Spotlight: The Indie and documentary rise

It is all over the place. It is on everyone’s lips. It finds a mention in every second sentence spoken by a regular filmgoer. It gets thrown around in discussions over cups of cappuccino at the many little coffee shops of the “filmi” Mumbai suburb, Versova. But the moment you start seeking its meaning, you are lost. All of those who try in vain to explain what it means, agree upon one thing with a lot of conviction. That independent films, or “indies” as they are known now, will the biggest gamechangers in the scheme of things in the next decade of Bollywood.
The first time I mentioned the phrase “independent films” to The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra, he laughed out loud. Anand Gandhi, the director of National Award-winning film Ship Of Theseus, handled it with a bit more seriousness, and asked me to explain what the term meant to me. Shahid director Hansal Mehta just shrugged at its mention and Anurag Kashyap, the Godfather himself, made a face and called it “exploitative”. Batra, Gandhi, Mehta and Kashyap are all among those filmmakers who are regarded as the torchbearers of independent films in the country. But none of them like to box their films into any such categories and believe that the much-hyped indie movement is, sadly, non-existent.

A still from Ship Of Theseus Image via Google Images
A still from Ship Of Theseus
Image via Google Images

As I fumbled with words like “small-budget” and “experimental” trying to answer Gandhi’s question, he readily offered to help. “In the West, an independent film is that which has no studio backing,” he said. “By that definition, SOT is not an independent film as it had a big studio UTV’s name attached to it. It got a release in so many screens throughout the country.” Such classifications, said Gandhi, are in itself borrowed and do not make sense when taken out of context. Batra, on the other hand, amused by what he calls a Yeti-like phenomenon decided to do a small survey among his family and friends to arrive at a definition for indie films. “Some of them said that these were films sans songs and stars, are usually dimly lit and made in low budgets,” said Batra, with a smile. “Some others think that any film that goes to a film festival is an independent film.” With the success of smaller budget, content-driven films in both box office and the awards circuit, the audiences seem to have embraced this “alternate” industry that originates from Bollywood’s hometown Mumbai, but still prefers to stay away at the fringes.
So what is an independent film? Is it just a follow-up in the lines of what was earlier referred to as parallel, offbeat or arthouse cinema? “But what is arthouse cinema?” asks Vikramaditya Motwane, whose first film Udaan is referred to as a “low-budget classic”. “Was Satya arthouse? Gangs Of Wasseypur was not arthouse, neither was Dev. D. I don’t know if Udaan was. These were all films that were different from those being made in their times. But just because the budget is not huge and stories are more realistic, a film doesn’t become indie or arthouse.” It all boils down to money, says maverick Bengali director Q. “The real revolution is the advent of digital filmmaking,” he says. “So now, it is possible to be an Indie, simply because it is cheap. Anyone can make a film and cinema is no longer an elitist occupation.”
Independence lies in the spirit, too. Non-compliance to the commercial diktats and making a film that is totally driven by the filmmaker’s vision is what some others call indie. Kashyap asks the media to refrain from using such terminologies. “There are only good films and bad films,” he says. “Some may be independent, meaning they might have emerged from outside the exisitng system. But if they are good, there are means now through which a few people in the industry will hand-hold them to find their feet.”

A still from Titli Image via Google Images
A still from Titli
Image via Google Images

This is the most interesting trend that is being seen in the recent years. A few filmmakers like Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee and Kiran Rao are acting as a conduit between indie films and the big studios. A classic example is Titli, the only film from India to play in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival this year. Directed by debutant Kanu Behl and produced by Banerjee, Titli found an unlikely ally in Yash Raj Films, the biggest factory of commercial cinema in Bollywood, which co-produced the film. Among biggies like Shahrukh Khan-starrers Happy New Year and Fan, this butterfly has managed to find a small spot in the Yash Raj film slate. “This is a healthy trend which will go on for a few years to come,” says Kashyap. “Our industry has lasted a 100 years only because it is a healthy industry. Tie-ups and collaborations like these are what will keep it so.”
Another trend that has been picking up speed in the last two years are documentary or non-fiction films finding an audience in India. They are getting released and running to packed halls for weeks together. Films like Gulabi Gang, Fire In The Blood and When Hari Got Married have managed to grab a few eyeballs and make some ripples. The youth, especially, has started realising that non-fiction films are not necessarily boring and preachy. “I have travelled to over 70 film festivals last year and I can safely say that the most interesting films that I have seen there are non-fiction films,” says filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray, whose investigative documentary Fire In The Blood became the only non-fiction film to run in theatres for five weeks. The documentary, which tells the story of the fight of activists against pharma giants to make generic, low-cost drugs available to millions of AIDS patients, was taken off screens in its fifth week because of the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram Leela. “My film was removed from screens not because people didn’t come to watch it,” says Gray. “Despite the odd timings, the halls were packed. This, I found heartening and encouraging. Sensibilities are changing. But the commercial monster is what swallowed it.”

A still from the film Fire In The Blood
A still from the film Fire In The Blood

It is still a struggle for a small film to get a release as it competes with what Gray rightly pointed out, the “commercial monster”. Making her film was not half as hard as getting a release, says Nisha Pahuja, director of The World Before Her, a film on women’s rights in India. “Despite having travelled to 125 film festvals and won 19 international awards, it is ironic that the film reached India the last,” says Pahuja, who has finally secured a release date, thanks to Kashyap, who is now presenting the film. “But having come this far, I see some light at the end of this tunnel and I am hopeful that films like mine will be seeked out for by the youth.” The biggest advantage we as a country have, says Pahuja, is that 50 per cent of our population are young and informed because of their exposure to the internet and to quality works of non-fiction on international television. This has evolved in a desire to engage in and tackle real issues in a way that is more daring, gritty and sophisticated than ever before. Their idea of what cinema is has broadened.
Unlike the older generation who were exposed to documentaries like Krishi Darshan shown on Doordarshan and who grew up with the mental block that non-fiction equals boring, the youth of today are discovering newer dimensions of cinema, says Kashyap. “People in India are just starting to realise that it is expected of them to buy a ticket and go to the theatre to watch a documentary,” says Gandhi, who has supported Gulabi Gang and is now backing the political documentary Proposition For A Revolution. So will the gap between fiction and non-fiction films be bridged in the next ten years? Kashyap is not too hopeful on this front and says a decade is too short a time for such a change. “See, the gap will never narrow down,” he says. “The tent-pole and big starcast films will still make huge bucks, but what will happen is that documentaries and smaller films will also take away a share of the revenue pie.”
It is essentially a market equation. Pure economics. The reason why Vinay Shukla and Khusbhoo Ranka, the makers of PFAR, a film that tracks the birth and evolution of the Aam Admi Party, decided to involve the audiences much before the film gets completed. They, backed by Gandhi, have come up with a crowdfunding exercise and have managed to raise funds to finish off the post-production work on their film. Not just money, a few youngsters are pledging their skills, too, for the cause of the film, says an elated Ranka. “Our campaign has demonstrated that there are people out there who want to watch films like ours and do not mind parting with their money to do so,” she says. “The crowdfunding exercise was on the one hand to raise money, and on the other to bring in a sense of ownership among those who have contributed. What will come out of this will be a community-owned film,” adds Shukla.
Such innovative distribution models will decide the future of this breed of cinema. Along with the audience, it is also imperative to bring in other agencies like the state and private investors, feels Gulabi Gang director Nishtha Jain. “In the coming years, independent fiction and non-fiction films will survive only if its market potential is identified by state and private film investors,” she says. There is also a need to build a conducive ecosystem around such films–an audience and a good source of assured fund flow. “What will take time is to step out of the commercial space to engage in building a viewership which feels the social and inner pressure to watch a film with alternative form and content,” says Jain.

Agrees Fahad Mustafa and Deepti Kakkar, the makers of the award-winning documentary Katiyabaaz. “Traditionally Indian documentary makers used to find a market in the US and Europe broadcast and DVD markets,” says Mustafa. “Most of the films that come out from India deal with very local yet global concerns which is why it is important to make sure that they are exhibited on a big screen here and the audience be given a chance to watch them.” Katiyabaaz, which portrays the struggle of small-town India for electricity, had its premiere at last year’s Mumbai International Film Festival and was adjudged the best film in the India Gold section by a jury headed by Academy Award-winning Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi. Change is happening at both sides of the screen, says Kakkar. “Documentary filmmakers are experimenting with tropes across genres and audiences are hankering to watch innovative content with high production values,” she says. “It won’t be long before several non-fiction films release alongside commercial films every Friday to packed halls and committd viewers.”
Banerjee’s prescription for change is two-fold. Documentaries and indie films cannot be bracketed under the umbrella of Bollywood, he said at a press conference before he left for Cannes with Titli. “Bollywood is a genre that is consumed by a specific genre-market abroad,” he said. “There is a much larger market for world cinema out there and these films are in a way representative of world cinema emerging from India.” Such films are outliers. “They are far removed from the star-driven world of Bollywood and the sugar-coated version of India presented in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire,” he said. “There is no point throwing money at films like these. We need to plan carefully and employ the right kind of experience gained on the field to support these rare gems. This is what will sustain such filmmaking in the long run.”

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