Independent, or indie, films play in an evolved eco-system in the West. Their intrepid makers going where Hollywood superheroes fear to tread. They are often reflectors of marginal lives and experiences, made by young film-makers existing on the margins of a behemoth industry. Forums like Sundance Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, Raindance ensure they are being watched by serious cinephiles. Now, indie films are a gathering force in India too.
Gurgaon is a gritty indie film that has been ready for several months now. Producer Ajay Rai has been patiently waiting to find a window for its release, so that it is watched by as many as possible. Box office returns would be a bonus.
These days, especially on weekends with public holidays, exhibitors are showing more than five to seven films every week, including commercial Bollywood, Hollywood, regional and indie films. And while uncertainties of the box office shadow all, the niche section of indie films faces unique challenges. In recent months, even as blockbusters like Dangal and Baahubali smashed all records, films like Haramkhor, Sonata, Island City, Trapped, Hindi Medium, Mantostan, Dear Maya, Waiting, Nil Battey Sannata and Anarkali of Aarah have had to fight for space at the multiplexes. Not all of them were lucky. Despite the encouraging push that multiplexes gave to small films with varied subjects and treatment, film-makers are trying to look for alternative ways to market and distribute their films.
“We cannot blame exhibitors if there is no audience. One cannot spend Rs 25 lakh per week for 100 shows, if even 10 are not going to do well. Family audiences prefer to go for big films with stars. Initially studios and exhibitors backed such films but increasingly they are backing more commercial ventures,” says Ajay Rai of Jar Pictures, producer of Liar’s Dice, Killa and Nil Battey Sannata.
With box office collections swinging from Rs 1,000-crore to nearly nothing and with mega movies gobbling up shows on weekends, indie films are cornered to only a few screenings at odd times. Vikramaditya Motwane, who made Trapped and is a producer at Phantom Films, had told Outlook, “...Cost of distribution is very high. Very few films get over two weeks to make a mark at the Box Office. Unless your film is really good, it is difficult for it to survive. Even audiences looking for interesting stuff want to get dime for the buck. Average audience is going to think, if I am spending 300 bucks plus parking plus popcorn, then should I see an indie film or the best Hollywood extravaganza? Yes, smaller films are not going to get enough time at the screens.” It’s a problem plaguing the reach of indies. “We need some imaginative way to distribute an indie film and to get its marketing done. For an indie film to work, the attempt has to be made to find a distribution network where they are not dependent on bigger producers....” says actress Swara Bhaskar. “You have to to find innovative ways of marketing...and we need theatres, distribution networks and cinema halls that will screen these films.”
The cruel twist is, indie films rely heavily on word of mouth, reviews and buzz on social media. For that it needs time, which few are prepared to give. “You cannot judge an indie film based on its opening weekend box office collection. That’s just not fair. They are content driven they work when word of mouth kicks in, once audiences like it. They don’t have the Salmans, Shahrukh, Hrithik and Amirs to join that weekend opening. Audience will watch good content but you have to allow it to be there,” says Bhaskar, whose Anarkali of Aarah made its mark without any big studio backing it.
So there are two main challenges—recovery of investments and reaching out to audiences. Manish Mundra, founder of Drishyam Films that has produced Aankhon Dekhi, Masaan, Dhanak and is gearing up for a very-promising Newton, says, “The key is to keep cost of production very low. If we go beyond Rs 3 crore, chances of loss are high. We try to work on profit-sharing basis with everyone—director, actors. We are trying to build brand loyalty for Drishyam, wherein people will associate us with good, logical content. So eventually our expenditure on marketing or publicity and advertising reduces.”
Stills from (clockwise from left) Haramkhor, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Shweta Tripathi and Dear Maya, Trapped
Hansal Mehta, who made Aligarh and is working on Simran, a much-anticipated film with Kangna Ranaut, too says that revenue models need to be experimented with. “In a year eight, nine good indie films are released. Of which three or four rotate around the festivals. The quantity is low and thus a business model has not been tested. Trick is in understanding that there can be an alternative business model, between Baahubali and Ship of Theseus. Our commercial prospects combined with aesthetics are bigger, different. Indie has to find its model--a combination of theatrical and non-theatrical revenue such as digital releases, festival sales, international sales, cable TV....”
The suggestions of trade experts are varied. Like Motwane, trade analyst and industry expert Komal Nahata says alternative ticketing is crucial. “Prices have to be slashed drastically for indie films. One can’t blame the exhibitors.... The issue of lesser screens is not too relevant to indie films because they are mostly watched in metros, which have decent numbers of screens. Problem is pricing. If a commercial blockbuster ticket is at Rs 150, indie film tickets should be half of that.” Smriti Kiran, creative director, MAMI festival, Mumbai, has a fresh solution. “If you look at film cultures across the world, big movies have been crowd pullers and independent cinema has struggled. In India we do not have enough halls. We need couple of theatres in every city for this kind of cinema,” she says.
However, subsidised ticketing or government grants are difficult to achieve. As Mehta says, “Subsidising works of art is an impractical solution. When people, who are making their money in a capitalist world, are paying Rs 1,500 a ticket, we can’t expect patronage. We need more Prithvi theatre kind of places, a model without relying on subsidies and grants. Independent film is a fixed deposit with slow but regular churning, like Shahid is now on Amazon and Netflix four years after its release. Why rely on box office, which is designed to pander to mainstream, why not find something like a French Art House channel which will show Ray with Truffaut?”
The question is valid and filmmakers have been trying to find that space at festivals and digital spaces. “Festivals are fantastic places to create some buzz for your film or even to make some deals. Also, selection at festivals helps build reputation of young filmmakers,” Motwane says in an earlier interview. Mehta says a film like Valley of Flowers by Pan Nalin is said to have recovered its entire cost through festivals. Most of the actors and directors are trying out original content for Amazon and Netflix, the most recent being Inside Edge, the first Indian origin drama series on the murky world of cricket.
The question is how long will big daddies like Amazon and Netflix stay interested and invested in content-driven experiments, if they do not yield high returns. Moreover, the reach and experience of movie-watching in far flung areas of the country will be necessary if makers are finding stories and subjects that range from Manjhi to Masaan.
It is not always gloomy though—there are times when indie films pick up before they are shut out. The latest being Hindi Medium, a slice-of-life comedy (with a message) on school admissions, starring Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar.
Stills from (clockwise from left) Hindi Medium, Sonata and Nil Battey Sannata
If the film gets a little push, while building a word-of-mouth reputation, films with substance will work, says Taran Adarsh, a trade analyst. “There is no other way for small films to click without having good substance. Yes, many don’t work, but films that are solid will work.”
A bad blockbuster may ride for a bit on stars but content is non-negotiable for small films, which still may not guarantee returns. And that trial by fire, though unfair, may just have been the catalyst in pushing megahit-makers to tweak their stories and inject substance. Like Bhaskar says, “I would also note that commercial Hindi cinema is also becoming quite content heavy—look at Salman or Shahrukh Khan. The indie film has turned the commercial masala film towards content. That is very very impressive.”
Once upon a time, the world’s best ‘indie’ cinema, from Italian neo-realism to the nouvelle vague, had inspired Hollywood, with greats like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen acknowledging their debt. It would be a magnificent achievement if our own indie films can revitalise mainstream Indian cinema. But a modicum of commercial success is essential for this varied aesthetic project to strike deep roots.
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai