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World Cinema Hip or Hype?

On June 12, a 365-day festival of world cinema kicks off in Mumbai, then moves to six cities across India. The question: Is the demand proportionate to the supply? Tasneem Nashrulla examines.

entertainment Updated: Jun 07, 2009 00:42 IST
Tasneem Nashrulla

Hristi Kedia, a 24 year-old media planner, recently treated herself to five Ingmar Bergman DVD classics from the Crossword bookstore and watched them back-to-back over the weekend. She would have liked some company (“Bergman’s films are brilliant but they tend to depress me”) but her friends preferred catching Angels and Demons at the multiplex, following it up with a televised rerun of Singh is Kinng.

This anecdotal evidence encapsulates the Bollywood vs world cinema scenario; the majority will pick Akshay Kumar over Akira Kurosawa, but a small, growing tribe of cinephiles idolise Fellini, not Farah Khan.

That tribe is the target audience for a 365-day film festival that kicks off on June 7 in Mumbai, then moves to six other Indian cities. The festival, called Reeload, is helmed by Palador Pictures, one of the first to introduce international films in India four years ago.

For an annual membership fee of Rs 6,000, viewers will have access to daily primetime screenings of contemporary and classic world movies at all INOX theatres across Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Goa and Kolkata as well as free DVDs and workshops with national and international filmmakers. Explains Gautam Shiknis, founder and MD of Palador Pictures, “In an entertainment landscape dominated by brain-dead Bollywood, there was a need to create an option for intelligent cinema for people of a certain intellect.”

The messiahs of world movies are going all out to rescue us from the clutches of commercial cinema. Palador and Enlighten Film Society regularly screen award-winning movies at multiplexes, film festivals, clubs and restaurants. NDTV Lumiere and UTV have dedicated world movie channels. And all these players also retail acclaimed foreign DVD titles.

The question is: Is the demand proportionate to the supply?

The answer might not be a resounding yes, but an optimistic ‘maybe’. Vikas Sharma, project manager of Reeload and brand communications for Palador, is confident of acquiring 1,500 to 2,000 Reeload members per theatre, per city. “In fact, we get 25 to 30 new members every day,” he says. Persepolis, an Oscar-nominated Iranian film, for instance, drew full houses in its second week while Caramel ran for three weeks in Mumbai’s PVR cinema, a remarkable run for a film from Lebanon. “At times, we see a 50 to 60 per cent turnout; 75 to 80 per cent if the film is popular,” estimates Girish Wankhede, DGM, PR, Cinemax.

However Pranav Ashar, director of Enlighten Film Society, which currently has 3,000 members since its inception in 2007, stops short of celebrating just yet. “The truth is,” he says, “at every foreign film screening at a multiplex or festival, you will find the same people; those who are truly devoted to world cinema. Yes, that number has increased over the last few years, but the majority have yet to give world cinema a chance. Even publicising festivals or releases doesn’t help that much, because most people lack the inclination to watch a foreign film.”

Kamal Gianchandani, COO, Bigflix, an online rental DVD service, adds, “World cinema comprises only 7.5 to 8 per cent of our market.” While Bollywood obviously has a major share, he says, “Hollywood is still largely popular and 35 per cent of our revenues come from that.”

But NDTV’s Senior VP (New Ventures) Dhruvank Vaidya sees it differently. “They are not niche and they are not esoteric,” he asserts. “World movies are often mainstream successes in other countries. Just as Om Shanti Om was a commercial success in India, The Orphanage, (a Spanish film which NDTV Lumiere released in India), was the highest grossing film in Spain last year.”

Even Enlighten’s Ashar concedes that DVD sales of classics like Bicycle Thieves, Metropolis and Battleship Potemkin are “moving very quickly.” Bigflix’s Gianchandani attributes that to the fact that world cinema is more popular in the home video format than theatre. “Theatres screen these films for prestige, but DVD copies are a function of demand,” he says.

At Palador, the figures are encouraging. Since September 2008, they have sold over 21,000 DVDs of their seven world movie titles, which retail in 145 stores across India. And UTV World Movies plans to release DVDs of 60 new titles.

World movie buff Timira Gupta, a 24-year-old freelance writer, was surprised at the number of DVDs sold at an Ingmar Bergman retrospective held at the NFDC in Mumbai last year. “Many hardcore world movie fans like me do not have big incomes,” she says. “Yet, we shell out cash willingly for our favourite filmmakers.” Bigflix’s Gianchandani adds, “People who watch world cinema are a pickier audience. They are mostly film buffs who are either out to make films or experiment with their viewing choices.”

So who exactly are these film buffs? Sameer Ganapathy, Business Head of UTV World Movies, elaborates, “Our core viewership comes from the 18-35 age group. These are metro-centric, new-age, upwardly mobile, global Indians who experiment with cuisines, shopping, etc.” Vaidya further defines his target audience as people who generally tend to be more aware of international trends, watch English plays, browse through bookstores and have refined cultural tastes.

Most players agree that this niche segment is growing. Shirish Handa, Senior VP Marketing, Fun Cinemas says, “We saw almost a 50 per cent occupancy for the French movie Science of Sleep.” Vaidya says he was surprised to see several bankers engrossed at a screening of The Orphanage. “Ultimately, cinema has a universal language not bound by demographics,” he says.

(With inputs from Shalini Singh & Serena Menon)