Until a year ago, the office of the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) at Worli’s Nehru Centre, Mumbai, was a cavernous space. Steel cabinets crowded its rooms and tables balanced heaps of files, just as they do in a regular government of India office. The dank, clerical air was symptomatic of what the public sector undertaking, established in 1975 to produce and promote good Indian cinema and facilitate the development of a film industry, had become over more than a decade. After its golden age—NFDC acted as one of the cradles for the parallel cinema movement in the late 1970s and 1980s—it was drained of dynamism. The organization continued to produce some films, regional and Hindi, but nobody heard about them because nobody promoted them. A former NFDC official (name withheld on request) says government funds were scarce and there was nobody in the organization who cared about change.
NFDC now is a different story, under the aegis of its year-old managing director Nina Lath Gupta. A former bureaucrat with the Indian Revenue Service— she quit the service after a stint with the information and broadcasting ministry’s film policy department—Gupta has ensured India’s state-run promoter of cinema gets a second life. Staff strength is down from more than 230 to around 115 skilled employees. The offices have transformed into open, interactive, happy places. The organization now has two plush, well-equipped, preview theatres available on hire for film-makers and producers for screenings at Rs 10,000 per screening, the standard industry rate for screening venues. NFDC recently co-produced writer-director Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots and is also co-producing Dibakar Bannerjee’s forthcoming film, Shanghai. (see “In the cans”). “We are not competition to the private sector. We will never be, because the mandate is different. It is to promote cinema from different parts of India, the kind of cinema which does not make the cut for commercial producers,” Gupta says.
Take two: Nina Lath Gupta (right) and Raj Chhinal at the NFDC office in Mumbai. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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The most recognized presence of NFDC in the world festivals and co-production market is the Film Bazaar. The bazaar selects projects by film-makers from South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or Saarc, countries and facilitates meetings with buyers and producers from the world over. In this, its fifth year, the bazaar will be held from 24-27 November, as part of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), in Goa. Buyers and distributors from more than 40 countries in Europe and Asia will participate. Gupta says, “Our role will change according to the gaps in the industry. Right now, there is no platform on which international producers and distributors can meet Indian film-makers.”
A former film critic of The Guardian Derek Malcolm, a mentor at the film lab organized by NFDC at this year’s Film Bazaar (the film lab takes up projects in progress for mentoring by experts and established film-makers), says: “I think the bazaar is a very useful adjunct to the festival, despite the fact that the festival authorities and Nina do not often see eye to eye. It is principally a way for international guests to meet and talk to Indian writers, directors and producers and its events have proved to be extremely useful to both. The problem with the Indian industry is that it survives in a little world of its own, and particularly the independent sector has very little contact with the international world which might well be able to help them.”
At the Cannes International Film Festival in May this time, the NFDC, says Kashyap, was “the India pavilion we have been waiting for”. Malcolm says: “The stall within the market was not so very different, but the Indian pavilion was 100% better. It can be improved still further if Nina is given full support. It was dreadful before.”
Raja Chhinal, manager, NFDC, who has been with the organization for 16 years, is spearheading an initiative to open small, 80- to 100-seater, theatres across India with state-of-the-art projection and audio facilities at various cultural venues which will be meant for non-mainstream, regional cinema, the equivalent of independent film theatres in metros around the world. “The biggest challenge for a film-maker who has a great film at hand but no star or the usual ingredients for commercial success, is killed almost always at the exhibition stage. So we are creating models like that of New York’s Landmark theatres and Australia’s Cinémathèque in India,” says Chhinal.
Gurvinder Singh, whose debut film Anhey Ghore da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse) was produced by NFDC and mentored by the late film-maker Mani Kaul, and premiered at the Venice International Film Festival this year, says he had complete freedom to work the way he wanted. The film unfurls an insignificant day in the life of a Punjabi family. The narrative’s focus, articulated hauntingly through silences, are those who are silent witnesses to the power equations around them. It’s a film that has found takers around the world, and is the kind of cinema, says Gupta, which fits into NFDC’s aesthetic mandate. A committee of film-makers, writers and artists is responsible for choosing scripts, independent of the managerial team led by Gupta.
Kashyap voices immense optimism about NFDC’s potential to change the way films are made and distributed in India. “NFDC revival is the best thing that’s happened to indie cinema in a long time. (It) all started with Film Bazaar. That Girl in Yellow Boots was at last year’s Film Bazaar, and there we met a lot of prospective buyers and producers/funders. We got a lot of encouragement there after the entire mainstream industry had disheartened us. Everyone told me, ‘Don’t make this film. It’s career suicide.’ Film Bazaar gave me strength to make it. And then it helped me release it by co-producing it.”
The Film Bazaar takes place at the International Film Festival of India in Goa from 24-27 November.