Independent cinema needs patronage and subsidy

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Ashvin Kumar
Ashvin Kumar

In a show of solidarity, over 30 international award-winning filmmakers, including an Oscar winner, two Oscar nominees and a plethora of National Award winners have lent their names to a movement called ‘Save Indie Cinema’. This comes shortly after an announcement by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting earmarking Rs 600 crore for the preservation of Indian cinematic heritage.

As independent filmmakers, we contend that while it’s critical to preserve the past, what about nurturing and fertilising our present and the future? If Rs 200 crore from the Rs 600 crore is appropriately allocated, it could bring about a micro-revolution in developing a new culture of art-house or parallel cinema driven by so-called “smaller films”.

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

The role of the State in patronage of the arts is settled. Countries like the UK, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Italy and Spain provide subsidies, tax breaks and grants for indigenous fare and cinema from other countries. In doing so, they recognise that cinema is THE cultural glue of the 21st century. Interestingly, some films from India would not have been made if it were not for grants from such countries. Yet, we are found wanting in our own efforts to do the same, despite the fact that the Government of India has well-conceived institutions with strong mandates to develop and sustain independent cinema. Over the years, some of these institutions have slipped into decay or dysfunction. A good example is that of Doordarshan, our State-sponsored channel. For starters, it could get out of the business of subsidising studio-driven, self-sustaining films. It could focus on offering a platter of diverse films across the Indian nation, thereby helping revenue generation for smaller independent films, as our petition eloquently argues.

Equally, the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa is an excellent example of a highly-funded film festival that is firing so below its potential that it is not taken seriously by the international film community. IFFI could become a premier film festival of the Asian world, a slot presently occupied by Busan and Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE that, till recently, did not have film industry of its own. Osian’s Cinefan, a private and self-funded Delhi-based film festival, has made a convincing claim for the space abdicated by IFFI Goa, and, despite troubles, has bounced back with a successful edition in 2012.

The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), on the other hand, is an example of the government’s success. Languishing and losing money for over three decades, the recently revived NFDC has now demonstrated what can be achieved if good intentions are allowed to inform the practice of patronage and subsidy. Not only is it posting profit, in three short years, it has engaged filmmakers across a broad spectrum on the basis of their body of work or singular promise. It is an example of the kind of enlightened patronage needed for the cultivation of cinematic arts in India.

The petition we have jointly signed is an attempt to explain to the Government of India what indie cinema is and what it could become, if support and patronage is properly channelled. Our point is premised on a simple idea: all art requires patronage to survive and do all the good things that art does in civilised society — push boundaries of the medium, offer variety to audiences, incubate fiercely original voices, foster a spirit of experimentation, depict the human condition, reflect recent trends in culture and ultimately morph into chronicler, archivist and educational tools of the future.

Indie cinema portrays an India in the throes of a dramatic evolution, a cultural and social seismic shift

It is unfortunate that in our country, cinema is unerringly confused with self-sustaining businesses that only provide entertainment, ones that do not require support or subsidy. Indeed, a business that can be subjected to a usurious tax structure, articulated through taxes on everything from film materials to entertainment tax, or to an exorbitant fee charged by, for example, the Central Board of Film Certification to vet films. The present climate is decidedly unfriendly and a deterrent for smaller filmmakers.

Not only do we independent filmmakers tend to produce films that challenge norms of cinema and storytelling, at the very least, our films play that vital role of portraying an India in the throes of a dramatic evolution, nothing short of a cultural and social seismic shift — a reflection that is all but absent in our nation’s cinema. Moreover, films like ours allow the increasingly global, connected and thereby discerning, fragmented and niche audiences of our country a genuine choice in the kind of cinema that they get to watch on both big and small screens. In short, an alternative to the dominance of Hindi cinema. Innovation and development of the storytelling medium takes place when you push the envelope, when you experiment and give wings to a filmmaker’s dreams.

The paucity of a parallel cinema subsidy structure is the biggest reason why we do not have smaller films that ‘makeit’, either commercially or critically, when compared to the cinemas of the world. No wonder then that everything — from Censor Board’s decisions, Oscar selection and IFFI selection to the increasingly popular privately funded festivals and symposiums — default to the name-glamour-status configuration when it comes to cinema. The body of work of an independent filmmaker, his or her point of view is not given credence until s/he is able to develop a public personality. Unsurprisingly, those of us who plod in discreet corners of the world of cinema go unrepresented.

Therefore, through our petition, we wish to engage the Government of India by articulating two simple things.

One, independent cinema is art that needs patronage. The main bottleneck today is exhibition and distribution. We cannot, and should not, be made to compete with a studio-released film — be it on ticket prices, show timings or the exorbitant sums spent on marketing. Towards this, we require support of the kind listed in the ‘Save Indie Cinema’ petition http://www.change.org/en-IN/petitions/save-indie-cinema.

Two, we are not Bollywood. Not only are our numbers substantially larger (and growing exponentially as costs of filmmaking plummet), but we also represent a far more diverse cross-section of the Indian public, as we include regional, short and documentary filmmakers in our tribe.

Existing infrastructure, with a modicum of upgrading, can function adequately to achieve our goals. I would begin with four theatres countrywide, turning them into art-house cinema hubs with a café, cine-club with library, cinema appreciation and filmmaking workshops and regular drop-ins by film personalities. In short, a cinema culture. If the huge queues at Osian’s Cinefan or large turnout at the Mumbai Film Festival are anything to go by, these audiences are a numerous niche, one that could easily sustain an independent cinema revolution, provided they know where to go to get their fix.

There are theatres available and functioning in the Meghdoot (Pragati Maidan, Delhi), Films Division Auditorium (in Delhi’s Mahadev Road and Bombay’s Worli), Siri Fort and so on. Nandan in Kolkata provides an excellent template on which these can be curated, maintained and managed. Since there are such government-run theatres in every city and major town in this country, I would then do the same, exponentially over the course of the next two years, in smaller towns and cities.

What is required at this moment is a revision of the philosophies of cinema patronage, coupled with fresh grease-and-oil applied to existing institutions — a copycat of the attitudinal shift that has provoked the revival of the NFDC, played out over all Ministry of Information & Broadcasting institutions.

The questions around why indie cinema requires patronage, nurture and who exactly its constituents are, need to be clarified. This done, we could have an independent art-house cinema infrastructure that would become the envy of the world, and without a doubt, considering the huge reserves of talent in this country, a universal Indian cinema that is world-class.

Kumar is an Oscar-nominated and National Award-winning independent filmmaker, who has directed Inshallah, Kashmir and Inshallah, Football 

ashvinkumar@me.com

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