Indian Independent Cinema – A fad or a movement in the making?
A few years ago, an announcement in a now defunct film site had brought my fleeting glance to a grinding halt – there was a special screening scheduled for Frozen (not to be confused with the Disney animation flick), a creation of the talented independent cinema creator Shivaji Chandrabhushan. With an intimate depiction of the native people of Ladakh, and with Danny Denzongpa floating up as the only known face, the creation looked intriguing and the placement of the story in Ladakh seemed tangible. So, I went ahead and watched it. After years of suffering through frustrating leave-your-brains-behind Bollywood potboilers, here was finally something that was refreshingly different, genuine and free from all commercial compulsions.
A sudden spurt
Independent cinema has always existed in different countries and in different forms. Major filmmakers like Scorsese and Nolan started out with small, personal indies before taking on big mainstream projects. But that was rarely ever the case with India. The experimentation faded away especially once the state-funded parallel cinema movement gradually died down in the mid-90s, leaving a gaping void in its wake. There was almost nothing that remained to feed those unforgiving, snobbish, genuine cerebral cravings.But in recent years there has been a sudden spurt of Indian independent films. From the overtly philosophical Ship of Theseus to the delicate The Lunchbox and from the lurid Miss Lovely to the bleak and psychological Kshay, a wide variety of indie films have been released of late, dealing in themes and issues that nobody could have imagined in India even 10 years ago. So what has changed?
But nothing could have given the indie scene as much acceleration as the arrival of multiplexes. With the ability to spare a screen or two for the dark, different, or quirky, multiplexes are a boon compared to the 90s when no one could have expected the single screen theatres to opt for such films.
Various factors can be considered to understand this gradual rise of independent cinema in India. Firstly it is much easier to make a film nowadays with DSLR cameras and assorted software. The much more favorable scenario of funding too goes a long way in fanning this wave of experimental creativity. But nothing could have given the indie scene as much acceleration as the arrival of multiplexes. With the ability to spare a screen or two for the dark, different, or quirky, multiplexes are a boon compared to the 90s when no one could have expected the single screen theatres to opt for such films. But more importantly, there has been born a tiny but steadily growing population of cinephiles who are better exposed to the cinema of the world and hence are more appreciative of such experiments. The film festivals being organized all over the country are signs of this parallel movement and celebrate the art like no where else. The festivals have been playing their part in improving awareness and offering a platform to spawn new thoughts and talent.
But is the Indian indie cinema movement sustainable?
Now, the question is where exactly is this fledgling shift in cinema headed? The question arises because despite the aforementioned spurt, Indian independent cinema is yet to deliver a truly path breaking film. These new films have their merits but are not viable enough to sustain themselves. They receive limited release in the metros and are watched by a tiny section of the audience. Of course nobody expects them to be blockbusters but since filmmaking is an inherently costly exercise, they must be able to cultivate an audience base that can help them sustain and keep the financial backers interested.
A bigger challenge is the difficulty in attracting audience and it cannot even be blamed on them.Over decades, they have been fed with a very narrow definition of “entertainment”. Anything remotely non-conformist is tossed over as an “art film” which more often than not a thinly veiled contempt for the intellectual snobs.
A bigger challenge is the difficulty in attracting audience, though given the near mindless fare being dished out to them since so long, it’s no surprise that the sensibilities per se have been numbed. Over decades, they have been fed a very narrow definition of “entertainment”. Anything remotely non-conformist is tossed over as an “art film” which more often than not is a thinly veiled contempt for the intellectual snobs. Every society has a niche for finer pursuits. India has had the streak too but it is too weak to support such a significant movement. Even the film festival scene for independent cinema is unstable here. The popular OSIAN fest in Delhi has not taken place for the last two years for various reasons. Even the biggest of them all, the Mumbai Film Festival was about to be scrapped this year due to lack of sponsors, until some wealthy fans intervened and saved it. Beyond these dedicated festivals and limited screenings, it is very difficult to get hold of such independent films.
Last year Ship of Theseus and The Lunchbox received a bit of support from bigger names and had the budget to promote themselves. The Bengali acid trip Gandu went viral but the popularity seemed to be much more because of the sleaze than the style or content. But apart from these better fated ones, how many Indian indies can you name? One can gauge the lack of visibility of such films simply by taking a self-test. Have you heard of films like Videokaran, The Untitled Karthik Krishnan Project, Peddlers, Monsoon Shootout or Qissa? What about people like Vipin Vijay or for that matter Amit Dutta? The latter is considered to be the greatest contemporary experimental filmmaker in India by some critics but nobody else seems to have heard of him. It is but ironical that I have never managed to get hold of any of his films despite my best efforts, despite his commanding the stature he does on the indie circuit.
Every movement needs an icon. One always thinks of Jim Jarmusch when somebody mentions American indie filmmakers. Indian independent movies are awaiting the rise of one such of their own. If the indie movement has to sustain, it must unearth talents who can bridge the gap and crush the barriers. Hollywood independent films like Usual Suspects, Mean Streets or Reservoir Dogs were not only critic favorites but huge commercial successes as well that expanded the viewer base and established newbie directors as major players. This is exactly the kind of success that has been eluding Indian independent films. They badly need a breakthrough, to be acknowledged, to have the whole milieu sit up and take note. We can only hope that they find it before the funding dries out.
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