You wouldn’t blame even a cinephile if Katha Sangama failed to ring a bell. This 1975 film, directed by the legendary Kannada director Puttanna Kanagal, remains one of the first few examples of an Indian anthology film—a film with disparate stories linked together by theme, actors, and so on. It serves as fodder for the trivia junkie though, for it is among the first couple of films starring Rajinikanth, who played a rapist.
Onir’s new film, I Am, treads ground less trodden by plunging into a genre of film which has largely been ignored by the Hindi film industry.
Omnibus film : The poster of I Am
“Forget the format, the minute prospective financiers heard about the sort of subjects I was dealing with, they shook their heads,” says Onir.
The film-maker, who received acclaim for My Brother... Nikhil, takes up subjects that tend to make producers cringe—paedophilia, homosexuality, and so on. He says funding for the film was the most difficult part. But armed with the motivation for making the film, he tapped social networking site Facebook and managed to attract funds from 400 people across the world, all of whom will find mention in the film’s credits.
I Am is a montage of four separate stories held together by a few common actors and an overarching theme inspired by Tagore: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.” While one story deals with a child abuse survivor, another has a Kashmiri Hindu returning to the state after 20 years. The film features Rahul Bose, Nandita Das, Sanjay Suri, Juhi Chawla and Manisha Koirala, among others.
Another anthology or “portmanteau” film in the pipeline, Mumbai Cutting, is a sort of Paris, Je T’Aime for the city of Mumbai. Its makers have been struggling to get a theatrical release. Kundan Shah, the director of the cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, has contributed to the film with his segment on the city’s local trains.
Shah believes the short film or short film anthology is an extremely challenging exercise since it tries to deliver an aesthetic pleasure and a story like a feature film does, but more often than not it fails to do so because of a constricted time frame. “We cannot liken the short film-feature relationship to the short story-novel one. A short film is best made in silence, without dialogues, and even if not, it can at best be an event brought to life on the screen. A slice of life, an experience...,” he explains.
Could this be the reason then for the box office failure of earlier attempts at the genre; films such as Darna Mana Hai (2003), Dus Kahaniyaan (2007) and most recently, Dhobi Ghat (2011) which—whatever their artistic quality—tried to offer the viewer a cinematic omnibus? Does the restricted time frame nullify attempts at storytelling?
Onir isn’t as dismissive. “As long as the story is engaging, it will work. In the end, it’s all about telling a story well. And that is what I have tried to do,” he says.
The conundrum might be difficult to solve, yet digital technology seems to offer a way out with its capacity to cut budgets and thus help more people realize their dream of making the kind of films they want. “I’m sure that different film formats will be made in the future, prompted by the use of digital technology. Soon, digital is going to become synonymous with film-making,” says Shah.
One can count the number of anthology films in Hindi on one’s fingers—a mere four or five in the last decade. Only a few of these, such as Salaam-e-Ishq (2007),achieved middling commercial success.
Says Onir: “For all the talk of change, highly traditional people (Hindi film veterans) are still producing films in which scripts don’t matter at all.” Even the entry of production companies, such as Fox Star Studios and Sony Pictures, over the last few years has failed to bring about major change. The film industry continues to be anchored by big stars. And the anthology film, which draws its strength from a tight script, suffers.
I Am will release in theatres on 29 April.