Filmmaker Onir talks about the struggles behind making films that tread unconventional paths, and the power of social networks
Very few filmmakers choose to swim against the tide in a film industry that's predominantly star-driven. And even fewer choose to make it a habit. Onir is one of those rare filmmakers that who has made it his forte to tell stories of identity and explore relationships that are forbidden. If he made his debut was with “My Brother... Nikhil”, the story of a HIV affected swimmer with HIV in a same-sex relationship, his “Sorry Bhai” was about a young man falling in love with his brother's fiancée, and his last film, “I am Omar Afia Abhimanyu Megha” was an anthology on themes of identity, child abuse and same-sex relationships.
Over the last six years and four films, the filmmaker, who has partnered with Sanjay Suri, has finally figured out a way to make his films viable. Their company Anticlock Films just won the Incredible India award (a cash prize of Rs. 10 lakh) at NFDC's Film Bazaar India in Goa for their upcoming production Bikas Mishra's “Chauranga”. Onir talks about opened up to speak about his brand of independent filmmaking and how he learnt to involve his audience in the process.
What has been your experience with the Indian film market, making films on issues people haven't always been comfortable talking about?
Honestly, very difficult. Right from the first film ‘My Brother... Nikhil', it has been a struggle. Everyone refused to make the film. We got finances from family and friends. ‘My Brother... Nikhil' is today considered one of the milestone films, given what it achieved. But five years later, when we wanted to renew the satellite rights, they wouldn't renew it. They don't realise that such films have longevity. Even my fourth film ‘I am', despite its cast, was difficult to finance and distribute. We were able to finance it through social networks, but when it came to distribution, there was always a wall.
Do you feel the need to move away and do something that works commercially?
When any filmmaker makes a film, he always takes the commercial aspects into consideration. Especially when one is making it independently. How will you make the next film? At the box-office, there is a reason why certain films do well... But one does not look at revenue from the theatrical release alone. Do you know that ‘I am' was the highest selling DVD last month? We have found a way to get it released in France next February and in Germany in January. Theatrical revenue depends on so many factors. There may be a studio film releasing that week or many small films. I know my film will have a longer life. So, the revenue system to recover costs will also span a longer period.
Tell us more about this crowd-funding model used to finance ‘I am'.
After a bit, I realised that traditionally I will not be able to find producers. Sanjay Suri came up with the idea. So it was just an experiment that we put up on my Facebook wall — that this is the story we want to tell, you can contribute financially or volunteer in making the film. We got finances and help through social networks. The reasons: One, people identified with the subject. Two, young people, especially students wanted to see their names on the screen. Three, people who wanted to get into the business but didn't want to invest big money could be a part of the process and learn. We are not only creating an audience but also involving them in distribution. Someone from Nigeria who put in some money, ordered 500 DVDs to sell them in Nigeria as a co-producer. There's someone in Germany distributing it for us. They go all out and market the film. So, there's no middleman.
So, is this model funding your company's new projects too?
Yes, we have two projects. One is ‘Chauranga' the film by Bikas Mishra that just won the Incredible India award given to the most promising script to showcase India. The other is a film that I am directing — ‘Shab' for which we have tied up with a French co-production company. We plan the end from the beginning. We plan our print and advertising money even before we start shooting. Crowd-sourcing through social networks helps us to reach out to people as far as Jharkand, Andamans, Bhopal and Indore. We got 75 entries for the poster design and 30 entries for background music director contest. So we are also providing a platform to discover and nurture talent.
What are the challenges faced by the indie circuit?
We don't have an exhibition system in place. Whether it is ‘Ra.One' or ‘I am', the ticket costs Rs. 300. Why does something that costs Rs. 150 crore to make and something that costs Rs. 1.5 crore cost the movie-goer the same price? Biryani and Pav Bhaji is not priced the same. If they price tickets of ‘I am' at Rs. 50, people will watch it. And then, the entertainment tax and bureaucracy for rebate. The rebate for ‘My Brother... Nikhil' came after eight weeks. How will a film run till then? Studios these days set apart Rs. 5 crore to Rs. 10 crore for print and publicity. The audience that is watching ‘Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi' is not the kind that will watch independent films anyway, so why spend there? Independent cinema watchers are on the Internet and social networks. It's important to identify your audience. A big hoarding in Mumbai does not ensure footfall. Wasting so much money in a city such as Mumbai is an ego-building exercise. Be realistic.
So what's ‘Shab' about and have you got started already?
‘Shab' means night. It's a love story between a call girl and a gigolo, set in Delhi. It's a sensuous, on-the-edge romantic drama. The casting has not yet started.