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Making business sense of documentary filmmaking

With India as the current flavour of the season, foreign funds are not a problem, writes Mini Pant Zachariah.

india Updated: Feb 09, 2007, 04:55 IST
Mini Pant Zachariah
Mini Pant Zachariah

Here's the contradiction in the Indian documentary film scene today: films are being made and appreciated, but little is done to make them commercially self sustaining.

As India continues to be the international flavour, foreign funds are coming the Indian filmmakers' way. Commissioning editors for documentary films from foreign media houses are scouting around in India picking and choosing from the abundant talent. Media biggies like the BBC (UK), ITVS (US), Arte (France) and YLE (Finland) are funding short films by Indian filmmakers.

Iikka Vehkalahti, commissioning editor for documentary films, Finnish broadcasting company YLE and executive producer, Steps India, a Delhi-based non-profit organisation supporting documentary films, gushes about the body of work underway here.

"In Europe today, most documentaries are boring because filmmakers are living in very 'safe and stable environment'. In India and China, where tremendous changes are happening, many interesting stories are emerging. Because people have to work in tight budgets, they are passionate about their work," he says.

Docedge, an international workshop for filmmakers in Kolkata earlier this year, saw young talent pitching their ideas for international funding. At least eight documentaries are underway as a result of this.  

Internationally, Indian documentary makers are winning awards. Locally, there is an eager audience willing to experiment with new form of story telling, in fact, new stories as well. The many private screenings at film clubs across the city and in smaller urban centres bear that out. Vikalp, an alternative movement of filmmakers that started in 2004 as a reaction to state-controlled Mumbai International Film Festival, has four screenings in different parts of the city every month. It has now tied up with Prithvi Theatre for regular screenings of documentary and short films.  

"It's a great time for documentary film makers and viewers in India," says Chandita Mukherjee, vice president, Indian documentary makers association.

But what happens when the honeymoon is over? asks multi-faceted Sunil Shanbag, who has produced many films including one of modern dance artiste Astad Deboo and co-produced Aamakaar (The Turtle People) for YLE.

Though established names like Anand Patwardhan, Paromita Vohra and Madhusree Dutta may not face fund crunch or diktats from the financier, raising money for a project involves a fair deal of networking. Often the funds come with the strings attached.

In order to make the documentary filmmaking an independent and free expression exercise, the filmmaker must find ways to finance his venture.

Often the process of making films is so exhausting that there is little energy left for marketing it. Ajay Noronha whose short film Bhaile on child sex tourism in Goa created a stir, confesses that making the film was hard enough but tougher still was screening and marketing it.

Rakesh Sharma of Final Solutions fame is one such filmmaker who has worked out a business model that he says, "has helped me make a modest living and generate funds for my next film".

Since the release of award winning Final Solutions in 2004, Sharma has almost worked full time on the distribution of the film. He brings the training of his corporate background (he was with Channel V and Star TV) to market the film with the Pirated Circulation campaign. Film VCDs produced at an investment of Rs 15,000 were piggybacked on publications like Communal Combat, Yogendra Yadav's Samayik Varta, and Janmat from Allahabad with a rider to make 5 copies of these and circulate. The demand surpassed expectation prompting another print order within six months. Today there are 21,000 vcds and 4,000 DVDs of the film in India alone. Sale of the film abroad was used to cross-subsidise sales in India.

"I am making films because there is an audience for it and not just for the NCPA and Pukar circuit. That is anathema to me. Why should filmmakers not have websites where people can buy films on line," Sharma said.

Talking of change, unlike in the West, where documentaries are commissioned and shown on television, the trend is missing in India despite the proliferation of news channels. Except for the state-owned Doordarshan, there are no slots for private channels for documentary filmmakers.

"Instead of sting operations on people's sex lives why can't the news channels telecast some short film and documentaries that are slickly made and touch the audience's heart?" asks Vohra.

With technology opening up avenues like You Tube and home videos considering channels on demands, things have never been so good for these cine storytellers. All they need to do is to make business sense of it.

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