Saturday, December 20, 2014


(This article by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in the January 2014 issue of Maxim magazine)

If you think you’ve seen the best Hindi movie, think again. Mainstream filmmakers are getting more and more experimental, and indie cinema is getting much more visible. It’s only going to get better. Why? Because audiences are demanding a mixed palette of films in theatres, and not just because numbers matter... because filmmakers want to give you something new.
By Anna MM Vetticad

Spot the commercial ventures from the plot-lines of these unreleased films:
1. A man accidentally discovers the ability to control the lives of his family by moving stars around in the sky, using a unique gadget.
2. Recession tests an idealistic young couple’s relationship in the face of the girl’s father’s belief that love can’t survive a cash crunch.
3. Mumbai transforms into the metropolis it is today “against a backdrop of love, greed, violence and jazz music.”
Tough? Well, here’s more information then. The first is Taramandal, produced by Anand Gandhi, director of that cinematic gem, Ship of Theseus. The second 
is YRF’s Bewakoofiyaan, starring Rishi Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor and Ayushmann Khurrana, and directed by Nupur Asthana, who’s best known for the tele-series Mahi Way. The third is the sketch floating around the Internet of director Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet, starring Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma.
In case you are now mentally slotting these films, consider this: Who’s to say whether Kashyap’s films are “commercial” (which traditionally means they are filled with elements that tend to appeal to the masses) or “niche,” considering that he is now a brand in his own right? After all, his Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2 were box-office successes, and he now routinely partners major studios. Hold on, though... He’s still seen as the poster-boy of offbeat cinema with his own production house backing small films by unknown directors.
And, let’s hold on again... Since Bombay Velvet stars Kapoor, the conventional assumption would be that it’s mainstream.
But this particular actor’s interest in the untried and untested was evident with Rocket Singh Salesman Of The Year, so he’s likely to willingly team up with Kashyap for an avant-garde venture. Then again...
And that’s the point. Through the nationwide parallel cinema movement up to the 1980s, most directors and actors from the Mumbai film industry tended to fit into fixed brackets, and if they didn’t, audiences and general film folk would try to find a slot for them. Today’s film industry is different.
Of course, many directors determinedly stick to larger-than-life, fantastical, formulaic films made on massive budgets, but the likes of Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee and Imtiaz Ali defy definitions. Their films occupy a (seemingly precarious) middle-of-the-road category somewhere between the old parallel and the new mainstream. Their budgets have increased dramatically. Glamorous stars vie for a chance to work with them. Big studios join hands with them. And their box-office earnings are shooting up. Even as their fortunes rise, indie productions (to be read as films made without money from studios) are also gradually travelling beyond film festivals and into theatres.
“People like me are experimenting so much culturally that some filmmakers who were considered niche by the mainstream are considered mainstream by us,” says Anand Gandhi. His thoughts are mirrored by Rucha Pathak, senior creative director (Studios) at Disney UTV, who explains this fluidity: “Unlike the 1970s parallel cinema movement, everything is more scattered today. A director may, on one day, make a film that could be independent but by the next day, do a completely different kind of film.” And the best thing is, there’s acceptability for both.
Most studios, too, now aspire to a mixed filmography on their release rosters, either by picking up indie films at the distribution stage or themselves producing more radical films, or doing both. UTV, for instance, in 2013 distributed Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus that many would consider an indie art-house project. It also co-produced and distributed the Irrfan-Nimrit Kaur-Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer The Lunchbox, a film heavily promoted by Karan Johar, as well as Rohit Shetty’s Chennai Express. According to Team Theseus, the film was made at a cost of around Rs 2.5 crore, collected about Rs 2 crore at domestic turnstiles (an uncommonly large amount for a film of this sort) and is currently exploring international markets. Trade sources say The Lunchbox was made at Rs 4 crore and earned Rs 24 crore at the Indian box-office (“a blockbuster in its space,” says Johar), and Chennai Express netted more than Rs 200 crore-plus at home. So though the earning potential of blockbusters is skyrocketing, studios have benefitted from addressing the audience’s demand for variety, or what Gandhi calls “viewer exhaustion with the same old crap”.
Adds Shoojit Sircar, director of Vicky Donor and Madras Caféwhich he describes as “mainstream films with daring subjects”: “Access to the Internet and television have educated the audience. Those who grew up watching content-driven, screenplay-led international films will watch if the Mumbai film industry offers them a bit of stimulation. Many mainstream filmmakers are pushing the envelope now and the audience likes it.”
The mainstream, as a matter of fact, has always had rebels who stretched the straitjacket (rewind to Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s norm-defying Parinda in the noisy 1980s or to Ram Gopal Varma’s first decade or so in films). What’s changed now is the space slowly becoming available to offbeat films, including indies. “It’s become easier because big studios and corporates have deals with exhibitors through the year for a bouquet of films, so if I have an Aamir and an SRK film but I also have small films, I have the muscle to get screens in theatres for the small films too,” explains Alpana Mishra, chief executive officer of Alt, the alternative cinema brand of Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Motion Pictures. Mishra throws in a caveat, though, “But independent films not backed by studios still struggle for space in theatres.”
Actor Chandan Roy Sanyal — best known for his supporting performance as Mikhail in the Shahid Kapoor-starrer Kaminey — recalls the one-and-a-half years it took to release the Hindi-English indie, Prague, in which he played the lead. When it did make it to cinema halls through a lesser known distributor in late 2013, it was pulled out after a five-day run to make way for the Ranbir-Rishi-Neetu-Kapoor-starrer Besharam that released mid-week to take advantage of a holiday. “At least Prague came to theatres, so I can put it on my CV. Usually people like me get small roles in big films, and the films in which we play leads don’t get released,” says Sanyal. “But we have to be positive and keep at it. Today we’ve got two shows, earlier we wouldn’t get even that.”
The true “problem” — although this is as true for any industry as it is for the movies — is that indies are still competing with giants for screens. If a starless film is up against SRK’s or Salman Khan’s or Akshay Kumar’s next, which do you think cinema halls will favour? Minimally- marketed, starless fringe films rely on a positive viewer and reviewer response. This word-of-mouth takes time to spread and it may not always happen, even though the film is well-crafted. So such films are unlikely to rake in crores in the first week, but the ones that strike a chord have the potential to build up over several weeks and months.
Unfortunately, longevity is hard to get when influential studios are not distributing them. Even Ship of Theseuspresented by Aamir Khan’s wife, director Kiran Rao, and well promoted by its distributor, UTV — “was pulled out of theatres when it was still running housefull to make place for other films,” says its executive producer, Ruchi Bhimani. So, clearly, there is a need for an art-house chain of theatres and/or more theatres as a whole (according to industry estimates and media reports, India has only one-tenth the number of screens the US has for every one million people in the population). 
Until that happens, hope lies in studios backing indies and PVR Director’s Rare, PVR’s pioneering distribution wing dedicated to ultra-niche cinema in all languages. Shiladitya Bora, head of Director’s Rare, believes that the banner’s key achievement is that it has “affected people’s viewing patterns.” He says the first Director’s Rare film, released in January 2012, sold 1,500 tickets. Now, two years on, the average per film is 12,000-13,000 tickets. The label’s greatest success, the purely crowd-funded Kannada film Lucia, sold about 65,000 tickets in 105 days (this is not counting its phenomenal run within Karnataka and also some non-Karnataka centres where it was distributed by other companies). Adds Bora, “Regional indies can be more successful than Hindi indies because you know that there is at least one market where most of your money will come from, whereas a Hindi indie has no primary market. It’s difficult for a Hindi indie to get noticed amidst the clutter unless you have a good marketing budget.”
Despite the fact that the scenario is challenging, there’s still reason to clink those champagne glasses for the niche moviemaker — and for an audience that wants different fare on screen. As the Mumbai film industry’s mainstream directors and studios get more inventive, and indies get more visibility, smaller producers are waking up and gently sniffing the coffee. Masala king Rohit Shetty springs a surprise when he says his new production house’s offerings will include low-key non-star films, “the kind I’m not directing”.
Even the Bhatt family’s Vishesh Films — currently identified with low-budget films, the horror genre and Sunny Leone’s Indian film launch — is revisiting films mirroring the mood of the critically-acclaimed Arth and Saaransh with which Mahesh Bhatt made his name as a director. Vishesh’s forthcoming film, City Lights, is helmed by Hansal Mehta, whose Shahid, the real-life story of a human rights lawyer in Mumbai, earned universal critical acclaim and money last year. City Lights is an adaptation of Metro Manila, which is Britain’s entry to the 2014 Oscars. Mehta strikes an optimistic note on the changing face of Hindi cinema, quoting words that the eponymous protagonist of Shahid used to describe the Indian judiciary: “Waqt lagta hai par ho jaata hai. Things take time in the film industry, but they do happen. And that’s really good news for the viewer.

(Anna MM Vetticad is on Twitter as 
Photographs courtesy (top to bottom): (1) Still from Ship of Theseus – Spice PR (2) Poster of The Lunchbox – UTV Motion Pictures (3) Poster of Lucia – PVR Director’s Rare (4) Still from City Lights – Effective Communication

Note: These photographs were not published in Maxim

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