For Nagraj Manjule, making Pawsacha Nibandha (An Essay of the Rain) was a long overdue dream, one that was realised only after he had made Sairat. Why a short film after a phenomenal full-length hit, one may well ask. Such interrogations could be missing the point completely. “I think short films are a completely different language,” says FTII alumnus Payal Kapadia, whose 13-minute short film, Afternoon Clouds, competed at Cannes last year. “They are perhaps closer to poetry than the longer format. It is like comparing a poem to a novel rather than a short story. The approach is totally different. I don’t really see it as a means to an end but an end in itself.”
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So, this could be one of the reasons why, despite his record-breaking success in the feature film format, Manjule chose a short film to tell his next story. Also, even though short-film is still an intimate genre—with limited outreach and viability in the strict commercial sense, the landscape has unmistakably opened up. A blossoming of film-festival culture across the globe coupled with the coming up of digital platforms that showcase diverse content has changed the scene.
(Clockwise from top left) Juice, Chutney, Afternoon Clouds, Khujli
In recent years, Indian short films such as Chutney, Ahilya, Chhuri, Anukul, Girgit, Khujli, Kheer and The Thought of You have explored various themes, ranging from robots, to kink, to marital discord. Several such films have been travelling the world, from festival to festival. A few of them have even passed perhaps the most legit viability test today—going viral.
It appears that a number of directors, actors and producers in India are doing what they can to nurture the format. The section for shorts in the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI) film festival too received great response this year. A significant change is also in store: there are talks of international broadcasters bringing short films to TV in India through a new channel. Hopefully, you’ll be able to watch Manjule’s Pawsacha Nibandha, which also won a National award this year, on TV soon.
“The film comes from my experience of the rain. I am glad that it has received national recognition with the award. It was made on a much bigger budget than an average short film,” says Manjule.
He mentions that nothing major had happened with his previous short film Pistulya (also a national award winner). He is yet to hand over Pawsacha Nibandha to any of the digital platforms and is contemplating more festival rounds, “but I am not averse to any medium or any format,” he adds. He speaks about how he just had to make this one: “The story had stayed with me for so many years, I had thought of it when I was making Fandry, but I could not do it then. Often one thinks of a subject but then it fizzles out. What stays with you for a long time deserves to be made.”
Filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan, who made the acclaimed Masaan, echoes similar sentiments. He recently made a short film titled Juice, with Shefali Shah in the lead. “People ask why make a short film after a feature film, because they think it’s just a stepping stone to longer features. But all filmmakers make short films the world over. This is not for money or commercial returns. This is for the autonomy that it gives me,” says Ghaywan, adding that some producers also look at short films as surrogate marketing or a brand-building exercise. Juice takes place at a middle class house party where men casually discuss Donald Trump’s presidential victory over drinks and snacks and women prepare those snacks and meal in the kitchen without a fan.
Short films can do for filmmakers what features probably can’t—give them space enough to explore something micro, a small incident or an idea with nuanced detailing and sharp focus. “The format frees you from the commercial constraints. You can stick to your ideas of pure cinema,” says filmmaker Ajitpal Singh. His short film Rammat Gammat tells the story of two best friends who love football and go through a tough lesson when the richer friend gets football shoes. The film is shot in rural Gujarat in rains and the lead actors are actual football players. “I think films shouldn’t be treated as shorts or features. Shorts also demand the same amount of preparation as features. In a way, they’re more challenging because by the time the whole crew starts working in harmony, the shooting is over, so you need to have a solid pre-production and a lengthy brainstorming session with the whole crew.”
Singh was in Germany recently for the world premiere of his film at the 64th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. He is happy about the special mention the film received in the children and youth category. “Festivals are a great way of getting introduced to films and the audience from across the world,” he says. “It helps you understand how people from different parts of the world relate to your film. During our world premiere, a young German girl was deeply moved—her own life experience was reflected on the screen. After the screening, she wanted to get photographed with me—an Indian director who has told an Indian story and yet it’s her story. That’s the beauty of film festivals. They make you realise that human conditions are universal.”
Kapadia too talks about the universality of dilemmas that makes locally made films reach out at festivals. “Like any art form, we have certain preoccupations and questions that we need to address through our work. It’s the same questions again and again and they never seem to get resolved,” she says. “I was fortunate that the film was selected at Cannes because that helped it get a much larger audience than I had ever expected. But short films are getting a lot of attention online. Hopefully, even theatres might one day get interested in showing a short before a feature! That’d be quite great.”
While festivals remain the big draw for short films, the online space is a thriving platform too. Companies such as Large Short Films, Pocket films and HumaraMovies are producing shorts as well as developing a community of sorts by organising contests. They are putting many films out there and ensuring excellent reach for them through YouTube and social media.
“We have over 4,50,000 subscribers and 80 per cent of the viewership is organic,” says Pallavi Rohatgi, co-founder of HumaraMovies.com. We are consistently looking for good acting talent and fresh storytellers. We are completely agnostic to genre—horror, suspense, romance etc. The only criterion is the strength of the plot.” Sounds good until now but, “despite 155 million views, we don’t really make money,” adds Pallavi. “Nobody’s making money right now, but one looks at the bigger picture of identifying and understanding fresh talent.” Their budget started with a modest Rs 10,000 and can now go upto Rs 5 lakh in some cases. HumaraMovies also organised a mentoring programme where budding directors made short films under guidance of established filmmakers such as Imtiaz Ali, Zoya Akhtar and Sriram Raghavan.
Then there are dedicated film buffs like Cyrus Dastur who have been making the good old cinema experience possible for short film enthusiasts. “We were the first ones to start a film club for short films. Now we are the biggest in Asia with presence in 15 Indian cities. We reach out to around 15,000 people on a monthly basis,” says Dastur, founder of Shamiana Short film Club, which showcases award-winning and acclaimed films. “Earlier it was difficult to find enough films. Now there are too many. It’s saturated and needs to evolve. Not all films are good.”
And it isn’t easy to filter through YouTube to identify the best, unless you go by festival recommendations and awards. It is easy to understand the interest of the strugglers. A short film is still a complete film and is the best way to showcase your talent. While many may be below par, actors keep at it in the hope of getting noticed. Actor Naveen Kasturia says his short, Cafe Interior Night, with Naseerudin Shah provided him the chance to act in a feature film—Hope Aur Hum, again with Shah.
The budgets may be as low as Rs.20,000 to make a 5-minute short. Though Pallavi doesn’t keep track of the exact numbers, they receive four to five proposals every day to produce short films. That just shows how much young and struggling filmmakers are keen to make their mark with an award-winning short.
The upsurge in digital platforms, free internet on mobile screens and the increasingly deficient attention span of audiences, all make a strong case for the short film. And as long as filmmakers continue to put money in the medium without expecting profits, this haiku of cinema will continue to create sharp, beautiful memories for all.
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai