INDIE FILMS IN INDIA: A STUDY

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There was a time around mid-80’s when good old Doordarshan would telecast art films or parallel cinema films like Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya. People would even rent or buy video cassettes of this adult film and watch it alone late at night. That was the interest level of the middle-class and upper-class in the new awakening in Indian cinema. People were tired of the mindless song and dance masala movies.  Yes, many would watch it along with Mandakini’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili (this one at late night when the elders have gone to bed!) that appealed to each human being’s animal, basic and baser instinct of watching Mandakini in a transparent wet white saree.

And not to mention, the scores of times Doordarshan would telecast Satyajit Ray’s Panther Panchali and Adoor Gopalarishnan’s Swayamvaram  or Satya Ray’s Apur Sansar…

Wikipedia defines an independent film as a film production resulting in a feature film that is produced mostly or completely outside of the major film studio system. In addition to being produced and distributed by independent entertainment Independent films are sometimes distinguishable by their content and style and the way in which the filmmakers’ personal artistic vision is realized. Usually, but not always, independent films are made with considerably lower budgets than major studio movies.  Generally, the marketing of independent films is characterized by limited release, but can also have major marketing campaigns and a wide release. Independent films are often screened at local, national, or international film festivals before distribution (theatrical and/or retail release). An independent film production can rival a mainstream film production if it has the necessary funding and distribution.

In US, it all started sometime in the first part of the 20th century. In 1941, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Alexander Korda, and Walter Wanger—many of the same people who were members of United Artists—founded the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. Later members included William Cagney, Sol Lesser, and Hal Roach. The Society aimed to preserve the rights of independent producers in an industry overwhelmingly controlled by the studio system. SIMPP fought to end monopolistic practices by the five major Hollywood studios which controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of films.

The 1990s saw the rise and success of independent films not only through the film festival circuit but at the box office as well while established actors, such as Bruce Willis, John Travolta, and Tim Robbins, found success themselves both in independent films and Hollywood studio films. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990 from New Line Cinema grossed over $100 million in the United States making it the most successful indie film in box-office history to that point. Miramax Films had a string of hits with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown, and Clerks, putting Miramax and New Line Cinema in the sights of big companies looking to cash in on the success of independent studios.

In 1993, Disney bought Miramax for $60 million. Turner Broadcasting, in a billion-dollar deal, acquired New Line Cinema, Fine Line Features, and Castle Rock Entertainment in 1994. The acquisitions proved to be a good move for Turner Broadcasting as New Line released The Mask and Dumb & Dumber, Castle Rock released The Shawshank Redemption, and Miramax released Pulp Fiction, all in 1994.The acquisitions of the smaller studios by conglomerate Hollywood was a plan in part to take over the independent film industry and at the same time start independent studios of their own.

By the early 2000s, Hollywood was producing three different classes of films -big-budget blockbusters, art films, specialty films and niche-market films produced by the conglomerate-owned indies and genre and specialty films coming from true indie studios and producers. The third category comprised over half the features released in the United States and usually cost between $5 and $10 million to produce.

Nowadays, because of technological advancement, due to the large volume of inexpensive high end digital film equipment available at the consumer level independent filmmakers are no longer dependent on major studios to provide them with the tools they need to produce a film. Thanks to the falling cost of technology, thousands of small production companies can obtain the resources they need to produce entertaining films at a fraction of the cost of the big Hollywood studios. Post production has also been simplified by non-linear editing software available for home computers.

The increasing popularity and feasibility of low-budget films over the last 15 years has led to a vast increase in the number of aspiring filmmakers — people who have written spec scripts and who hope to find several million dollars to turn that script into a successful independent film like Reservoir Dogs, Little Miss Sunshine, or Juno. Aspiring filmmakers often work day-jobs while they pitch their scripts to independent film production companies, talent agents, and wealthy investors. Their dreams are much more attainable than they were before the independent film revolution because gaining the backing of a major studio is no longer needed in order for aspiring filmmakers to potentially access millions of dollars to make their film. Independent movie-making has also resulted in the proliferation and repopularization of short films and short film festivals. Full-length films are often showcased at film festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival, the Slamdance Film Festival, the South by Southwest film festival, the Raindance Film Festival, ACE Film Festival, or the Cannes Film Festival. Award winners from these exhibitions are more likely to get picked up for distribution by major film studios.

In addition to these higher profile “independent” studios there are thousands of smaller production companies that produce authentic independent films every year. These smaller companies look to regionally release their films theatrically or for additional financing and resources to distribute, advertise and exhibit their project on a national scale. The direct-to-video market is not often noted as artistically fertile ground but among its many entries are ambitious independent films that either failed to achieve theatrical distribution or did not seek it. Moving forward, particularly as theatrical filming goes digital and distribution eventually follows, the line between “film,” direct-to-disc productions, and feature-length videos whose main distribution channel is wholly electronic, should continue to blur.
That’s Hollywood. Now, let’s see how the Indian Indie films evolved.

Realism in Indian cinema dates back to the 1920s and 1930s. One of the earliest examples was Baburao Painter’s 1925 silent film classic Savkari Pash (Indian Shylock), about a poor peasant (portrayed by V. Shantaram) who “loses his land to a greedy moneylender and is forced to migrate to the city to become a mill worker. Acclaimed as a realistic breakthrough, its shot of a howling dog near a hut, has become a milestone in the march of Indian cinema.” The 1937 Shantaram film Duniya Na Mane (The Unaccepted) also critiqued the treatment of women in Indian society.

During the 1950s and the 1960s, intellectual filmmakers and story writers became frustrated with musical films. To counter this, they created a genre of films which depicted reality from an artful perspective. Most films made during this period were funded by state governments to promote an authentic art genre from the Indian film fraternity. The most famous Indian “neo-realist” was the Bengali film director Satyajit Ray, followed by Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan and Girish Kasaravalli. Ray’s most famous films were Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and The World of Apu (1959), which formed the Apu Trilogy. Produced on a shoestring budget of Rs. 150,000 ($3000), the three films won major prizes at the Cannes, Berlin and Venice Film Festivals, and are today frequently listed among the greatest films of all time.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, parallel cinema entered into the limelight of Hindi cinema to a much wider extent. This was led by such directors as Gulzar, Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Kantilal Rathod and Saeed Akhtar Mirza, and later on Mahesh Bhatt and Govind Nihalani, becoming the main directors of this period’s Indian art cinema or Indie cinema. Mani Kaul’s first several films Uski Roti (1971), Ashadh Ka Ek Din (1972), Duvidha (1974), and were critically appreciated and held to high esteem in the international spotlight. Benegal’s directorial debut, Ankur (Seeding, 1974) was a major critical success, and was followed by numerous works that created another field in the movement. Kumar Shahani, a student of Ritwik Ghatak, released his first feature Maya Darpan (1972) which became a landmark film of Indian art cinema. These filmmakers tried to promote realism in their own different styles, though many of them often accepted certain conventions of popular cinema. Parallel cinema of this time gave careers to a whole new breed of young actors, including Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Amol Palekar, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Pankaj Kapoor, Deepti Naval, Farooq Shaikh, and even actors from commercial cinema like Rekha and Hema Malini ventured into art cinema.

The usual perception of Indian cinema abroad was split into two categories, Bollywood and films by Satyajit Rays. But a third category has now emerged, thanks to the new generation of filmmakers who are able to make different kinds of cinema. Films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Miss Lovely and Monsoon Shootout show that they have something purely Indian as well as are able to meet the expectations of the audiences at film festivals.
While the community of indie filmmakers was fretting over how to get the necessary P&A budget to release their films in theaters; one man came, saw and conquered the indie production and distribution scene. With his small, crowd-funded, psychological thriller Lucia, Pawan Kumar has made more money than a decent theatrical run for a small indie film can ever ensure. He did it through innovative use of online distribution.

True, ‘indie’ movie scene, is one that has been slowly but steadily gaining acclaim over the last couple of years. These movies arose as a result of the parallel cinema movement in the country and to put it simply, are those movies which are funded independently and made outside the realm of the major studio systems. They circumvent the traditional Bollywood formula of song, dance and fanfare, instead concentrating on the filmmaker’s personal and artistic vision.

Now, let’s see what are the range of subjects the latest Indie film s are covering. Take for example Suleimani Keeda, directed by Amit V Masurkar,  this is a 90-minute laugh riot, revolving around the lives of two screenwriting partners and roommates Dulal and Mainak. What’s refreshing about this film is that it is a comedy movie which is funny without following the traditional slapstick and gag routine. Focusing on the struggles of making it big in the Indian film industry, the movie follows the travails of the two men who are trying to sell their script to major production houses. While a heartwarming coming-of-age story, Udaan, directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, touches on the issues of teenage angst and the troubles of growing up, but unlike most films which deal with these themes, there is no love story involved. Then there’s Tasher Desh, directed by Bengali director and writer Qaushik Mukherjee (who goes popularly by ‘Q’) it is a rock ’n’ roll adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s musical-play of the same name. The movie is a bizarre, psychedelic, fantasy-filled roller coaster, and a couple of scenes are even reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s  Alice in Wonderland. The surreal film follows the journey of two characters – one a prince and the other a poet. A number of other eclectic characters, including an oracle, a storyteller and a young queen, are thrown in for good measure. And one of the best thrillers to come out of Indian cinema, this feature film ID directed by Kamal KM deals with issues rarely seen in mainstream cinema. This movie starts with the theme of lost identity but evolves into something much greater.

Now, sample this, simply put, this film is a work of art. Ship of Theseus, written and directed by Anand Gandhi, this film raises some very existential questions without being too overbearing or trying too hard to be intellectual. The film interweaves the dilemmas of three very unique people. Also let’s watch Miss Lovely directed by Ashim Ahluwalia demonstrates the filmmaker’s knack for picking topics that have never been dealt with before in Indian cinema. This risqué movie is centered around the workings of the Mumbai C-grade film industry, one that was infamous for churning out a number of sleazy horror movies in the 1980s and 90s. Then take Amitabh Chakraborty’s Cosmic Sex which explores the connection between spirituality & sex. … And then no list of the best Indian independent films would be complete without this cinematic masterpiece, The Lunchbox written and directed by Ritesh Batra. The Lunchbox is a love story without being sappy and overly romantic; in fact, its subtlety is what draws you into the plot. The story begins when the famed tiffinwallas of Mumbai wrongly deliver a delicious lunch packed by a housewife Ila and intended for her husband, to a middle-aged businessman on the verge of retirement.

So, all in all the Indian Independent indie  movie genre, or Indie movies are now, touching taboo subjects and evolving as a mature audience.

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