A sleeping Giant Awakes

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After its heyday in the late-’70s, the NFDC has a renewed sense of purpose, financing a new ‘New Wave’ and shaking up Indian cinema, finds Sunaina Kumar

Celluloid crusader NFDC Managing Director Nina Lath Gupta
Celluloid crusader NFDC Managing Director Nina Lath Gupta
Photo: MS Gopal

IN A book called Snoop, Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology in Texas, examines the connections between people and their spaces, and what you can learn about someone by going into their environment. In the newly refurbished offices of the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC), everything you need to know is right there in front of you. There is an open floor, glass cabins, potted plants, and young people walking about purposefully. Something is missing. The mainstay of every government office, the overflowing filing cabinets are nowhere in evidence. If Musaddi Lal (of TV serial Office Office fame) had wandered here, he’d have come away a happy man.

Once the guardian angel of parallel cinema in the country in the ’70s and ’80s, NFDC gave wings to movies like Ghare Baire, Salaam Bombay, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Mirch Masala, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, it goes on. Had there been no NFDC, there would be no tradition of alternative cinema in the country. Then, in the 1990s, it was struck by the curse of public sector undertakings and became a lossmaking white elephant. We got accustomed to looking back with nostalgia at its glory days but, just before we could compose its obit, NFDC went through the most drastic makeover in recent cinematic history, “turning the sleeping elephant into a leaping leopard,” as general manager Vikramjit Roy puts it.

Now, NFDC is a place buzzing with the idea of change. The godmother of this fairytale is managing director Nina Lath Gupta, a former Indian Revenue Service officer who took charge in 2006. In three years’ time, the bleeding corporation began posting a healthy profit. Through her earliest interviews, Gupta has spoken of change coming slowly. Six years is just about the right time to evaluate the turnaround at NFDC and its ripple effect. New movies are being announced, tie-ups with international buyers and festivals and development projects are in the offing.

This year, the NFDC coproduction, Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, was followed by the release of the National Award-winning and festival touring Punjabi arthouse film Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan, and the Bengali film Maya Bazaar. In the next few months As The River Flows, an Assamese film with Sanjay Suri, and Marathi production Gangoobai are lined up for release. There is increasing buzz around Ritesh Batra’s Irrfan Khan-starrerThe Lunchbox, co-produced by Anurag Kashyap and Cedomir Kolar (producer of the Bosnian Oscar-winning film No Man’s Land), and Bikas Mishra’s Chauranga, both of which have come out of the NFDC Screenwriters’ Lab.

Since taking over, Gupta, along with her turbo-charged team, has launched many new initiatives. The most talked-about of these is the film restoration project under the brand Cinemas of India, where famous and little known NFDC productions have all been digitally restored and released in the home video market in partnership with the retail brand Shemaroo, making it possible to watch, for instance, a clean print of Naseeruddin Shah’s classic Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai, just one in a catalogue of over 250 films. In a few months, the DVDs have sold close to a lakh units and are on the bestseller lists of online retail sites like Flipkart.

“It has taken a gestation period of five years, but we are beginning to see the results of these initiatives, as our movies travel to festivals and are being snapped up by international producers,” says Gupta. It is the development mandate of NFDC that inspires her. “We need to step in wherever there is a vacuum in the development of cinema in the country, where the private sector cannot go.”

The Film Bazaar is another ambitious project undertaken by Gupta and her team, a development initiative started in 2007 along with the International Film Festival of India. Under Film Bazaar, NFDC runs the Screenwriters’ Lab, Work-in-Progress Lab and the Co-production Market programme, all to enable young filmmakers to develop and hone their projects and sell them in the market.

NFDC is a place buzzing with the idea of change. The godmother of this fairytale is managing director Nina Lath Gupta

When Gupta was handed operations, she inherited a bloated and inefficient team, typical to PSUs, which she pruned and brought to shipshape. From the corporate sector, she poached people who were passionate to work on quality cinema. Rajesh Das, the head of distribution who left his job at Reliance Big Studios, says it was the catalogue of great movies that convinced him to join. Vikramjit Roy says that working at NFDC is a bigger challenge than he thought. “There is no shelf-life to the films we produce there, they go on forever. They are not like other movies, FSS (Friday/Saturday/Sunday) movies. Rather, we need a long-term strategy to develop and promote these films.” Another new recruit of Gupta’s is Marten Rabarts, who ran the Binger Filmlab in Amsterdam and has joined as head of development this year.

Cannes 2012 has been India’s most successful foray into the festival, with four films. Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely was a part of the Work-in-Progress Lab while Vasan Bala’s Peddlers is a product of the Screenwriters’ Lab. Anurag Kashyap, who showed Gangs of Wasseypur and Peddlers at Cannes, gives credit to NFDC for putting the India Pavilion in order. The India Pavilion was earlier an excuse for freeloaders looking to party. Since it has been taken over by NFDC and is now a hub for Indian filmmakers to meet and exchange ideas with international festival directors, producers, exhibitors and sales executives.

A particular agenda for Gupta’s team has been audience development. Development in filmmaking cannot happen in isolation, the movies need to reach as wide an audience as possible. Gupta says that this will be done by making these movies accessible, through DVDs and a soon to be launched Video On Demand (VOD) website. “We need to inculcate a love for this cinema. We hope to set up film societies for adults and for children, film cultural centres, dedicated venues for arthouse cinema across the country.” She recently travelled to Leh, where an intrepid bunch of amateur filmmakers make their own movies, hire projectors at the one auditorium available, sell their own tickets and earn money from their little films. “It is this passion that defines Indian cinema. We are hoping one day NFDC will be the proud producer of a movie from Ladakh.”

Set up in 1975, NFDC ushered in the Indian New Wave by supporting budding filmmakers who had ideas, but no funding, such as Kundan Shah, Saeed Mirza, Govind Nihalani and Sudhir Mishra. The timing of NFDC’s revival coincides with interesting times in Indian cinema. Apart from the larger-than-life studio films, there is a fledgling independent spirit in filmmakers who are making cinema for cinema’s sake. NFDC can once again play an important part in the new ‘New Wave’. It seems ready for it.

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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