Mumbai: Until filmmaker Kiran Rao and the Disney UTV studio decided to distribute Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, it was yet another independent project directed by a first-time filmmaker, starring mostly unknown actors, made by cobbling money from here and there, and destined for a carousel ride of film festivals before washing up at inconveniently timed shows at a suburban multiplex.
The latest status report on the acclaimed drama, which contains three stories linked by the theme of organ donation, is that in a week of 13 releases in Hindi, English and other languages, it has managed to get a respectable number of shows at multiplexes. Because of a Vote For Your City campaign conducted over Facebook and promoted through Twitter, the movie, which was supposed to open on 19 July in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Pune, will also be released in Hyderabad and Chennai. And on Twitter, more slobbering variants of the do-yourself-a-favour-and-go-and-watch-this-film message have been clogging the timelines of followers of Gandhi’s handle.
Gandhi’s screenplay for Theseus had created ripples before it went into production, but even he could not have predicted the remarkable journey from arthouse to multiplex, made possible in no small measure because Rao decided to play fairy godmother after watching the movie at a screening in Mumbai. Ship of Theseus has got the kind of mainstream push that many indie filmmakers can only dream of—a properly promoted release, blanket media coverage of Gandhi and his presenter, and the unvarnished love of the movie trade.
“It has been very exciting to have so many people and so much infrastructure to kick in for Theseus,” the 33-year-old filmmaker said. Isn’t it strange for an alternative-minded movie that asks probing questions about morality and mortality to reach audiences through a leading Bollywood studio? “I feel no dichotomy about using infrastructure that is already in place,” Gandhi said.
The director, his producer Sohum Shah (who plays a stock broker in the movie) and the marketing team at Disney UTV decided on the Internet-heavy promotional strategy together. “We have had meetings about how to engage the community in a way that is in continuum with the spirit of the film,” he said. Initial promotions were aimed at getting followers of serious cinema to plant their bums on multiplex seats, while Bollywood threw in its lot in the run-up to the release.
Part of the Theseus wave has been built through special screenings held for so-called opinion makers—personalities and celebrities with social influence and healthy Twitter accounts. From Arundhati Roy to Alia Bhatt, the screenings have targeted everybody of note. “We need to get people who won’t necessarily tune into entertainment news,” Gandhi explained. “Kiran and I have engaged a certain community because of the work she has been doing.”
Ship of Theseus might persuade film goers to skip the pulp pleasures of other 19 July releases like D-Day or White House Down, but it is debatable whether the movie will make it easier for filmmakers who work on the edges of the producer-distributor-exhibitor complex to push their films into cinemas. Srinivas Sunderrajan, director of the fiercely independent features The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project and Greater Elephant, pointed out that the route taken by Theseus—patronage from a celebrity director like Kiran Rao and public endorsements from half the movie trade—might actually hinder the perception and reception of independent-spirited cinema.
“As it is, what is indie cinema is grey in India,” said Sunderrajan, whose Kartik Krishnan Project had a few high-profile supporters such as filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. “Endorsements are dodgy and can kill the identity of and purpose behind the film—the audience a film deserves might not come, while others will come because the film is endorsed by a person they follow,” he pointed out.
“For instance, the boon and bane of getting somebody like Anurag Kashyap to endorse your film is that you get his supporters but you can also incur the wrath of his detractors.”
Most Indian independent cinema is not—and does not want to be—as accessible as Gandhi’s movie, said another on-the-margins filmmaker, who struggled for months to get his movie in cinemas and spoke on condition of anonymity. 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, he said.
“Somebody asked me why I was being so cynical and I said I wasn’t, but it will be even more of a problem for us,” said the filmmaker. “All the theatre chains will tell us to show the film around and bring in endorsements. Take your film to Kiran Rao, they will say.”
Last year, independent cinema found a release outlet in the form of PVR Cinemas’ Director’s Rare initiative, which invites directors to show their movies at their own cost for a minimum of a week. Director’s Rare has been a mixed experience for the multiplex as well as the filmmaker—PVR Cinemas gets more prestige than footfalls for the screenings, while directors worry that their movies are poorly programmed and forced out of cinemas without allowing word-of-mouth publicity to build.
“Would encouraging sounds from personages make a difference? “I’m not sure it helps—maybe it does help in getting shows but I’m not sure if it helps sell tickets,” said Shiladitya Bora, who runs Director’s Rare. “Ultimately, it will all depend on a film’s success—if it doesn’t work, the people backing it might not try again.”
One of Director’s Rare rare successes was Karan Gour’s debut feature Kshay, which ran in Mumbai cinemas for two weeks in 2012. “We tried everything we could to keep the film in the cinemas—we had tonnes of advance screenings, about 500 of them, six-seven people at a time,” said Gour, who made his film with Rs.5 lakh. He lauded Gandhi for storming the distribution bastion, but cautioned against regarding Ship of Theseus as a benchmark for alternative distribution strategies.
“I thought Theseus would try a different distribution strategy, like (American filmmaker) Shane Carruth self-distributed his Upstream Colour,” Gour said. “What Anand is doing is good, but I don’t know how it will help indie cinema. People on Twitter will make you feel your film is the best to have ever come out, but it kills it in the long run. Some people liked Kshay because they were expecting nothing from a five-lakh movie.”
Television channels that promised to programme Kshay if it completed a two-week run found other excuses to not broadcast the black-and-white movie. “They said the film should be in colour,” said Gour. Kshay was eventually further distributed through Internet-based platforms like Vimeo and iTunes.