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Are independent filmmakers still struggling for survival in B-Town?

This year saw many new voices emerging to narrate out-of-the-box stories, but has their risk been worth it? We held a debate with five independent filmmakers to find out

Multiplexes barely run films that are 'different'. Most producers are reluctant to put their money to back such ventures. And they struggle for screen space with a big banner film releasing at the same time.

From left: Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan,  Amit V Masurkar, Rajat Kapoor, Girish Malik and Shreyas Talpade at mid-day office for a debate on small budget filmmakers and their struggles. PIC/DATTA KUMBHAR
From left: Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, Amit V Masurkar, Rajat Kapoor, Girish Malik and Shreyas Talpade at mid-day office for a debate on small budget filmmakers and their struggles. Pics/Datta Kumbhar

We are talking about independent cinema. A handful of Hindi filmmakers is struggling to break away from the formulaic candy-floss romance and over-the-top drama — taking risks to explore new genres and fresh stories, but with paltry budgets and resources. Some of them have met with reasonable success while others are staring at an uncertain fate. hitlist invited five independent filmmakers for a discussion on the constraints and challenges faced by their ilk in reaching out to the audience...

Q: What is urgently needed to boost the morale of independent filmmakers?
Rajat Kapoor: I do not think anything is going to change in the next 30 years — the audience is not going to change, nor will the cinema or exhibition policy. I am convinced that this movement, if at all there is a movement, will continue because of the passion of individuals. There will always be this lot of people who will make films because they are passionate enough to raise money somehow, passionate enough to lose money and still make the film.

Clockwise from left: Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, Girish Malik, Shreyas Talpade, Amit V Masurkar and Rajat Kapoor during the discussion at mid-day office.
Clockwise from left: Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, Girish Malik, Shreyas Talpade, Amit V Masurkar and Rajat Kapoor during the discussion at mid-day office.

Q: What do you ideally want changed?
Shreyas Talpade: I feel things will change. A film like 'Iqbal' got a decent release, although it was a little delayed. Then there was 'Paan Singh Tomar' and a lot of other films that were deserving and got fame. We have seen Shyam (Benegal) babu make a lot of films but they never released on the big screen. However, those were considered pure art films. Today, the line between an art film and a commercial film has been blurred.

Rajat Kapoor
Rajat Kapoor

Rajat: But there's no denying that there are mainstream and non-mainstream films. If a film like 'Bang Bang!' releases on 4,000 screens and a film like 'Sulemani Keeda' on 40 screens, there is a difference.

Shreyas Talpade
Shreyas Talpade

Shreyas: There is, but a change is also taking place. During the release of 'Poshter Boyz', I was at the mercy of the distributor. I feel that if my distributor had been as passionate as my team, the scenario would have been different. Luckily, we could make money.

Q: Are you saying that the passion is limited only to the filmmaker?
Shreyas: Many distributors treat it (film releases) just as a job. This needs to be changed. They should come on board if they there are convinced about the film's prospects. If I am going all out to make a film, why must the distributor give it merely a morning show? Who will come to see my film in the morning?
Rajat: It is not a new problem. When multiplexes came up in 2005-06, there was a ray of hope — films like 'Iqbal' and 'A Wednesday' got a release. Then the multiplexes were hijacked by mainstream films. So was the multiplex audience. They now see big star films; they are not interested in our films. I am not blaming anyone but the whole industry is about money and those involved in it will go where there is money.

Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan
Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan

Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan: Since the coming of studios, the era of independent cinema and producers ended. Nowadays, equipment is cheaper and filmmakers are able to manage within a compact budget. This has enabled those with a story to make a film. The side-effect, however, is that bad stories turn into films too. So, distributors have a huge range of options to select from. I made Lahore from my artistic leanings, but since no one was interested to push the film, I sent it abroad. To my amazement, it was highly appreciated even though it was a hardcore commercial film. As a result, all those who had earlier ignored my film started approaching me for the rights.
No one wants to walk around waving the flag of independent cinema because they prefer a "backdoor" entry so that by the time they make their second film, it is backed by a studio and features big stars. In my opinion, there are two films — a good film and a star-based film. It is just by chance that one makes a star-based film that is good. Only a few can afford a distributor, which is why many good films are lying around.
Rajat: 'pk' was the 200th film of the year. If there are six to seven movie every week, how many shows are we going to get? The problem is that there is a glut of so-called independent films and most of them are very bad — let's face the truth. Now, how does Sulemani Keeda stand out from this glut of complete rubbish? In 2005, the producers were attracted to this model of business where a small budget film could give them high returns, and everyone else followed suit. But, a small film does not always translate into good cinema.

Amit V Masurkar
Amit V Masurkar

Amit V Masurkar: Today, all kinds of information are available to budding filmmakers. Everything is just a click away; nothing is exclusive and no one has an excuse to not know. Accessible technology will result in more films but, the way I see it, cinema in the next 30 years is going to be bleak. We are the last people to be making 90-minute long films as the duration will soon reduce. Few films will release and everything is going to be on the internet.
Rajat: Cinema will actually become an art form.
Amit: Maybe, an 'Interstellar' and a 'Chennai Express' will be in cinemas but the rest will be on the internet. In the US, theatres have only 15-20 people. No one goes to the cinemas as they know they can catch it online two months later.
Rajat: This has been going on since sound came and then when colour and cinemascope came. So, it is a historical phenomenon.
Amit: I started my first project with Saurabh Shukla's film 'Mudda' in which Rajat Kapoor played a part. At that time we used 35mm film and I dreamt of shooting my films using 35mm. Unfortunately, that won't be possible today.
Rajat: Christopher Nolan had once said that celluloid is the medium of the future. But I do not think that these are the real issues — digital or film.
Amit: I was talking about the romance of making a film. If I am making one, the content is important for me.

Q: 'pk' released on 5200 screens across India and no other film competed with it. Don't you think it was a complete take-over?
Rajat: We keep thinking that this is something new, but this used to happen in the '70s too.

Q: But lesser films were being made then...
Shreyas: 'Iqbal' released with 'No Entry' in 2005 and we were scared about our film's prospects. But we actually benefited from the overflow. If people did not get a ticket for 'No Entry', they opted for 'Iqbal'. So, there is always place for two films.
Rajat: You are right when you say there is a sense of monopoly. But, it isn't ego that gets played here; they fear that by the end of the week the story of the film will be out. So, most films try to collect as much money as they can in the first few days.
Amit: pk's first day, first show tickets cost Rs 350 rupees. A morning show ticket!
Sanjay: They are planning a Rs 300-crore recovery. So, for that, they are prepared to do anything. A couple of months ago, I was shooting with a Pakistani actor who said that on his way to the sets he saw several highrises and slums co-existing, and wished the same for cinema. However much passion we put into our films, no one will be interested in small budget films.

Q: Do you all agree to that?
Rajat: Everything you are saying is correct, but I do not understand why we are looking for a magic solution to change things.
Shreyas: Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan do one film a year, Salman Khan does two. So, when the biggies do eight to 10 films annually, the other 42 weeks are in our hands.
Sanjay: But, in the independent film window there is an overcrowding of small budget films that only the big distributor will be able to arm twist his way through for a successful release. Otherwise, as a genuine independent filmmaker, one should be satisfied if he gets a release. If one manages to get a release and make money too, that should go down in history.

Q: Amit, are you happy with the numbers Sulemani Keeda got?
Amit: I am very happy with PVR directors because they got us good show timings. However, our prints and advertising (P&A) budget was so small that we should have invested a little more in ads. It was thanks to word of mouth and social media buzz. In fact, we went into our third week with 'pk' and opened in Hyderabad. In Versova, we saw Action Jackson had only eight takers while Sulemani had 180-odd viewers. The government should abolish entertainment tax.
Rajat: What good will that do? A R400-ticket would cost Rs 200 and then PVR will hike its prices.
Amit: They should understand the long term benefit. If they are so greedy, they will lose out on a lot besides killing a whole genre of films. Chennai does not have entertainment tax for Tamil films as politicians there are actors.

Q: We looked at the coming of multiplexes with a lot of hope but has the whole purpose been defeated?
Rajat: It is a great thing that we have multiplexes because 15 years ago, if someone made a 'Lahore' or 'Iqbal', it would not have even got a release.

Girish Malik
Girish Malik

Girish Malik: No one has their own judgment, and to instill that judgment about a film being good, you need validation. The moment a big personality comes on board to promote your film, it becomes much easier for filmmakers to convince the audience to watch the film. While making a film, one has to keep an eye out for those sailing in the same boat who can be of some help.

Q: How does the audience distinguish good films from bad? It's tough...
Rajat: Out of a 100 independent films, 95 are very bad. How do you know which one to go for?
Girish: Suddenly, I am wondering if my film ('Jal') will work in European markets. Not that I want to make films for their taste, but I have to start looking for avenues. The success of Lunchbox lied in having 16 to 17 producers. So, when I make a film I want to be sure that I get a good producer from Europe. Somewhere down the line, a filmmaker must be able to create a hype around his/ her film. I can't depend on just a great story or concept.

Q: Amit, do you agree?
Amit: No, I haven't done any such thing for my film, but I am sure Girish has more experience.
Girish: Yes, I have suffered quite a bit.
Amit: You should make what you want to make and you will end up getting an audience.
Shreyas: That is easier said than done.
Girish: I agree filmmakers live in a world of their own. But the common link of conviction binds us.
Sanjay: But even when one makes a film out of conviction, one needs to get an audience which is impossible because of the monopoly. Our P&A budget is just peanuts.
Rajat: I am completely at odds with this point of view. I believe that it is the film that matters; everything else is necessary, but you cannot run away from the market reality. None of it should colour your vision or the film that you have made.
Sanjay: Some are lucky but others are still awaiting the release of their films that are decent and made with a lot of belief.
Rajat: Even Farah Khan believes in a 'Happy New Year'.
Sanjay: Farah makes what the audience wants to see while people such as us make films that we like. Outside of Mumbai, very few people are aware of independent films. So there is a problem of awareness and getting the right show timings.
Rajat: What has changed for the better is that now a film has a life — whether it is on TV or on the internet, someone is going to pick your film. The other aspect is money, but if the film is good it will be watched. It may not have got a great response when it released but it's good, it will be watched later, too.
Sanjay: But I was initiated into the world of cinema by sitting in a theatre and watching a film. I hope people watch my film the same way.

Q: Idealistic perhaps, but should there be reservation for small-budget films in multiplexes?
Rajat: Why would a multiplex run a film when there are only two people in the audience? What is lacking in Mumbai and other metros is a cinemathique, which is there in the West. That allows for an audience of 300-400 people to share an experience of watching a film they like. There is a daily programming of world cinema classics. When I am 80, I would love to run a cinemathique here.
Shreyas: Maybe, we need to come up with innovative trailers and promos also.

Q: But doesn't one need a budget for that?
Girish: Speaking of a budget; I don't think every independent filmmaker can make a film with a low budget — unless he is quaint enough to think of a transition that puts across his thoughts in a cheaper way.
Rajat: Thinking quaint has killed many filmmakers.

(Coordinated by Sonali Joshi Pitale; Moderated by Shubha Shetty-Saha; Compiled by Sanat Mehra)

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