In the choppy waters of the entertainment business, the increasing space and response to independent voices is making those in the mainstream change their pattern of swimming.

Last Sunday one observed students of Aligarh Muslim University turning up to watch short films in Marathi and Malayalam during the University Film Club’s annual festival. Compromising on their famed afternoon nap they were responding to films that break Bollywood’s stereotype of Muslim characters. In “Katwe: The Other People”, the lead character is a practising Muslim who is clean shaven and doesn’t sport a skull cap all the time. He works in the corporate world and pens maata ke bhajans to fulfil his desire to become a lyricist one day. Yes, he does face discrimination but that doesn’t mean he is ready to give up and fly to Dubai. The film quietly suggests that anybody could be in a minority and face persecution at some point of time. A Hindu from Bihar in Mumbai is a case in point. In “Maula Baksh De”, the protagonist is a Hindu who offers to adopt a Muslim boy orphaned in the Gujarat riots as penance for his silence during the riots. The performances are basic and technically they may not meet the standards, but when it comes to the treatment of the subject they are much ahead and more alive to everyday reality than the mainstream space. And the fact that they are not only accepted but applauded in a space which many consider conservative answers why there is an increasing rush from the organised sector of entertainment to embrace the independent voices.

Be it PVR’s Director’s Rare initiative, Doordarshan’s revival of the slot for independent and National Award winning films or the recent launch of MTV Indies, opportunities to go against the tide are increasing.

Shiladitya Bora, head of PVR’s Director Rare, which now releases an independent film almost every week, says, “The Indian market has become mature enough to have a sizeable number of discerning movie audience who constantly want to watch high quality content on the big screen. The only avenues available till now were the illegal torrent downloads or the once-in-a-year film festivals. Also with technology to make films becoming affordable and easily accessible to the common man, the number of independent films being made in the country has shown a sudden jump. But very few of these films find distributors because most distributors in India are still driven by stars, budget and money. The remaining corporate distributors barely choose 5-6 such films in a year. So there is a huge gap.”

He adds, “Also our big city audience at least has become very experimental. And to make our film industry a wholesome industry, we’ve got to have space for every voice, only then it will be able to grow. Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Inarritu ... all these filmmakers started in a much smaller indie way only.” But with independent film festivals reaching the hinterland, the knowledge of cinema is no longer limited to big cities and states like West Bengal and Kerala.

The impact

The mainstream producers are not untouched by the audience response, and this can be seen in the kind of support “The Lunch Box” and “Ship of Theseus” got from UTV in marketing the message. Bora says “Gulabi Gang”, a documentary on Sampat Pal, is in its third week in Mumbai. Many might say that the fact that it released a week before “Gulaab Gang” worked in its favour but then that is what Bora is there for. The only difference is, he is using his marketing skills on an independent film. “You can always pitch a Punjabi song to draw in the crowd but that doesn’t mean you have to pander to a star or some clichés in the storyline,” says director Vikas Bahl, who has just delivered the refreshing “Queen”.

Last year Karan Johar told this journalist after the release of “Bombay Talkies”, “The tonality of cinema has changed from the time I started, and the sooner one accepts it the better it is to survive in the entertainment business.” We can perceive this change in “Hasee Toh Phasee”, where his production house Dharma Productions joined hands with Phantom, backed by Anurag Kashyap.

Similarly, Vishesh Films is backing Hansal Mehta’s “Citylights” after Mehta’s independent venture “Shahid” proved to be commercially viable. “I don’t think mainstream production houses are feeling the heat but now they do want to have one leg in independent space as well, and this is heartening because at the end of the day you need to make some money to make or act in your next film,” notes actor Rajkumar Rao. He is right, for a few years back one could not have predicted that Sajid Nadiadwala would produce “Highway”.

In harmony

MTV’s opening space for independent voices in music, cinema and stand-up acts through a new channel is significant because together with Channel V, it was first Bollywoodised and then turned to reality television. The channel is sponsored by Pepsi and it doesn’t take much to analyse that the company is impressed by the performance of “Coke Studio”, which has emerged as a popular window for independent music.

However, what it also suggests is that fusion is going to be the defining note of MTV Indies. Aditya Swamy, EVP and Business Head, MTV India, doesn’t agree. He says the idea is to provide a platform to pure forms of music as well. “We wish to create the world’s biggest indie stage for the rich sub cultures at play across India. It will not be like the independent music of the ’90s when the likes of Alisha Chenoy and Shweta Shetty emerged on the scene. That was indie pop. This time audience will get more range and that includes folk music as well.”

On how somebody like Raghu Dixit fits into this scheme when he is composing for Bollywood’s “Bewakoofiyaan”, Swamy reasons, “Artistes like Raghu and Monica Dogra are at the mature end of the indie cycle. They are bands like Bombay Bassment and Vice Versa ready to take over. If you look back, Jazz, Rock and R&D all started as sub cultures before becoming popular.”

The counterpoint

Still these are early days and there is a long way to go. Rabbi Shergill says, “I think more than classical, the folk music of this country really needs to survive. The answer is making the broadcast of the original, raw folk music of this country on mass media easier. Right now it can only go on All India Radio or on special programmes organised for special purposes and occasions. A bureaucratic means of dissemination and a corporate means of dissemination, both are not ultimately trustworthy. Unless we have channels or radio stations owned by the communities themselves, I don’t see this imbalance being corrected.”

Aamir Bashir, whose film on Kashmir “Harud”, got a limited release through PVR Director’s Rare, says, “Yes, we have begun to get space but even in the independent space the films that fall in popular genres like comedy and thriller are pushed more than the serious films. PVR is doing its job but some films need more time to breathe and get response. There are very few weeks in the year when Bollywood doesn’t bombard the box office. So the moment a big film comes, the independent film is taken out or is sent to some unwieldy time slot. I think the government should step in and make sure that there are some dedicated theatres for independent and art house films.”

Ashim Ahluwalia, whose “Miss Lovely” finally got a toehold at the box office, doesn’t see merit in the proclamation of Anurag Kashyap and Tigmanshu Dhulia that they are out to change the mainstream. “The industry is too big and resistant to change. It is going to change you. We have seen it happening in the West. Even Charlie Chaplin couldn’t do it. I sent the idea of ‘Miss Lovely’ to Balaji. They rejected it but in a few months came up with the announcement of ‘The Dirty Picture’.” Ahluwalia might have suffered but for the audience, the menu has definitely become diverse. Now he has plenty of shades of grey to choose between “Miss Lovely” and “The Dirty Picture”.