Spotlight: Distribution models for Indian documentaries

Let us take a step back here. Which was the best film that you saw last year in India? Without doubt, every discerning film buff’s ‘best of the year’ list will surely feature either one or all of these films–The World Before Her, Fire In The Blood and Gulabi Gang. Last year was the big year for documentaries with many non-fiction films running to packed houses for weeks, despite oddly scheduled shows and tough competition from bigger Bollywood films. The Indian audience has started developing a taste for documentaries, but the sad reality is that getting a non-fiction film, however good it may be, released in India is tougher and more strenuous than actually getting it made. As yet another documentary, Atul Sabharwal’s In Their Shoes, has managed that very tough feat and has hit screens around the country today, we at Long Live Cinema thought of asking documentary filmmakers about the ideal state of affairs they wished for their films in terms of theatrical release, promotion and distribution.

Nisha Pahuja, director of the much-acclaimed film The World Before Her, immediately reminds us that Hot Docs, the second largest documentary festival in the world and the largest in North America, is doing a spotlight on Indian documentaries this year. “Once again this is the case of a foreign entity understanding and recognizing Indian talent and helping to promote it,” says Nisha. “Should that also not be done in India by the Indian film industry?” Her film won more than 16 international awards at festivals across the world before Anurag Kashyap and PVR Director’s Rare decided to back it for its India release. It is pretty much the same story that Dylan Mohan Gray, director of Fire In The Blood, has to share.

Although Atul Sabharwal came from a more mainstream background, of having done a TV Series and a mainstream feature film with Yash Raj Films, one of the biggest production houses in the country, he did not feel any different while making his documentary In Their Shoes currently in cinemas in India. “The film is very personal, so I didn’t bother about the form,” says Atul. “The story demanded that it be a documentary and I just followed it.” But only when he finished work on the film and started to look around to get it distributed and released, he started noticing the attitude of the mainstream industry towards documentaries. “Having made my debut feature film [Aurangzeb] using the mainstream Hindi film industry machinery, I have been privy to some of its inner workings,” says Atul. “Through that vantage point, I see the divide that needs to be filled [between feature films and documentaries].”

The first such divide he points out is the lack of recognition for documentary films or filmmakers. Except for the National Film Awards, there is no mainstream award that recognises documentaries in India. “Be it Filmfare, IIFA or Screen Awards, none of these have a category for ‘Best Documentary’,” says Atul. “If these awards start a category like this, I believe, it will help in boosting satellite rights and home video sales of the nominated or the winning documentary.” Dylan seems to echo this sentiment, but he has no faith in existing Indian awards. “The National Awards are too nebulous and ill-defined, and the IDPA [Indian Documentary Producers Association] lacks a high profile amongst the film media and cinema going public” he says. “The existing awards for narrative films lack credibility, especially among discerning filmgoers.” This, he says, might then defeat the purpose of having such an award. Dylan’s suggestion is to introduce a dedicated non-fiction award along the lines of the Griersons, the British Documentary Award. “An opportunity for naming rights might entice a serious sponsor for such an event,” Dylan says. “Prize money would be nice, but isn’t essential… more important is being able to convene a proper jury or create something akin to the Academy voting body, and create a reasonably professional platform to promote the event and results, which requires care, but not necessarily much money to design and maintain.”

Just like for feature films, marketing is as much or even more important for documentaries, and this is an area where such films falter. “The marketing strategies of feature films are geared towards the star system and ‘free-play’ of Bollywood songs,” says Atul. ” Even films like Fukrey, Queen or Dev. D, which have no stars in them, still have songs to promote them. A documentary has no such possibility, thereby cutting it off from the top promotion possibilities like podcasts and broadcasts on FM channels and TV.” Agrees Nisha: “We don’t have the advertising budgets, nor do we have the star power–so we spend all this money on putting our film out and then good slots are sometimes taken away from us.”

Shiladitya Bora, former head of PVR Director’s Rare and founder of the distribution banner Long Live Cinema, who has the distinction of being the one behind bringing as many as 9 documentaries to the big screen, however, disagrees that they weren’t given good slots. “Things are actually changing and if you analyse the show timings of all documentaries that released in the past one year, you will see that all of them have got good, prime time slots in the first week of their release,” he says.

The only way to create a market for documentaries is by moving out of the existing market. Nisha gives the example of the rep cinema model of North America, where offbeat films can get released or moved to once their run at mainstream theatres are over. “That way we’re not competing with the big budget films for limited screen space,” she says. “There is no way in this country that a documentary could compete with Shah Rukh Khan’s 8-pack!” A place like Matterden in Bombay would be the ideal stop, agrees Dylan. This new initiative from the founders of Enlighten Film Club, which opened its doors to film buffs last year, strives to bring to the audience classics and cult films on the big screen. Operating out of the renovated Deepak cinema in Elphinstone Road, Dylan feels Matterden has the advantage of being centrally located and “feels like a real art house cinema where cinephiles can happily congregate and watch good films”.  Similar venues are needed around the country, he says.

Last week, when the furore around the BBC documentary India’s Daughter broke out, the fact that it is imperative to expose the Indian audience to quality documentaries came to the forefront like never before. Films like The World Before Her and Fire In The Blood not just bring to light the harsh realities of society, but they are extremely well-made and technically sound films. During an earlier chat with Anurag Kashyap, he had pointed out how Indians are just reeling away from the mentality that documentaries are boring. “This is because we have grown up watching boring stuff like Krishi Darshan on DD,” he had said. Such perceptions are surely changing, and what would help them form into a well-informed perspective on all kinds of cinema is an increased exposure to more quality documentaries. “For this, we need a dedicated international documentary festival, which perhaps could travel among a couple of key metros, certainly with Bombay and Delhi as essential stops,” says Dylan. “The Antenna festival in Sydney/Melbourne could be a great template for this.”  What is more important is to be able to sustain the whole process and that is possible only if we focus on audience development, agrees Shiladitya. “Great venues plus convenient show timings will be not of much use if there is not enough audience willing to pay to watch documentaries.”

It is high time that we stop complaining about how documentaries are being sidelined and start looking for other ways to reach out to audiences, says Dylan. Today, with almost the whole country online, digital platforms are like unexplored goldmines. “A dedicated, curated online portal for documentaries would be great, but obviously connection speeds continue to be a big problem in India,” says Dylan. “Maybe this would need to start within the YouTube eco-sphere.” There is also a dearth of good quality film criticism in India as compared to other countries where the voices and opinions of film critics carry immense weight among fimgoers. In our country, criticism is largely reduced to ratings and well-manufactured one-liners that would find a place on a film’s poster.

The lack of credible and meaningful criticism is the void that a formalised network of film clubs, spaces like Matterden and other cultural and educational institutions can fill. “Such an ecosystem would help grow the audience for our films, as people would ideally begin to trust such venues to provide interesting, alternative film programming,” says Dylan. “In my experience, in the US and UK, people come to lesser-known films in large measure because of the relationship they have with such venues, and more specifically the trust they have developed over time that these culturally-oriented spaces will program interesting films worth taking a chance and spending a couple of bucks on.”  Well, all we can say is let us hope all these ideas take shape in the future and that good cinema finds its way to us irrespective of form, genre or medium.

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