Social media and independent cinema may not seem to have much in common; but in 2010, shortly after I joined the then-fledgling platform called Twitter, I got to e-meet Srinivas Sunderrajan there. He had just made a 70-minute feature film with a paltry sum of ₹40,000. It was a self-reflexive film — about making a film.
The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project , starring Kartik Krishnan, Vishwesh K, Swara Bhaskar and D. Santosh, was made without any studio support. Shot in 30 days, guerilla style, over a year, at various Mumbai locations, most of the film’s budget was spent on hiring equipment and props and on post-production. The film’s frames were of impeccable quality. It was picked up and released by PVR Pictures but didn’t quite get the eyeballs and strong push in the indie niche.
Cut to 2019 and you have Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis , a thought-provoking portrayal of unusual relationships in which forbidden food gets intertwined with proscribed passion. The film got a rare, robust release both offline and online, through MovieSaints, a streaming platform and a distribution solutions provider for independent cinema. Meanwhile, Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo! , an absurd take on societal and human condition, centred on a monkey repeller working in Lutyen’s Delhi, is all set to travel to Berlinale early next year after its opening at the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival.
Black and white
The decade just gone has seen a steady sprinkling of interesting indies — Kshay , Loev , CRD ; from the South, Lucia and Aruvi ; from Bengal, Gandu and Asha Jaoar Majhe ; and from Haryana, G Kutta Se — fighting against the odds to establish a niche for themselves, away from mainstream cinema.
Most have been debuts by young filmmakers such as 23-year-old Achal Mishra’s Maithili indie, Gamak Ghar , where the protagonist is his own ancestral home.
They have brought in a diversity of stories, ways of telling, languages and cultures. Pushpendra Singh’s Ashwatthama was as much about a young boy reconciling with loss and grief as about the Braj language and patriarchy. Karan Gour’s Kshay looked at how faith turns into superstition and eventually becomes a dangerous obsession; but the ingenuity lay in the use of black-and-white cinematography, and in the background score and sound design that lay bare the human mind’s steady dissolution.
If Aamir Bashir’s Harud provided a relentlessly grim, ringside view of embattled lives in Kashmir, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely showed the grime and debauchery behind the glamour of the film industry. Amit Masurkar’s Sulemani Keeda (before he went on to making the celebrated Newton ) cast a glance at the backroom boys and girls of Bollywood who live in Andheri-Versova-Oshiwara, their struggles with landlords as much as with the process of writing itself.
Sudhanshu Saria described his film Loev as a post-gay film — Gay 2.0 — where sexuality and sexual orientation is matter-of-fact and understated rather than questioned or made a big deal of. Set in the world of college theatre, Kranti Kanade’s CRD has multiple ideologies play off against each other even as the linearity of time collapses. A dense and complicated narrative, which throws open more questions than answers, it explores the fascism and fierce competition in the world of arts and the obsession with success. Sandeep Mohan’s Shreelancer captured the lives of freelancers in little details, be it at home or at the many cafés that fill in as workstations.
Then there have been reclusive filmmakers, such as Amit Dutta, who has been making experimental films sitting in Himachal Pradesh, like Nainsukh , on the life of an 18th-century painter from Kangra; Sonchidi , about two travellers in search of a flying craft they believe will help them get rid of the cycle of birth; and The Museum of Imagination , an abstract portrait of art historian B.N. Goswamy. Gurvinder Singh’s Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan looked at caste politics among Sikhs, and Chauthi Koot was all about the atmosphere of doom in Punjab, after Operation Blue Star.
The indie wave has come riding on digital technology — it has been a big enabler, helping keep costs in check. So you have a Rima Das, a one-woman filmmaking army, who came up with Village Rockstars and Bulbul Can Sing , where she handled everything from camera to direction to editing and production. In fact many filmmakers from the Northeast have been fiercely independent, such as Pradip Kubah, Dominic Sangma or Kenny Basumatary.
Forums like the NFDC Film Bazaar have helped nurture indie talent since 2007, and in the last decade these efforts have truly borne fruit. It has shaped films such as The Lunchbox, Titli, Thithi, Court, Chauthi Koot, Qissa, Ship of Theseus, Village Rockstars, Balekempa, Miss Lovely, S Durga, Soni, Moothon, Bombay Rose, Aamis, Eeb Allay Ooo!, Aise Hee and Nimtoh . At one level, South Asia’s biggest film market brings in international buyers, distributors, sales agents and festival programmers together with filmmakers, and at another the Screenwriters’ Lab and Work-In-Progress Lab help support filmmakers in the development stage of their projects.
Films for everyone
Social media has played its own unique role. For filmmaker-actor Rajat Kapoor, it also helped bring in the moolah. When producers were noncommital about his new film Aankhon Dekhi, a tweet reached Manish Mundra, the CEO of a petrochemical company based in Nigeria. He decided to bankroll the project. Mundra went on to support other small, independent, offbeat films like Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan and Masurkar’s Newton. Today, he has started a Bollywood company of his own called Drishyam Films.
Technology has ensured democratisation too. Everyone can make a film and about issues that get buried in the mainstream. Dakxin Chhara, an Ahmedabad-based theatreperson and filmmaker, belongs to the Chhara denotified tribe, and aims to use cinema as a tool to empower his community. Bhaurao Karhade, a farmer-turned-filmmaker from Maharashtra, makes cinema about the agrarian crisis.
The Ektara Collective of Bhopal made a ‘community’ film, Turup , on caste, class, gender, religious politics against the backdrop of rising fundamentalism. In 2017, several indie-spirited films emerged from the mainstream: A Death in the Gunj, Anaarkali of Aarah , Lipstick Under My Burkha , Gurgaon, Mukti Bhawan and Ribbon.
But the indies are still grappling with viable platforms to take the films to the audience. Many have remained confined to the festival circuit. Then you have a Sandeep Mohan who literally takes his films by the collar to the audiences, organising independent screenings in small cafés and bookshops everywhere.
One remarkable success story is Bardroy Barretto’s modest Konkani film, Nachom - ia Kumpasar (Let’s Dance To The Rhythm), a fictionalised account of the popular Konkani jazz singer Lorna Cordeiro’s love for the famous saxophonist, trumpet player and musician Chris Perry. Made with contributions from 101 of Barretto’s family members and friends Nachom-ia Kumpasar premiered in Goa in 2014 and has had hundreds of housefull ticketed screenings organised by the makers themselves. The idea behind the staggered, non-conventional release was that the film should reach audiences, gain critical mass steadily, and remain relevant for two years, not just two weeks. This indie is now referred to as Sholay of Konkani cinema. The irony couldn’t have been sweeter.