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Indie Bollywood films transcending boundaries of niche audience

Are indie films increasingly finding acceptance with the audience in smaller centres instead of just being a ‘metro’ phenomenon?

The independent cinema juggernaut is rolling on and evidently with greater conviction with each passing day. Neeraj Ghaywan's 'Masaan' released last week on just 300 screens across the country, but the word-of-mouth publicity and good reviews helped it get a respectable opening.

Masaan
Richa Chadda in a still from 'Masaan'

And it is not just connecting with the niche audience, but also with crowds in smaller cities. The debutant director feels smart marketing was what worked for his film.

Guneet Monga. producer, Masaan
Guneet Monga. producer, 'Masaan'

"The positive word-of-mouth buzz has also done a world of good to the film. The reactions are overwhelming with some people even saying how they are going through a personal catharsis watching 'Masaan'. This is a victory for the film. I don't know the exact box-office collections, but I know that the numbers recorded on Monday and Tuesday are better than Friday (day of release)," he gushes.

A still from Ajay Bahl’s BA Pass
A still from Ajay Bahl's 'BA Pass'

Shiladitya Bora, CEO of Drishyam Films, which backed the film, says Masaan is doing brisk business in centres like Mumbai, Delhi, Gurgaon, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad.

Ajay Bahl
Ajay Bahl, director, 'BA Pass' (2013)

"The average occupancy figure for Wednesday in certain cities like Gurgaon, Raipur, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Allahabad was more than 50 per cent. In smaller cities, they mostly have single-screen theatres or multiplexes with two to three screens. Therefore, it becomes difficult for the exhibitor to accommodate the film, especially when earlier releases like Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Bahubali are still going strong," he adds.

A still from Dum Laga Ke Haisha
A still from 'Dum Laga Ke Haisha'

He believes that 'Masaan', unlike other festival films, was able to strike a chord with a diverse set of people due to the pre-release build-up. "Along with the Cannes accolades, glowing reviews and super strong word-of-mouth worked in the film's favour.

Rajat Kapoor, indie filmmake
Rajat Kapoor, indie filmmake

Our second week strategy will be to optimise the box-office collections in centres where it has worked well. While the total number of screens may not increase, we are hopeful that the number of shows will increase in certain theatres where the film is doing exceedingly well," he says, sounding confident about a long theatrical run for the film. "It is headed to shatter the jinx and perception that critically acclaimed festival films do not work at the box office," he asserts.

Sohum Shah, actor, Ship Of Theseus
Sohum Shah, actor, 'Ship Of Theseus'

Smaller cities and towns are warming up to small films purely on the basis of their content, says producer Guneet Monga, who put her money into Masaan. "The audience has an appetite for all kinds of cinema and the trick is to put it out for them. However, lack of availability of screens is the major constraint, which affects business. So far, the collection is decent and with overseas business, we are on the verge of recovering money," she adds.

Amit Masurkar,  writer-director,  Sulemani Keeda
Amit Masurkar, writer-director, 'Sulemani Keeda'

Creating a buzz
Indie filmmaker Amit Masurkar, who wrote and directed the acclaimed 'Sulemani Keeda' (2014), feels a change has come as the audience's sensibilities have greatly evolved. "People are now well informed and the internet plays a big role in creating awareness about films in a democratic way. People loved Maasan and publicised it on their own on social media. I am not surprised that it is doing very well," avers Masurkar.

For every new filmmaker bursting onto the scene there are a million new faces in the audience too, suggests Ajay Bahl, director of 'BA Pass' (2013), before adding: "This new audience is young, accepting, informed and evolved. They will ensure that the standard of our cinema keeps rising the way it is."

Actor Sohum Shah, who impressed many with his performance in 'Ship Of Theseus' (2013), believes that while the audience was always ready to accept good content, the trailers and good reviews encourage people to venture into a film. The media, too, plays a crucial role in making or breaking a film. "There's so much media power that it can create a perception of good and bad, even before an individual sees a film and decides for himself. There has been a phase when the reviews killed a film before it could stand on its own merit. Our own industry gave power to so much negative publicity that it boomeranged. Maybe, they have realised that and some positivity is prevailing for good. Eventually, the audience wants to see good films, which do not take them for granted, something that gives them value for time, instead of value for money," Shah states.

Rajat Kapoor, however, does not agree that the change has come with forceful marketing strategies. "There is a simple reason for indie films reaching far and wide — there always was an audience for such films. But distributors and exhibitors believe only a certain kind of film works in smaller cities. It is true to an extent, but that does not mean there is no audience for intelligent or independent cinema. All we have been saying is, at least give us a chance. With the coming of multiplexes, it has been proved time and again that there is an audience everywhere. Earlier, when you did not release our films in a city like Jaipur or Nagpur or Lucknow, the audience there had no choice but to watch them on (mostly pirated) DVDs. Give them a chance — and they will surprise you by making these shows houseful," he says.

Smart storytelling
What serves as an advantage for the well received films is that they tell stories in an engaging manner, says Bahl and that is what happened in case of Masaan and even Dum Laga Ke Haisha. "It is important that when a film is made, a story be told keeping the audience in mind. That does not amount to bowing down to commercial pressures. It demands that the filmmaker not be indulgent. Our audience perceives festival films as self-indulgent exercises. Masaan dispels that notion beautifully. We tend to attribute a very negative connotation to 'marketing' or promotion of a film. It is just a tool to spread awareness that such and such film exists and that is of paramount importance to small, so-called 'non-star' movies. It is essential that the film be visible across all media platforms," he concludes.

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