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Tall order for short films

Given their format, it’s tough for short films to reach audiences. But filmmakers like Geethu Mohandas, Abhay Kumar and Gitanjali Rao continue to do interesting work within this space.

brunch Updated: Nov 24, 2014 14:00 IST
Asad Ali
Asad Ali
Hindustan Times

When asked what advice he would give to aspiring filmmakers about to start making short films, Anil Thadani quipped, “To not start.”

Thadani helms AA Films, one of Bollywood’s biggest distribution companies and he isn’t the only one to voice borderline disdain for what is arguably cinema’s most neglected genre, the short film. More so in India where audiences have largely become conditioned into consuming movies that are at least two hours long.

Ironically, a number of Indian films that aren’t feature-length and don’t find much industry support here, at least initially, end up doing quite well abroad. So why does this form lag behind back home? Thadani points to the near-zero market demand because "the audience wants entertainment, which short films don’t have."

Reel in the hill: The third edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival pulled in crowds from Mcleodganj. Co-director of DIFF, Tenzing Sonam (right below).Anuj Malhotra, publisher of Projectorhead, an online film magazine, and the founder of Delhi-based Lightcube Film Society, says, "I think the market has in recent years expressed a strong preference for work that is easily familiar to their audience. So short films – or any film that offers an alternative form of engagement – is excluded from consideration."

Malhotra says that the very term ‘short’ film "induces anxiety to those in conference rooms", since it announces at the very outset that the product is short in duration, and hence unlikely to fetch profits. He shows consideration for the powers that be, though. don’t necessarily make money by showing films, but by selling subsidiary food items. "A short film that requires the audience to invest only a few minutes wouldn’t really get much revenue by the side of popcorn!" he points out.

The third edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) was held in Mcleodganj recently, and it showcased an eclectic mix of shorts. Themes ranged from a day in the life of a transgender to a slum boy’s ambition of making a film to a slice-of-life portrayal of a differently-abled boy and his family.

DIFF co-founder Tenzing Sonam agrees that short films aren’t given enough space in India and suggests that a compendium of short films is probably the way to go. COO of BIG Cinemas, Ashish Saksena, also thinks that more thought should be given to packaging short films. "Putting together a selection of say, 10 odd short films, definitely stands a better chance of getting a release."

The short film genre though, stuttering as it may be commercially, has always been fertile territory for aspiring filmmakers to hone their skills and showcase unbridled creativity. For example, before Umesh Kulkarni won a National award for his feature film Deool (2011), he was already a respected name for his short films such as Girni (22min; 2005) and Gaarud (11min; 2008). And it isn’t that uncommon a trend.

Here are three filmmakers who have achieved recognition in the short film space. Each of them has a unique voice and has tackled different themes

Geethu Mohandas
Her directorial debut, and most important work in the short film genre is Kelkkunnundo (22 min; 2009) – about the adverse effects of urbanization.

Man of letters: A still from Kelkkunnundo (above), Geethu Mohandas’ (right below) short film.Kerala-born filmmaker Geethu Mohandas has known the camera intimately since she was about five years old. At that age she starred in a Malayalam film, Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare (1986), and went on to win the Kerala State Film Award for Best Child Artist for that year.

Tasting success that early can be tricky for a child and Mohandas’s parents understood that: "It’s one of the prime reasons they took me abroad. My middle school was spent in Malaysia and high school and undergraduate education in Canada."

When asked about the filmmakers who inspired her, she says, "To start with I was influenced by Malayalam cinema, because that’s my language, and we had some amazing talents such as KG George and John Abraham." her education, Mohandas returned to cinema and soon went on to win an award for Best Actress for the Malayalam film Akale (2004) – this Shyamaprasad-directed feature was an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. But Mohandas says, "I think I became an actor by default because I was a child artist. I always wanted to direct. I was just waiting for the right time to make a switch."

She did make the switch quite successfully. At the time Mohandas was applying for funds to the Huberat Bals Fund at Rotterdam for her then nascent venture Liar’s Dice, she decided to make a short film as well. That short film, Kelkkunnundo (2009), explored how, in the name of development, rapid urbanisation was affecting the environment. It went on to win a slew of awards, and got a world premiere at the Rotterdam film festival. "Which is why I said that my short film helped a lot towards making Liar’s Dice."

Liar’s Dice, Mohandas’s first full-length feature deals with the issue of migration to cities and the price a certain class of labourers have to pay to survive. The film, which is India’s official entry to the Oscars for next year, had its world premiere at Mumbai Film Festival in 2013. It has won two national awards, besides numerous others at various film festivals across the world.

But what does she have to say about short filmakers not getting enough visibility? "There’s no proper platform to release your work and recover costs. I was lucky because most festivals where my film won had some cash prize with it. So I could recover some costs."

She explains that even packaging shorts into anthology format may not always work. What’s needed, she says, is for a known name or big corporate house to come forward and back the project. But Mohandas is quick to add, "As a filmmaker, irrespective of the format, you still have to tell a story and make it as convincing as possible."

Abhay Kumar
His most recognised short film is Just That Sort of a Day (13 min; 2011) which ”follows the lives of seemingly disconnected characters as they try to find sense in the everyday events haunting them”.

New angles: Abhay Kumar’s (right below) 2011 short film Just That Sort of a Day.

Other shorts include

Life is a Beach

(5 min; 2011) – about two individuals’ equation in a city and and


(7 min; 2008), about a couple in love and on the run.

It’s still a bit awkward for Abhay Kumar to explain what he does to most people, he says. "I get asked what I do, and when I say I make short films, I’m asked whether it’s running in the theatres. When I say it isn’t, they think that I make documentaries!" chuckles Kumar, adding that people have no clue what this form is all about.

Born and brought up in Chandigarh, Kumar says he followed the usual trajectory of wanting to be a cricketer, and then preparing for medical and engineering exams. He went on to study mass communications in Delhi and completed his postgraduate diploma in film from Xavier Institute of Communications in 2008.

Kumar recounts his first proper attempt at filmmaking: "I made a 45-minute film on a college trip and submitted that as part of my end-year assignment!"

Kumar says that short films gave him the ideal platform to find his voice. They also helped him understand whether he really wanted to take up filmmaking further.

Kumar made about six short films, each with varying degrees of success and recognition. But his biggest success came with his 13-minute animation short, Just That Sort of a Day, which explores the meaning of life and existence without any pretence. winning a National Award in 2011, it premiered at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam in January, won a Special Mention at the Regensburg Short Film Festival, Germany, in March and became the first ever Indian animation film to compete at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival.

But Kumar still remembers how Just That Sort of a Day was rejected at every film festival back home before it finally gained recognition on foreign shores. Which is why, explains Kumar, it’s best for short filmmakers to adopt a stoic approach to the reception their work gets – expect little. If you get an audience, it’s always a bonus.

For the time being though, Kumar doesn’t need to worry about an audience for his next production. Placebo is touted to be a ‘hybrid-documentary’ about the darker effects of the education system. And it is now set to have its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) this year. It is the only Indian film this year to compete in the IDFA First Appearance category.

Gitanjali Rao
Major award-winning work from Rao includes Printed Rainbow (15 min; 2006) – about an elderly lady and her cat; True Love Story (19min; 2014) – a love story between two street kids in Mumbai; and Chai (11 min; 2013) – about four tea sellers in Mumbai

Colour me wild: Poster for True Love Story, Gitanjali Rao’s (right below) most recent project
Gitanjali Rao pushes creative boundaries a bit further by working in the realm of animation shorts. Says Rao: "I can blend the forms depending on the script. I’m working next on a biopic of Begum Akhtar which will need to have a lot of past events recreated. In such cases I think animation works much better. But at other times I feel like including live action too."

Born and brought up in Mumbai, Rao was always exposed to a lot of cinema. "Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray… I liked the usual greats." She finished her graduation from JJ Institute of Applied Art, Mumbai and dabbled in advertising briefly: "The concept of selling wasn’t quite my thing… I was always too much of an artist to do that work," she says.

Rao ended up producing her first animation short, Orange (4 mins; 2002) which she now says "wasn’t a good film! It didn’t even get selected for Mumbai International Film Fest (MIFF)!" Her next short animation though created quite a stir.

Printed Rainbow won about 25 awards including one for Best Animation at MIFF. It got a Cannes premiere in 2006 and won three awards there in Critics Week. "It was about an elderly lady who lives alone with her cat in a city, and she likes to collect matchboxes. In fact, I used to observe my mother with her cat and the idea to make a film came from there," says Rao. next animation short, True Love Story, was screened this year at both DIFF and Cannes. "It’s a love story between two Mumbai street kids and their realities," says Rao, who also directed a segment in Anurag Kashyap’s 2013 production Shorts. In the Kashyap anthology Rao directed the film Chai (11 min; 2013) which was about "four individuals who’ve migrated from various parts of the country and sell tea in Mumbai." It was also the first time Rao made a live action short film.

But Rao doesn’t think she’s ever been perceived as ‘mainstream’: "Only a few are aware of my short animation work. In India, unless you do a proper full-length feature no one will take notice." Before you can finish asking how the situation can change for the better for short filmmakers, Rao quickly says, "It won’t change, not anytime soon at least."

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First Published: Nov 20, 2014 15:16 IST