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The State of Independent Cinema in India

May 23, 2015 | By

Independent cinema is basically independent of established production houses meaning the independent film makers have to raise money on their own and more than often the budget of the film is very tight of which the reasons being that only a few people want to invest in it . The maker isn’t solely trying to please the public using popular methods and practices. Instead he is putting forward his ideas, views and perspectives.

The Independent cinema wave hit the Indian shores way back in the 1960’s. Except in those times independent cinema was addressed with a different name. ‘New’ and ‘New Wave’ Cinema were the terms first used in the late 1960s and early 1970s’ but ‘New’ness has a habit of wilting with the passage of time, and though the term is still heard today, its resonance is weakening. ‘Avant-Garde’ and ‘Offbeat’ cinema were tried, but never really found general acceptance; and the ‘Art’ cinema became a term that its practitioners were uncomfortable with, with its connotations of exclusivity and highbrow-ness.

Ship of Theseus

Anand Gandhi himself and his team who worked relentlessly on social media to get a producer in an interview tells why the producers before Kiran Rao refused to take his film.

Sometime early in the 1980s, an entire day’s session of a film seminar was devoted to debating what they should call themselves, and the consensus proposal – ‘Good Cinema’ – has, not surprisingly, not survived either. The terms ‘Parallel’ and ‘Alternate’ cinema are perhaps the least partisan and problematic of the terms, but also have the virtue of defining the phenomenon negatively, not in terms of what it is, but what it strives not to be: by implication, the degraded, pop values of the commercial cinema. But as time passed it came to be known as ‘Independent cinema’. (Krishen, Pradip. “Knocking at the Door of Public Culture: India’s Parallel Cinema.” 1991)

Independent cinema is basically independent of established production houses meaning the independent film makers have to raise money on their own and more than often the budget of the film is very tight of which the reasons being that only a few people want to invest in it . The maker isn’t solely trying to please the public using popular methods and practices. Instead he is putting forward his ideas, views and perspectives.

CinemaEarlier most of the independent films were just screened at the film festivals; there were just a handful that would make it to the cinema hall. Film festivals play a major role for promoting independent cinema. Elliot Grove who started the Raindance Film Festival years back has beautifully explained it in one of his interviews, “There’s the mainstream industry and no matter what industry it is with it, it brings creative interference and there’s the independent world where you get a camera and a sound man just like that and you go out and do something often with money most families spend on a month’s groceries. So, that’s a very different way of looking at it. Unfortunately, the industry is a marketing industry and they know how to make a 15 $ DVD you can buy blank. Why would you spend 15$ on a DVD when you can buy a blank one for 20 cents? It’s the marketing; it’s the piece of paper that goes around with actors names on it and the industry knows that independent’s who make it with mum’s camera and a little bit of grocery money don’t often that and don’t know how to do that. And, so they make these wonderful films that just get buried; that’s where film festivals come in.” With reference to his film festival he says that the Raindance Film Festival team view film makers not as the traditional feature film makers but more as “visual communicators”.[1]

Now with the internet and downloading sites like torrent, independent cinema is being viewed by a larger audience than earlier. Though the numbers of the viewers have increased independent cinema still hasn’t been able to reach out to the majority of the population.

Recently, I attended Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF) in November 2014, where I got to be part of a very interesting panel discussion. The members of the panel were Qaushiq Mukherjee a.k.a Q, Rajat Kapoor, Umesh Kulkarni and Hansel Mehta – four reputed film makers who have carved a niche for themselves in the world of Independent Cinema.

The topic of the discussion was “Venturing of the Mainstream – New Directions in Indian Cinema”. Though the directors agreed that the scene in India towards independent cinema is changing but at the same time they seemed quite upset for despite the positive change, according to them the change is rather slow. For the majority population of the country, independent cinema is either inaccessible or there is no preference for it. During the discussion the indie film makers expressed their grievances and at the same time they put forward ideas to promote the trend of independent cinema in India.  Major pointers being:

  • Crores of rupees are pumped into making mindless films like Happy New Year or say Kick; not implying that they shouldn’t be made especially considering the fact that Bollywood feeds half of Bombay; but a small amount can also be set aside for art house films or independent cinema.
  • There needs to be room for expression. In India thanks to the censor board many indie films which are brilliant pieces of art are not accessible to the public.
  • Since, most of the indie film makers are on a low budget they are not able to pay off the high tariffs of the multiplexes. To screen your film in an INOX or a PVR you need at least 40- 50 lakh of rupees. A film maker who managed to make the film in fifty to sixty thousand rupees; how is he/she supposed to pay something as huge as fifty to sixty lakh?
  • Even for the indie film makers who can afford to pay the multiplex tariffs more often than not their film gets screening at odd hours e.g. 3:00 pm in the afternoon i.e after lunch when the foot fall is very less. This again is a huge hindrance for the indie world to reach out to a larger audience.
  • All the films the censor board certifies as (A) i.e Adult are not screened on the television because they those films will be accessible to children who according to the Indian government are inappropriate for them. But oddly, what happens when a mainstream Bollywood flick is certified as (A); a day before it being screened on the television, the censor board changes its certification to (U/A) whereas on the other hand this is never done for the indie films.

The Indie film makers were also pretty agitated by the regulatory issues in India as well, for in the case of many indie films the purpose of the film is not to make money but to send out an idea, to float a thought across, to question, to answer, to stimulate, to share one’s passion, to show someone’s reality, to escape from reality or just because they want to make a film.

Cinema 4

In India, unfortunately we don’t have a prevalent concept like Netflix yet where audience can pay a very minimum amount monthly and watch unlimited films and television sit-coms. When Anand Gandhi had not yet got the support of Kiran Rao and UTV productions, the indie world and him were coming up with ideas like distributing the film to colleges across India so that they can showcase the film at their respective film clubs, but thanks-but-no-thanks to the entertainment laws and regulatory issues in India this was not possible. Problem is that every film is not as lucky as Ship of Theseus, in fact one independent filmmaker on the grounds of anonymity was very upset that Gandhi’s film got this kind of attention because he felt that Ship of Theseus might help in building an audience for alternative cinema, but other offbeat films, especially those tackling difficult subjects, will also need godfathers and godmothers to be taken seriously [2].

Anand Gandhi himself and his team who worked relentlessly on social media to get a producer in an interview tells why the producers before Kiran Rao refused to take his film, “Ship of Theseus which is a very philosophical film, has a lot of conversations that are border line academic, a lot goes on in the film, in the end Kiran Rao backed it up. The film addresses concepts like identity, justice, beauty and death through three central characters. It was difficult to find a producer for it. Many producers I met who said this is amazing; the concept is amazing but you know what India mein logon ko samajh mein nahin aayega (people in India won’t get it), and that kind of response I found to be very very arrogant because it means that what they are saying is that they are groomed enough to understand it but the rest of the country that is one fifth of the human population is dumb-er, is lesser groomed, lesser wise than they are or lesser whatever they think it is to access an experience like that.”

The producer’s comment that Anand Gandhi found very arrogant reminds me of something that the indie film makers were talking during the panel discussion which probably explains the producer’s arrogant comment. They said that in our country the common man i.e the majority of the population every day is hustling to arrange four square meals for themselves and their family or standing in queues for paying bills or taxes or doing bank work etc. By the end of the week they are so exhausted, they don’t want any intellectual stimulation or any perceptions or angles to the world/life, or any thought provoking experience, all they want is something that busts their stress, something that entertains even if at times mindless entertainment.

The film makers gave the example of Greece and why philosophy, politics and art at a point of time in history flourished there. They said because they had colonised so many countries around the world, so all their work was being done by the “slaves” from these colonised countries. So the actual population of Greece was left with nothing to do but read, appreciate art, indulge in debates, think etc.

Not implying that India should now start colonising countries, but an improved state in the standard of living would at least make room for expression if not appreciation. As, to make room for expression one needs acceptance and no philistine comments based on trivial grounds such as vulgarity, inappropriate content etc. For independent cinema to survive there needs to be a dedicated theatre for independent cinema; independent cinema has to be something more than just a place to see a film.[3] There has to be auxiliary activities surrounding the film show – to debate and discuss. Spaces specially dedicated to independent cinema are a good idea to fuel the indie fire in India.

End Notes

[1] Elliot’s interview
[2] Riding the ‘Ship of Theseus’ wave,  accessed on May 16, 2015
[3] Cinema Paradiso? A Look At Berlin’s Independent Cinemas,  accessed on May 16, 2015

The opinions shared by the writers are their personal opinions and does not reflect the opinion of Silhouette Magazine.

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Tripat Sekhon is a ponderer, dreamer and a cultural enthusiast. She has recently completed her Bachelors in Social Science from TISS, Tuljapur and is currently residing in Chandigarh.
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2 thoughts on “The State of Independent Cinema in India

  • anonymous

    Just curious. The film posters make sense but why is an obnoxious narcisistic picture of a director hooked along with this otherwise beautiful piece of writing. Just felt it is a very wrong image to portray Independent or cinema or anything.

    1. Amitava Nag, Editor, Silhouette

      Hi Anon,
      Thanks for commenting. The picture of an individual was not to indicate anything beyond just one face of representation. It could have been anyone else as well who were part of the panel discussion which was mentioned in the article.
      Likewise, someone may object to having pictures from the films Gandu and Ship of Theseus as well – why not any other Indie cinema for that matter?

      From the editorial perspective the pictures are only representative samples – nothing more or less.

      Thanks again for reading Silhouette.
      Amitava Nag

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