Independent film-maker Sandeep Mohan, 39, is not an angry guy. But the tedious process of negotiating over cuts in his debut film Love Wrinkle-Free in 2012 left him indignant. The film was a light-hearted take on society’s obsession with looking “good” and “young”. It was the story of a middle-class Indian couple and their adopted daughter and how the couple dealt with an unplanned pregnancy in their late ’40s . After creating waves in the national and international film festival circuit, the movie, made on a budget of Rs 80 lakh, had a successful two-week run across theatres in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru through the PVR Director’s Rare Initiative. But slapped with an ‘A’ certification by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the film-maker could not sell satellite rights despite having many takers for it. For an independent film-maker like Mohan, revenues generated from the sale of satellite rights could have helped him break even, if not make a profit. But with the CBFC’s red flag in the way, he couldn’t. And that is why for his next film Hola Venky, he decided to circumvent the system that gives very little to independent film-makers. The Great Indian Traveling Cinema as he likes to call it, then hit the road.
Made on a shoe-string budget of Rs 10 lakh, collected through contributions from friends and a crowd funding campaign, Hola Venky explores the urban Indian male’s psyche through the confusion they face while interacting and understanding women in today’s day and age. It is a film that questions notions of masculinity and virility. In Mohan’s words, it is a techie’s journey from his groin to his heart. He knew it was a story that the censors would never allow and instead of fighting the system, he decided to circumvent the CBFC, eliminated studios, distributors, theatres and middle men to take his film directly to the audience. “I wanted to see if it was possible and looks like it is,” says the film-maker whose work premiered at a corporate office in Bengaluru earlier this year.
Apart from a 14-weekend run at small theatres in San Jose and San Francisco, Mohan has travelled to 10 cities and held close to 50 screenings including those in people’s homes, corporate offices, art galleries, cafes and educational institutions. He also screened it at some unusual venues such as weddings, hotel lobbies and an organic food processing factory in Gurgaon. The process was simple. He reached out to his potential audience over social media and promised to screen his film for a group of 30-50 individuals at a time. The audience wasn’t charged for tickets, but could pay as they wished at the end of the film. On an exceptional day, the film gathered between Rs 8,000-10,000 and Rs 3,500 on an average day, which was still more than what he would get after screening it at a cinema hall, taking into account theatre fees and tax deductions. To ensure this model works for him, Mohan travels light with just his laptop and essentials and takes trains and buses to keep a tab on his travel costs.
Mohan’s move was not just a response to censorship, but also an attempt to find fresh avenues for independent film-makers like him, who have limited avenues to showcase their films. However, his is not the first. In the past, Mohan’s medium of distribution has been used by documentary film-makers and referred to as ‘Tent Cinema,” borrowing from the trend of Bollywood movies being shown in tents in rural India.
Kannada film-maker Abhishek Srivatsa has also used this medium. Although his short film Sulle Sathya made it to the Cannes Film Festival in the category of Cannes Short Film Corner, he wasn’t sure if there was an audience for his films in his home state. Srivatsa too used the post-paid ticket model, but the idea was not to generate revenues. “I wanted to assess the value of my film and my skills as a film-maker. Who could be a better judge of that than the audience?” he asks. Srivatsa also wanted to build an audience for short films in Karanataka through his film. Shot on a budget of Rs 6 lakh, his film received an overwhelming response from across the state with colleges, corporates inviting him to screen it. “I never thought that people would pay, but was taken by surprise when they did,” he says. In 50 shows across the state as well as New York, Australia and Canada he was able to reach out to an audience of 100 to 1,500 at a time. “The move allowed me to build a personal rapport with the them, and get their feedback. The funds collected in the process were a bonus,” says the film-maker who is now directing his first feature length film. It is this personal connect that even Mohan agrees is crucial. “The post screening discussions have been a good exercise in crushing my ego. Earlier, I had to go by what reviewers said, but here I had 30 people giving me feedback right after watching the film. The personal connect that this exercise has lent me is invaluable,” he says. Although this model has worked for Mohan and Srivatsa, they admit it is difficult to sustain, and might not work for all films.
Nisha Pahuja whose yet-to release documentary The World Before Her, examines the identity of women in contemporary India through two worlds that are poles apart — The Miss India Beauty Pageant and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Durga Vahini camps — is reaching out to audiences through social media and screenings in cities across India. At present, she is raising funds to take her film to rural India through a crowd funding campaign.
In an attempt to support independent films and allow patrons to engage in cultural activities, an increasing number of restaurants and cafes across the country have started screening independent films. In New Delhi, Kunzum Travel Café and Fursat Se cultural café are two such venues that host screenings regularly. In Chennai, Indie Earth is an organisation that lends an online space for independent film makers as well as musicians to showcase their films and connect with the audience. The organisation also ties up with several venues across the country to host screenings of films. “The idea was to provide a digital platform for these films so that they could be accessible to all. We collaborate with venues in an attempt to mobilise culture,” says Roy Deepankar of Indie Earth, which has been authorised by the Films Division in Chennai. The organisation, however, is struggling to find funding.
Even independent film-maker Anand Gandhi, whose film Ship Theseus won this year’s National Award for best film vouches for the power of social media. Through the stories of three characters — an experimental photographer, an ailing monk and a young stockbroker — the film explores questions of identity, justice, beauty, meaning and death. After taking three years to be completed, the film struggled to find its space in an industry dominated by slapstick comedies and sweeping love stories, until it premiered at the Toronto film festival. Acclaim poured in from critics in India as well as abroad, which is when UTV motion pictures decided to distribute it. Given its alternative content, the film was released in five cities initially and had a successful two-week run in each. However, to engage audiences and to assess if the film had an audience in other cities, a ‘crowd-source release plan’ was carried out. As a part of this, a Facebook application called ‘Vote for your city’ that would enable people to vote to get the film released in their city was created. After this targeted exercise, the film was released in 31 smaller cities across the country.
Despite their attempts to find ways to reach out to the audience, film-makers across the board lament the lack of avenues and support independent filmmakers get. Although PVR director’s Rare and UTV Motion Pictures have now stepped in to support independent films, the movies they release only make up for a fraction. “We need to create an environment that is conducive to small budget, independent films, and every stakeholder from the government to the multiplexes needs to play a role,” says Samir Gupta, MD of film distribution company, Cinema Capital. A strong funding body, lower pricing of tickets for independent films and a state diktat on multiplexes to screen a minimum number of independent films could be some of the possible solutions he feels. “The government could start a chain of multiplexes where ticket prices are in the vicinity of Rs 100 and samosas cost Rs 25, instead of Rs 400 for tickets and 80 for samosas. What they lose in high prices, they will make up in volume,” says documentary film-maker Jaideep Varma.
He also feels this could work for private companies and if implemented, will leave cinema, especially independent cinema, changed forever.
In the absence of these safeguards however, strong digital, marketing and PR-led campaigns have upped the ante of some independent films like Ship of Theseus and Lunchbox, which were released last year. “Strong marketing and innovative distribution play an important role. Content is king, but it is important to position the film right. With multiple films releasing on the same day we need to plan the release by selecting the right locations to bring it to the right audience,” says Amrita Pandey, vice president and marketing and distribution head, Disney India and Disney Studios.
Despite the best efforts of studios backing independent films and filmmakers, a movie fades into oblivion without the support of the audience. Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus which created a buzz on social media, but when it came to the actual footfall, the numbers worked out to just over 2,50,000. “Independent film-makers struggle because there is a weak market. But who makes up the market?” he asks. He also stresses on the need for progressive liberals in the country to come together, discuss, deliberate and play an active role in supporting individuals who are bringing about change. “There is a time for being critical but skepticism that feeds into inertia is dangerous. If you don’t like something, work towards changing it. And if you do, help it grow. We are responsible for the culture we dictate,” he says.