Milkmen turned producers

Still from ‘Manthan’.  

In 1976, five hundred thousand farmers of Gujarat climbed onto trucks ready for a journey. They got members of their family to come along and truckloads of them went to a cinema hall nearby and watched Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (The Churning). These farmers were not just part of the ticketed public but in fact, were producers of the film.

“In a manner of speaking, Manthan could be the first crowd-funded film made in India. And, it was not my idea to ask the milkmen of Gujarat to fund a film about them. It was Dr. Verghese Kurien’s idea to do so. In that sense, Dr. Verghese Kurien, would be the first to try crowd-funding in India,” recounted Shyam Benegal, taking a trip down memory lane to the time of Manthan ’s making.

Dr. Kurien, the architect of White Revolution in India, wanted to spread the movement that he had engineered, across the country and had approached Benegal to make two documentaries for him. While Benegal made Operation Flood 1 and Operation Flood 2 , he also told Dr. Kurien that they should make a feature film on the same topic which could be watched by the paying public. “The idea was to get the ones that were not sold to the idea to watch it. Now, the funding for this film would be a problem. But, Dr. Kurien was an adventurous man. He said, “Why not? I’ll raise the money.” He sent a message to the milk co-operatives in Gujarat which had five hundred thousand milkmen and told them, “You will be producers of a film. For each packet of milk, you charge Rs.8. Take Rs.6 instead and your contribution of Rs.2 will help produce a film.” That is how Manthan was made,” he narrated. 

While Manthan was his first experience with this new model of funding, Benegal remembers that it was not the first time he had heard of the concept of crowd-funding. “I knew that sometime in 1945, a filmmaker belonging to the Communist Party of USA made a film called Salt of the Earth , which was about how the fruit pickers of California were hopelessly exploited. Obviously, nobody would come forward to produce such a film in USA back then. The crew decided to ask the workers themselves for money. They got the money and made the film. As soon as it was released, the film was banned. It is, in fact, banned to this day. However, this film is among the first examples of crowd-funding in USA,” he proclaims.

In any case, Benegal’s tryst with crowd-funding in India seems to have lasted longer than Manthan . “In 1987, I made Susman , a film on the handloom weavers in the country. For this film, I used the same model of collecting money from people. This time, I collected money from handloom centres in Banaras and Karnataka, among other places,” he explained. A few years later, in 1991, Benegal made Antarnaad , a film on the Swadhyay Movement initiated by Pandurang Shastri. He sent a message to the farming and fishing community that knew about Shastri’s socio-economic scheme and asked them if they want to be producers of the film. They contributed and Benegal showed the film in various centres in India, East Africa, Kenya and Uganda.

One can sense a certain kind of happiness in Benegal’s voice as he recounts these encounters that his films had with specific communities. When asked to evaluate crowd-funding as a viable model, Benegal, however, quickly recovers from his nostalgia to say: “Financing films like this can only be an exception. Funds have to be regular for an industry like ours. The primary purpose of a film is to entertain and make money out of entertainment. It is business ultimately and everyone wants to put their money where they will get it back. So, we need a more regular system of funds to finance our films,” he says. But isn’t it also about telling a story that is worth telling? Benegal quickly remarks, “Now, you are making a moral value judgement. Yes, crowd-funding is needed to encourage filmmaking of every kind. But a film maker has to prove that he can make money. He also has to constantly test the worth of his ideas. The film industry is littered with corpses of filmmakers and ideas that didn’t make it. It is, at the end of the day, all very tricky”.