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Monday, Sep 16, 2019

The brave new world of Indie films

Indian independent cinema has always stood apart. But now it's standing tall. Through much of 2013 such cinema inched onto the screens and stole the limelight. Meet the tribe of fringe filmmakers coming into their own.

brunch Updated: Dec 08, 2013 15:25 IST
Parul Khanna
Parul Khanna
Hindustan Times
Irrfan-Khan-in-a-still-from-The-Lunchbox( )

It has been an interesting year for films in India. Membership to the 100-crore club (a term developed by Brunch. We take full credit) increased. While the focus was on the newly emerging 200-crore club, three little films, with minimal budgets, no stars, and no big-ticket directors released in consecutive months. They inched onto the screens and stole the limelight away from many star-studded movies.

When director Anand Gandhi came out with Ship of Theseus in July, its thought-provoking narrative bowled the critics over. In August, B.A. Pass, the virgin, not-so-virginal, venture of director Ajay Bahl, was released. Shot with a basic Alexa Arri camera in the bylanes of Paharganj on a budget of `2 crore, the coming-of-age noir film garnered attention not just for its bold theme, and actress Shilpa Shukla’s seductive character, but for the story itself. It recovered its money three times over. Then, in September, came The Lunchbox. The film about two people falling in love through letters and a consistently mis-delivered lunch dabba, made with just `9 crore, grossed `25 crore despite its limited release.

(Click to enlarge)These films were everything a 100-crore film wasn’t. Their screenplay was languid, the pace unhurried – Irrfan Khan stares at a slow-moving fan for five minutes in The Lunchbox, his co-star Nimrat Kaur wears no make-up (even her eyebrows were left unthreaded). There were no fancy locations or big promotion budgets. But they managed to engross audiences. India finally woke up to the phenomenon of indie films.

Indie films demystified

For most film buffs, the word ‘indie’ simply refers to any movie made with an individualistic spirit. "A movie totally driven by the auteur is an indie," explains filmmaker Sarthak Dasgupta. "This movie is an individualistic voice of the filmmaker and doesn’t necessarily cater to mass taste. [It’s] A film that doesn’t comply by what is commercial, but is a distinct voice of the filmmaker, who wants to make it the way he wants to."

The generic definition of an indie film points to a small-budget project made and distributed by an independent source, without the intrusion of a big studio. But in India, distribution is a big hurdle, and most times, it happens only with the help of established studios. So our indie films are often made with money from independent sources or a producer who chips in. Sarthak Dasgupta’s The Great Indian Butterfly was made with his own savings and help from a friend. The film was picked up by Sanjay Gupta, who pitched in more money to complete it. Ajay Bahl borrowed money from his family for B.A. Pass. Udaan (2010) and Shahid (2013) were both independent ventures picked up for distribution by mainstream companies.

An indie film could also be made by collecting money from multiple sources, like Ashim Ahluwalia did for Miss Lovely (it releases in January 2014). "It took me three years," he recalls. "It eventually became a co-production – some French money, some Japanese money, some Indian money, a little bit of American money too."

Unlike the parallel cinema movement of the ’70s and ’80s, which focused on social injustices and everyday struggles, today’s indie films are not bound by any one theme. You could watch a slow, subtle romance like The Lunchbox, a gripping, nihilistic drama full of smaller stories like SHORTS (2013), or the heartwarming story of two adolescents growing up on the streets in Mumbai Cha Raja (2012). Song and dance routines are optional. But a common joke doing the rounds of the indie circuit goes like this: ‘Make a movie with a five-minute shot of the fan, no make-up, realistic feel, and you have an indie!’

Stories with passion

The reasons driving India’s new-age indie filmmakers are varied. Some, like Anand Gandhi, see films as an engaging and "powerful tool to make people think and introspect and have a profound impact". For others like MBA-turned-filmmaker Dasgupta, being able to do the kind of film one wants with or without a star is the driving force. "Stars want to appeal to a larger audience, which leads to dumbing down content," he explains. For Vasan Bala, whose 2012 thriller Peddlers focused on street kids and the drug trade, indie films allow him to tell the story "that has touched me."

Most indie filmmakers cite world cinema and satellite television as influences and with changing technology, they also have a better means of telling their story than before. A film can now be shot on a digital motion picture camera, as Ajay Bahl did beautifully. Software for editing and music is easily available. "And anything else we want to learn about the aesthetics of filmmaking, it’s all there," says Bala.

Indie filmmakers are people who, by choice, refuse work that doesn’t match their sensibility. They’ll turn down plum assignments and drop the chance to work with a star if it interferes with their creative output. Like Shlok Sharma, director of the short film Sujata in SHORTS (and whose indie film Haramkhor will release next year). "When we are approached to do stuff for television, which has a lot of money, we often turn it down, even when we are struggling for money," he says. "Because we may want to shoot guerrilla style at the Chhatrapati Shivaji station, whereas, they will take us to the studio with a train in it. It doesn’t excite us." roadblocks

If indie storytelling and filmmaking is original, then so are the ways to make and sell it. Big stars will fill theatres but cost money and compromise creativity. Even B-listers are often inaccessible. So what do you do? "You use your craft well," says Bala. Hansal Mehta, who just had `85 lakh, decided to go without a star and Shahid drew crowds and praise for its content. B.A. Pass invested in good cinematography and was lauded by critics. Ship of Theseus looked like a beautiful painting.

Often, in the indie world, the star is not a person but a script. "We write a story that will be strong, and can be made on a low budget," says Dasgupta. Others cut location costs, edit everything on paper and plan better, so the project is more efficient.

Some, however, just indulge in mutual back-scratching for long-term gain. Huma Qureshi didn’t charge Shlok Sharma for her role in Sujata. She did her own makeup and got her own clothes. It gave the young actress a chance to break into the big league and showcase her skills to attract commercial projects in the future. Richa Chadda (Gangs of Wasseypur, SHORTS, and the commercial film Fukrey) says, "I would definitely work for Shlok, even if he doesn’t have funds, because he’s a friend."

Changing tastes

Small films don’t always mean small successes. "The Lunchbox did business of 25 crore. Ship of Theseus, a far more challenging film to understand, was played at theatres in small towns like Rohtak," says film critic Anupama Chopra. It points to a small but growing niche among cinema audiences who are exposed to this kind of filmmaking and find it a welcome shift from mainstream fare. "How long can they keep watching formulaic movies?"

This change in the way movies are being consumed is forcing filmmakers and production houses to change their thinking. "Karan Johar told me once that Udaan got Vikramaditya Motwane more respect than he [Karan] got with his release that year," Chopra recounts. "And that he would put his might behind a movie like that. The result: Karan co-distributing The Lunchbox, along with UTV this year." Kiran Rao urged UTV to pick Ship of Theseus, and lent her name to the film.

For big studios and stars, fringe films are also a means to invest in new audiences of the future. Filmmakers Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee paved the way with early support of indie ventures. Banerjee is currently backing Kanu Behl’s Titli, a film he says "turns all the tropes we attach with a movie on its head. Also, the more LSDs (Love Sex Aur Dhokha) there are, the more someone will get encouraged to make another one," he says. Ajay Devgn and Brillstein Entertainment Partners have partnered to form LA-based Shivalaya Entertainment to focus on independent films seeking broader appeal.

Release obstacles

While the nature of the stories has changed with indie cinema, other aspects are still fraught with old challenges. Once a movie is made, it just lies waiting for some Prince Charming distributor to pick it up. For films to be distributed and earn money, they still need to have stars.

One reason distributors offer for not helping indie films is that they still aren’t drawing enough people to theatres. However, filmmakers complain that often films lose audiences because they aren’t advertised enough. But with promotion costs often running into four times an indie film’s budget, they’re understandably hard to promote too.

Mehta says that fringe films and blockbusters can’t have the same marketing strategy. "A weekend cannot make or break an indie film," he explains. In India, every film is either for the single-screen theatre or for the multiplex. "Indie films need eyeballs. But they get a 10:30am slot and lose out on the working crowd," laments Dasgupta.

Several European countries (and the USA as well) make films direct to DVD or TV, solving the problem of distributors and cinema audiences India does. Add to it the threat of piracy, and it’s anyone’s guess how much money such a film will make. All of which means studio backing is an indie filmmaker’s only hope.

Most indie filmmakers say the problem with the Indian distributor is that he acts as the spokesperson for what the audience wants. The distributor filters films even before the audience gets a chance to see them. Director Ritesh Batra of The Lunchbox says the answer is to have film festivals that are not just cultural events, but connect distributors as well as the audiences to the films. International film festivals play that role. "They help develop a taste in the audience. There’s no such body here, so the only people deciding what the audience supposedly wants, are distributors," he says.

Eyes on the world

All our indie films benefit from doing the festival circuit before they come to India. Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely was the official selection at Cannes. "This crazy film from Mumbai got the international audiences it never would have. And it helped start conversations about what was going on in the Indian indie circuit," says Ahluwalia.

Miss Lovely is releasing in India in January. The Lunchbox was only picked up by Karan Johar and UTV after its spectacular response at Cannes. "Midway through the movie, I saw people leaving the hall. I was disappointed, but I got to know that they were distributors, who, after seeing the audience reaction, had hurried to place their bids," says Batra., a regular at Cannes for years, says that there is a palpable change in our perception on the world stage. "For years, we had an Indian presence just on the red carpet. Devdas premiered, then Aishwarya would go as the brand ambassador, but we had no movies. This year, at Cannes, there were five movies officially selected." Anand Gandhi says that’s exactly the objective. "We want to reach out to the world audience." Ship of Theseus has been picked up by Fortissimo films, it is releasing in USA in January. In Hollywood, names such as Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen have been supporting indie projects. That has started to happen here too.

The scene is evolving in India, too, says Bala. With an eye on a growing need for filmmakers to be trained like those in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, the National Film Development Corporation of India has launched a lab of its own. A filmmaker like Ajay Bahl and a movie like The Lunchbox came out of there. So did The Good Road, India’s entry to the Oscars.

Still, non-mainstream cinema needn’t and shouldn’t be a byword for boring. That would be the death of the genre. No movie or filmmaker, by default, becomes good, just because it is indie. "Any movie whose indulgences bore the audience is committing a cardinal sin," says Chopra.


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Filmmaker Sarthak Dasgupta had an idea about making a dark film about MBA students. His classmates got to know through Facebook and urged him to make the movie. “I said I was broke,” he says. And they all pitched in to crowdfund Cutthroat.

Vasan Bala needed money for his debut feature Peddlers. He wrote the script, and told himself he’d make it even if he had to empty his own wallet. A few years on, with no resources in sight, he hounded Anurag Kashyap Films co-owner Guneet Monga. She put up a status on Facebook telling people about the script, and if they were interested in putting in money. “We decided to take `10 lakh only from each person. There were businessmen, people who have money and want to experience producing a film, since it’s also low-risk. We decided to take limited money so that nobody could curb our creativity. We collected `1 crore.”

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Dasgupta says that after he went to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab with the script of The Music Teacher, doors started opening up. His earlier film The Great Indian Butterfly went through seven years of struggle to finally see what a theatre looked like. The Sundance Scriptwriters Lab in Los Angeles gives independent filmmakers from across the world a chance to work on their scripts under the guidance of the best minds in the world.

“I got a $10,000 prize too. And this experience catapulted me into a space where people started taking me seriously and engaging with me,” adds Dasgupta. After the workshop, he re-wrote his script, and decided to get the film co-funded by a foreign player. “It’s easier to approach Western markets if you have foreign co-funding,” he explains. Now, he has taken the script to Primexchange, Goa (a platform for transnational productions) to see the reaction in the European market, and get a fellow financier on board.

Ashim Ahluwalia struggled for three years for funding. The only way he managed was when “it eventually became a co-production – some French money, some Japanese, some Indian, a little bit of American money. It was a difficult job putting all that together because the kind of film Miss Lovely is didn’t exist at that time. It only happened because I made a documentary earlier [2005’s John & Jane] which went to a lot of festivals and was sold to HBO Films. It made things easier,” he recalls.

From HT Brunch, December 8

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First Published: Dec 06, 2013 16:37 IST