Till three weeks ago, feminists had the mythical Ahalya all to their selves. She was the woman wronged for having expressed her sexuality. But teenagers experiencing rock music for the first time in the monsoons of 2015 will perhaps remember Ahalya differently. To them it would be the release of Sujoy Ghosh’s short film Ahalya on YouTube. Radhika Apte walking down a well-lit corridor in a ‘little white dress’ will brand their minds and make them remember an Ahalya who hoodwinked the curse of turning to stone for sleeping with a man other than her husband. With this 14-minute short film, the Kahaani man seems to have concocted the right kind of ‘kahaani’ to propel himself back into the world of storytellers.
However, what many people found interesting was that here was a successful filmmaker who chose to upload a short film on a video-sharing site over the pomp and glory of releasing another 300-crore-hopeful in the theatres. Two decades ago, perhaps, people would have wondered what got into an established professional that made him take such a risk. But, clearly, the times are a-changin’ and Ghosh is being lauded for having guts enough to shake up his filmography with a short film. “Sujoy Ghosh had a story to tell but, perhaps, not the budget to make a feature film out of it, so he took it to the world through the short film medium,” says producer and short filmmaker Vivek Kajaria, whose short film Durga is doing the rounds of festivals.
As with anything that goes viral on the Internet, people are not unified in their praise of Ahalya. Some say it is just another gimmick by a popular director to become even more popular while he buys time to rethink the strategy for his next feature film.
Indeed, the short film has come a long way from the days when it was simply a sub-category in elite film festivals that a select few would haunt and even fewer understand.
The annals of Indian cinema can be looked up to establish that short films have been around for quite some time with the likes of Satyajit Ray, Mani Kaul, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and even MF Hussain all having tried their hands at it. But such instances were few, largely cloistered behind the doors of film schools and noticed little in the land of epic films such as Mughal-e-Azam and Sholay.
Cut to 2013, when Bombay Talkies was released to commemorate the centenary of Indian cinema. The film stood out for being a compilation of four short films by a group of trailblazing directors in the Hindi film industry. Though the format was not entirely new — it had been tried earlier with Dus Kahaniyaan (2007), a compilation of ten short films by six directors — but the short film as a possibility was instantly catapulted to the notice of the masses. It helped that the same year saw the release of Shorts by Anurag Kashyap’s production house. Though not exactly a box-office darling, Shorts made a dent in the public consciousness — quite a feat as this time none of the directors were known faces.
Two years later, the buzz around Ahalya that can be heard over the din about Salman Khan’s blockbuster Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a hint that short films in India could finally be coming of age.
“Activity in the short film space was growing over the years,” says Kajaria. “If you look at the festival circuit, 25 Indian shorts went to Cannes last year. The last five years, in fact, have seen rapid growth in the making of short films in India.” The immediate reason behind this trend can be traced to the rising priority of the Internet and, along with it, social media in our lives. “The Internet is allowing content of all sizes to thrive,” says Amit V Masurkar, who made the short film L in collaboration with Terribly Tiny Talkies — a virtual platform that makes shorts.
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Making the ground even more fertile for making shorts is the fact that the digital age has made filmmaking a much cheaper affair with easy access to the tools of the trade that was missing earlier. Aadish Keluskar, maker of short films I Love You Too… and An Encounter, notes that the infrastructure in India right now can compete with the best in Europe, the US or the UK.
The final ingredient in this heady brew is the shortening attention span of the tab-toting generation. “The entire young generation is on social media. They aren’t watching TV anymore,” says Munish Tewari, co-founder of Jamuura, a platform that assists budding filmmakers to fan their passions. “All the content they watch they access through their laptops, mobile phones or tabs.” Both sides are making the most of the significant shift in the way young people consume visual content. And playing no small role in this mix is the fact that the digital network is free for both the short film makers to upload their films and their audience to find it.
Jamuura recently released Chaar Cutting — another compilation of shorts — in theatres across a handful of metros in India. The sheer volume of content in terms of short films in cyber space encourages producers to push forward with a theatrical release for a few of these films, but the big picture is not all that bright. There is no streamlined distribution system in our country when it comes to promoting short films. Film festivals that cater to short films have come up in recent years and the short film club Shamiaana has a visible presence in several cities but that’s about it.
Tewari hints at the teething troubles when he says, “It’s a little like the chicken-and-egg debate. When it comes to proper distribution of short films, we have to show the interested distributors that there is a big audience willing to watch them. It can also be argued that if there is a proper distribution avenue for these films, then more people would be aware and the audience base will increase too.”
Short films may be the flavour of this movie-watching season, but there is still not even one production company focussing on shorts alone. “But, out there in the West, shorts are broadcast on TV channels and even in theatres before the feature film starts rolling,” Kajaria points out. Hollywood had seen a revolution of sorts in the 1970s when the big studios were in decline and financiers were looking for creative people who knew new, less cost-intensive ways to tell stories on celluloid. “It was then that the maestros of American cinema such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas — all fresh out of film school — were trying their hands at short films and being picked up by producers,” says Keluskar.