaim at international festivals. Apart from that, they can also be monetised themselves.
Raturi adds that Film Booth hopes to soon become curators and aggregators of short films in India, to help filmmakers get monetary returns on their work.