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See Jackie Shroff, Imtiaz Ali, Kalki like you’ve never seen them before

Why are Bollywood A-listers doing web shorts? Because it’s quick, fun and lets them do things they could never have done on the big screen.

bollywood Updated: Apr 22, 2017 17:39 IST
Madhusree Ghosh
Bollywood
As stars take to web shorts, Naseeruddin Shah finds lost love, Jackie Shroff and Neena Gupa get kinky, Tisca Chopra takes off all her make-up, Kalki Koechlin shatters stereotypes and Manoj Bajpayee dances the Taandav.

A 60-year-old Jackie Shroff tries to explore kinky sex with a 57-year-old Neena Gupta. They fumble spectacularly (furry handcuffs almost go on the foot) but succeed in putting the spice back into their relationship. That’s Khujli, a 16-minute web short.

“When I first heard the script, I was rolling-on-the-floor laughing,” says Shroff. “I think it has an important message to couples who have stopped being romantic after their children have grown.”

That message has played out on about 1.1 lakh mobile and computer screens in the three weeks since it was released. It’s one of many web shorts giving Bollywood stars a refreshing new platform and, in the process, changing the short-film industry in India.

What are big names doing in such a small format, working with young first-timers like Khujli director Sonam Nair?

Ironically, many are finding creative liberation. “Most actors are doing short films for free or for very little money,” says Kalki Koechlin. “I’m doing it for creative satisfaction. Also, these films are available online, free, at all times. That makes them a good way to get through to people.”

Big-screen veterans like Anupam Kher and Naseeruddin Shah have shown up in sweet romantic short films like Kheer and Interior Café Night. Indie actors like Manoj Bajpayee, Konkona Sen Sharma and Tisca Chopra are featuring in dark short films like Taandav, Kriti and Chutney. Last month, Koechlin made a statement against online trolling in a 15-minute short titled Naked.

Director Neeraj Pandey, whose films generally deal with politics and nationalism, took to light laughs with his short film, Ouch, starring Manoj Bajpayee as a cheating husband. Devashish Makhija made El’ayichi starring Nimrat Kaur, a comedy about an irritable woman being haunted by her dead husband. Imtiaz Ali’s India Tomorrow, brief and evocative at just 6 minutes long, has a sex worker discussing stocks with a client.

WHY BOLLYWOOD IS DROPPING IN

For those who’ve followed India’s steady output of web shorts over the past decade, the plusses are clear. The format allows for out-of-the-box storylines and non-traditional storytelling.

For actors, going short has other advantages: The medium isn’t dependent on weekend box-office results. Quick schedules mean a shorter commitment. And there’s the chance to take on risqué roles and never-seen-before avatars.

“Short films give you an amazing opportunity to experiment with yourself and through that you not only surprise yourself but also surprise others,” says actor Manoj Bajpayee, whose says his wife Neha urged him to try them out.

Director Shirish Kunder loves that the films are out there, online, for anyone to watch or rewatch when they please. “When you’re making a web short there’s no question of chalega ki nahin chalega (will it work or not),” he says.

His own short film, a psychological thriller titled Kriti, has had millions of views since its release in June. “Also, in feature films, you have to play safe. If you keep jumping genres, the producers will not trust you. But here you can experiment with genres. I had never done a dark thriller before. By making one I prove that I can.”

Tisca Chopra, who wrote, produced and acted in Chutney, says she did so out of ‘majburi’ or desperation. “Roles in feature films are few and far between and rarely exciting,” she admits. “Supporting stories that other people would not back inspired me.”

WHAT THE BIG NAMES BRING

A 15-minute film featuring a well-known, top-billed actor is undoubtedly a shot in the arm for viewership. Fans of the star log in to watch. Casual browsers tend to give the film a shot. A big name lends credibility and recall value.

For filmmakers, it’s a win-win. Relatively unknown director Devashish Makhija found the spotlight on him when Manoj Bajpayee starred in his short film, Taandav, in February 2016. Bajpayee’s boost helped enough for Makhija to make his next short, Absent, without any star two months later, and still garner 2 million views.

Film critic Anupama Chopra points out that when 10 or 12 million people are watching one Tisca Chopra or Manoj Bajpayee movie, a significant number will also click on other films made by unknown directors. “Every film featuring a celebrity or getting directed by a popular director is helping this industry grow,” she says.

HOW IT WORKS
  • Web shorts generally take very little time to shoot — two or three days, on average.
  • What takes longer, directors say, is pre-production. ‘You know you only have the star for those couple of days, so everything has to be set up, every detail in place,’ says Devashish Makhika. This can take a month.
  • Most Bollywood stars currently take little or no money to feature in a web short. As Koechlin put it, they do it for creative satisfaction.
  • The cost of even an A-list web short is therefore very low — from as little as Rs 50,000 to about Rs 12 lakh.
  • The filmmakers could just leverage the A-listers and promote it online, but they tie up with platforms such as Pocket Films, Terribly Tiny Talkies, Large Short Films, HumaraMovie, Muvizz.com and Six Sigma Films for that initial boost that comes from a ready web audience. These platforms already have between 25,000 and 500,000 subscribers, and that helps the film go viral.
  • In such cases, the platform gets to keep most of the ad revenue they make from the movie; the director gets a cut.

BIG STARS, BIG CHANGES

Makhija believes web shorts have become popular because they capitalise on viewers’ short attention spans and because the internet is not at the mercy of distributers. “The viewer and the creator are one click away from each other,” he says.

Kunder, on the other hand, finds that making short films allows a director a more varied audience – a great resource when you’re making feature films as well. “I often go through the comments on my short film and there are many people who don’t fall under the typical web audience, urban and savvy in the world of English web series and shows; they also give honest feedback,” he says. “The intellectual crowd is not the only one watching shorts, people from all social strata are viewing them.”

It’s a better platform when your message is more timely or complex than Bollywood can handle – particularly with social issues or niche problems. “It’s difficult to do a feature film on a timely issue because by the time the movie is released the subject is dated,” says Koechlin. “A short film is a great way to capture the moment.”

THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE

Many web shorts featuring movie stars are published on the YouTube channels of web-based entertainment platforms like HumaraMovie, Terribly Tiny Talkies, Pocket Films and Large Short Films. These are platforms that have established themselves, and having big names on the roll only takes their brand further.

What it doesn’t do is bring in big money. “The involvement of celebrities has definitely given web shorts a boost,” says Sameer Mody, founder and MD at Pocket Films. “But the main avenues for monetisation remain advertisements, which are low-yield.”

Vinay Mishra from HumaraMovie agrees. “Celebrities in short films are a double-edged sword,” he says. The platform and the star reap the benefit of a huge virtual audience. “But their involvement also makes it more difficult for new filmmakers to break the clutter and be heard. It increases the average cost of production too.”

ONE WAY OUT IS BRANDED SHORTS

Director Shlok Sharma (feature film Haraamkhor; web short Tubelight Ka Chand) cites the Vicks ad made by Masaan director Neeraj Ghaywan, featuring a transgender woman and her adopted daughter. Branding was minimal in this short, but it’s a slippery slope. “If a short film’s content is all about the brand’s message, then artistic freedom gets hampered and audiences could get put off too,” Sharma says.

Devashish Makhija refused to do a branded short film when he was offered the chance. He fears that branded web shorts will start a race for eyeballs and money that will muddy the waters and compromise artistic freedom.

“I have been part of some meetings where I have seen rate cards from YouTube to buy views,” he says. “The rate fluctuates depending on how much natural traction a film is getting. Short films are getting 10-to-12 million views in two weeks in this manner, and no one is questioning it.”

THE ROAD AHEAD

For now, Bollywood’s stars and filmmakers are coming to see the web short as a great way to creatively expand. Kunder is planning an action-drama next. Koechlin is writing a poem called Noise, about the cacophony of everyday life, on which she hopes a short film can be made. Shroff wants to direct short films now. “I may fall flat on my face, but I want to give it a try,” he says.