One of the most recognisable faces of independent cinema in the country, two-time National Award winner Ashvin Kumar says cinema should be promoted as a cultural activity

Once again it is that time of year when the National Awards will be conferred on some charged souls who are expected to keep the flag of quality cinema in the country flying without asking for any returns. Not even exhibition of their labour of love. Sometimes it gives an impression that the award is the price to buy silence. Some young filmmakers are holding on. One of them is Ashvin Kumar, who has bagged the prestigious award second time in a row. Last year his documentary “Inshallah Football” won the award for Best Film on Social Issues, and this year its sequel, “Inshallah Kashmir”, has won the award for Best Investigative Film. Finding its way through the maze of mass graves, “Inshallah Kashmir” gives militancy a human face as Ashvin tries to figure out what Kashmiris want. The K-word here is not considered auspicious; here it stands for cuts.

“Why keep making films when nobody could see?” Ashvin asks. Usually, the government cites a possible breakdown in law and order as the reason to censor films on sensitive subjects. One tries to present the other side’s view. “That’s all hoopla. There is no connection between the law and order situation and cinema. I have never seen any movie causing riots. They are caused by social inequality, lack of opportunities, political parties pushing mobs into rampage… And it is not a secret. The government knows it.” He seems right, for when even Doordarshan didn’t telecast his films he released them on the Internet. They were watched — widely and peacefully.

Recently, the hard work of Ashvin and his fellow independent filmmakers paid some dividends when Prasar Bharti agreed to buy National Award-winning feature films and documentaries. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has agreed to pay Rs.25 lakh per film for the premiere and Rs.15 lakh for a rerun.”

The second step, he says, should be that all theatres that are owned by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting should screen independent cinema without charging entertainment tax.

“My larger point is cinema is a cultural art form and should come under the Ministry of Culture and not the I&B Ministry. It should be given the same kind of subsidies and tax breaks as are given to crafts, arts, dance and theatre. It should be treated at par with them.” According to Ashvin, cinema does two important things that no other medium can. “One, it represents, and the other is it archives and provides reference points. The country is changing so rapidly, there is so much upheaval. Who is documenting that? We continue to make those commercial films which have no reflection of real society and what’s happening. And those filmmakers who are trying to showcase it are being marginalised. Their films are not allowed to be released. When the land was given to multiplexes they signed on a clause that required them to dedicate one screen for promoting independent and regional cinema. They are not doing their job. The government must step in.”

Is it something deliberate, to keep the audience away from the real issues? “If the government didn’t want to it would not have established institutions like NFDC and the Film Division. It is about apathy. Until you have a strong minister running the portfolio we won’t see change. Thankfully, now we have one, and that’s why the Doordarshan thing has fructified.”

Acquiring theatres, says Ashvin, is no solution. “The government should not be buying a ‘Rowdy Rathore’ for 40 crore for Doordarshan and letting independent films suffer. There are around 60 theatres across the country that are owned by the government. They can become centres for promoting cinema culture. You could hold workshops and lectures there. Cinema has to be promoted as a cultural activity.”

Citing queues at film festivals as the barometer for demand, Ashvin says there is an audience for independent cinema. Doesn’t the public want it for free? “Where were the coffee drinkers in India before Barista emerged on the scene? You put something in place and then people will respond. And don’t tell me you can’t find 100,000 people in India to watch independent cinema. After all, they are downloading films from the Internet,” he counters. “See there is no choice,” he continues, “If the government wants cinema to be the soft power, Bollywood is not doing it. It doesn’t represent anything that is real in India today. The government mandate is to promote the arts of the country. Cinema is the biggest cultural export that a country could have today. Something that is filmed in Kashmir could be shown in Los Angeles without any problem. The question is whether it is done well or badly. It is time we start having cinema classes in schools. Cinema is the art form of the new millennium and this needs to be recognised. When you will expose children to quality cinema, world cinema, teach them what is a good film, you will get an audience demanding good cinema.” Doesn’t it amount to dictating taste? “When you have a pottery class, an art class, are you dictating taste? If people want to watch Bollywood masala fare so be it, but they should at least know Kurosawa. Today’s children don’t know that. They don’t know the difference between a short film and a documentary,” says Ashvin, whose short film “Little Terrorist” made it to the Academy Awards.

Talking about the impact of censorship on cinema, Ashvin says so much money is riding on films that filmmakers and producers start applying self-censorship prior to submitting their films to the CBFC. “Thoughts like ‘This won’t get cleared, so don’t think in that direction, don’t make a film on this subject’ clog their mind. Our country is going through a tremendous democratic upsurge. We have had a Dalit chief minister of the biggest state. Who is documenting it? Forty years later when researchers will sit down and discuss the cinema that came out of the 1990s and 2000, what are they going to find. ‘Rowdy Rathore’?”

He alleges that there is a new ploy of the CBFC. “Instead of banning the film, it has started giving an ‘A’ certificate, which is grossly misused. Take the case of Shonali Bose’s ‘Amu’, which was based on the anti-Sikh riots, or Anand Patwardhan’s ‘War and Peace’. I was given an ‘A’ certificate for both my films simply because they were about Kashmir. The moment you do it, the film can’t be shown on television and no distributor will touch it. I believe there is scene in ‘Rowdy Rathore’ which shows gruesome torture. In my film there are two terrorists talking about the torture they had to go through in real life. I got an ‘A’ certificate while ‘Rowdy Rathore’ got away with a U/A certificate.” He suggests that the CBFC should not be entrusted with the task of looking into a possible law and order situation. “Its role should be to just caution the audience about things like use of foul language and nudity.”

Bollywood filmmakers argue that the money they make from blockbusters allows small-budget cinema to be made. “I don’t buy it. The money goes to the State exchequer. I agree there is a slight shift in content in the last couple of years but if you compare it with what’s happening in the realm of World cinema it is nothing.”

Isn’t he getting cynical? “I didn’t create the cynicism. It exists. I am just reporting it to you. And had I been cynical, I would have stopped making films. Films like ‘Separation’ can be made for Rs.50 lakh. Can’t our system generate even that much? Why am I expected to make films for charity? Even if I do I should have at least a business model which allows me to keep making films. My problem is I am being asked by the distribution system to compromise. It is like asking M.F. Husain to join an ad agency. It is like telling a Banarasi weaver that he is wasting his time, he should try the power loom.”

Far from fashion

Son of fashion designer Ritu Kumar, Ashvin says he was never glamour-struck. “I find the fashion industry vacuous and totally uninspiring. I got to know what it really was from close quarters. Ninety-eight per cent of it is not what you see on screen or newspaper pages.”

Ashvin’s next feature film is also set in the Valley where a 10-year-old girl tries to find her ‘disappeared’ father.

Time to protest

On Thursday, on the eve of the National Awards, 11 independent filmmakers came together to protest and appeal to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to take measures to save independent filmmakers. The petition was jointly filed by 62 filmmakers.