Kennedy, Sanaa, Stolen: Why India’s festival favorites struggle for a release in the domestic market? - Hindustan Times
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Kennedy, Sanaa, Stolen: Why India’s festival favorites struggle for a release in the domestic market?

Jun 29, 2024 11:37 AM IST

Do Indian festival entries face a hard time securing a release in India because the return on investment is uncertain? Read on.

Grand Prix at Cannes, an eight-minute standing ovation, critical acclaim, global coverage, Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light has it all. The one thing it does not, is an audience in India. And while there’s no news yet of when Kapadia’s film will release in India or how — in theatres or on OTT, it might still be easier for it to get a nationwide release following its historic win, unlike other Indian festival entries for whom securing a release is generally fraught with challenges.

Posters of films Kennedy (L) and Stolen (R)
Posters of films Kennedy (L) and Stolen (R)

Movies such as Gajendra Ahire’s The Signature, Anurag Kashyap’s Kennedy, and Karan Tejpal’s Stolen — all of which have travelled various international film festivals and garnered rave reviews, some have even bagged awards, are yet to release theatrically in India or find a home on OTT.

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The distribution dynamics

One of the reasons why festival films struggle to get takers in the home market could be because the Indian distribution system heavily favours mainstream, high-budget films over smaller, content-driven festival entries. Or maybe, because the general perception is that these films don’t work and the return on investment is uncertain, dissuades takers to bet on them.

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Actor Adil Hussain, whose film, Footprints On Water recently won the Audience Choice Award at the IndieMeme Film Festival laments that it’s unfair to decide a film’s fate before giving it a due chance.

“How do the OTT platform decision makers even know a film won’t work if they haven’t put in their full force behind it and gone all the way like they promote a commercial film? Stars travel to cities, hundreds of crores are sometimes spent on promoting films, they haven’t done that with any art house film,” says Hussain, adding, “The market needs to be tapped and harnessed by showing and advertising it, by advertising it to make people aware that ‘hey, you are missing out these amazing films’. That’s the job of the business people not the makers or actors.”

Filmmaker Nandita Das’ directorial project, Zwigato, starring Kapil Sharma and Shahana Goswami, travelled to multiple international film festivals before it finally released in India in March last year and received positive response. However, the film continues to struggle to find a home on a streaming platform.

“The perception is that these [festival] films do not have an audience. Barring very few passionate individual producers, hardly anyone supports films with a unique voice and no mainstream tropes,” Das notes. Elaborating her own experience, she tells us, “We got an amazing response [for Zwigato] not only at A-list festivals like the ones in Toronto and Busan but also from Indian media and the few who saw it in theatres. Yet, we wait for an OTT release!”

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National-award winning director Sudhanshu Saria echoes Das’ sentiments. Pointing out that festival films don’t follow the pattern of a “capitalist product”, the Sanaa filmmaker says that for middlemen, “whose job it is to figure out which film should get to the audience, it seems less risky to go with [films] that feature known faces and it becomes a little bit scarier to bet on just content”.

Meanwhile, highlighting the impact of the pandemic on the film distribution landscape, film critic Murtaza Ali Khan notes, “The Indian distribution system was always heavily lopsided in favour of mainstream releases and now it has become worse. A very big pool of movies [mainstream films] did not get a release leading audiences to consume more content on OTT platforms.”

Khan observes that now “unless there’s a big-ticket film like a Pathaan, Animal or Jawaan releasing in theatres, audiences are preferring to sit back at home and wait for films to stream on OTT. It is very difficult to release a certain kind of cinema in theatres. It has to be a crowd-puller with big set pieces and action sequences.”

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Financial constraints

Financial constraints further hinder festival films, as explained by actor Shahana Goswami, pointing out the disparity in marketing budgets compared to blockbuster releases. “The biggest problem is that a lot of these films don’t end up reaching the audience,” says Goswami, whose film Santosh had its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard section at the 77th Cannes Film Festival last month.

The fact that these films are made on modest budgets, they can’t often compete with blockbuster releases. “These films are made independently and there’s very little money to market it well enough, especially because you don’t have big stars in it. I think that’s where the failing happens in terms of it making a mark in India because not enough people know about the film except for a small section of people who follow the prestige of it going to an international film festival. That’s probably why it doesn’t get seen or appreciated not because it’s not liked necessarily,” Goswami elaborates.

Last year, Stolen, directed by debutant Karan Tejpal, was the only Indian film selected for its World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival. This selection came after a notable three-year absence of Indian films from the festival’s lineup. The film has since travelled to more than 30 film festivals but still it struggles to get a release in India.

Ask Tejpal the reason, and he explains: “We wanted to go directly to OTT, because we don’t have access to the kind of funding that is required to market and release a film in India. But, nobody is buying anything anymore. The pandemic changed it all and the market has suddenly dried up. We’ve obviously been facing a lot of challenges releasing our film. So now, we are thinking of other strategies. Maybe we will partner with a bigger production house who can present the film because my producer doesn’t have that kind of money to go into the cinema market, it’s very expensive.”

Censorship woes

Censorship remains another significant hurdle, with outdated regulations under the Cinematograph Act posing challenges to films that defy conventional narratives. In the past, movies such as Fire (1996), Hawa Aaney De (2004) Water (2005), Firaaq (2008), and S Durga (2017) among others, have either struggled to secure a wide release in India or faced significant obstacles due to their themes, content, or controversies surrounding them.

“The Cinematograph Act is antiquated. Some of the guidelines it offers, they date back to the colonial times. It is high time, particularly in the age of OTT and when our films are competing at the global stage, we upgrade our CBFC certification rules. There have been some changes in the recent times, but we further need to push the envelope,” Khan asserts adding, “nowadays, some film festivals have mandated CBFC certification. So, under these new requirements, we really need greater scope for filmmakers to play.”

Despite these challenges, Saria hopes that India’s fantastic run at international festivals, especially in the last few years with movies like The Shameless (2024), Sister Midnight (2024), Nirvana Inn (2023), Pebbles (2021), and The Disciple (2020) among others, garnering attention for their storytelling on the global stage “inspires a wave of filmmakers who maybe were going to give up or were not going to work on their passion project, to step out and take that shot and also inspires entrepreneurial distributors to understand that there is a massive gap in the marketplace and realise that we have a massive audience that is looking for different things.”

Nandita Das, who has also helmed critically acclaimed films such as Firaaq (2008) and Manto (2018), remains hopeful for a shift towards greater support for diverse storytelling. “We need more producers, distributors and platform heads who will have faith and commitment to diverse stories and ways in which they need to be told. Otherwise, we will keep celebrating the few and far between wins of Indian films at international festivals and yet not give them the space and respect they deserve in our own country,” Das concludes.

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