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A still from Sanjay Mishra-starrer Ankhon Dekhi.
A still from Sanjay Mishra-starrer Ankhon Dekhi.

Small indie films look beyond theatrical release

Indie filmmakers are now looking at local screenings, Internet and television to monetize their content

New Delhi: Filmmaker Fahad Mustafa found an audience for his documentary Katiyabaaz not in the plush multiplexes of a metro but on the streets of small town India.

The 84-minute documentary on the problem of power theft in Kanpur that he co-directed along with Deepti Kakkar won the National Award for Best Investigative Film in 2014. It was released on the same day as Salman Khan-starrer Kick and there were no doubts about which film distributors preferred allotting more screens and shows to. With 65 screens, the highest ever for a documentary, Mustafa’s film competed with the 5,000-plus screens for Khan’s movie.

“Most people still don’t see indie films as a viable option," Mustafa said. “And not many distributors are willing to put money in them." He admits to have acquired funding for publicity and post-production from selling the film abroad and from foundations and grants from nearly 10 countries.

The team then partnered with local and pan-Indian organisations like the Jagran group to show the documentary in small towns like Samastipur, Kanpur and Meerut. “These screenings happened on the streets of nearly 60 Indian cities and brought turnouts of 400-500 people. It gave us not just regional coverage but exactly the kind of engagement we were looking for," said Mustafa.

Local screenings are one of the ways in which indie filmmakers can monetize their humble ventures. Then there is the Internet. Mustafa claims his film made money on digital and VoD (video-on-demand) platforms like iTunes and Amazon despite the digital divide in the country. The documentary will be available on Netflix, the on-demand media provider soon.

“These platforms give your film a new life. The exposure you get through a theatrical release is different. It’s important to channelise that digitally. It’s not about physical infrastructure but about realising the potential impact of indie cinema," Mustafa said, adding that this also has to do with how movie tickets in India are often priced high.

Amit V. Masurkar, director of independent slacker comedy Sulemani Keeda agrees. With a marketing and distribution budget of 18 lakh, the team members didn’t expect to recoup their investment through theatrical shows because they were so few in number in the first place. Plus, no distributor was willing to back a film that featured no known names.

“The Internet is a great way of monetising but you need a good platform," said Masurkar who chose The Viral Fever (TVF), an online youth entertainment network, as digital partner. “Almost 40,000 people paid and watched the film online. It may not work for big-budget films but for micro-budget films, it’s a good deal. We also sold the film to Channel 4 UK and are in the process of sealing television deals in India."

Katiyabaaz and Sulemani Keeda, together with films like Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, Kanu Behl’s Titli and Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi are a few of the innumerable non-mainstream, experimental films that have won hearts in the over-crowded, “Bollywoodized" movie market where popular faces and big budgets dominate.

The praise, however did not help box office numbers. Ankhon Dekhi, a highly-acclaimed comedy drama starring Sanjay Mishra, made about 74 lakh, according to movie website Bollywood Hungama. Titli and Masaan, despite the praise, made hardly 2 crore and 4 crore, respectively.

“Ten years ago, there was more space for such films," said Ankhon Dekhi director Rajat Kapoor who made Mixed Doubles, a comedy drama at a budget of 50 lakh in 2006 and admits to have gotten decent audiences at theatres like Sterling and Regal in Mumbai. The Sanjay Mishra-starrer, on the other hand, he says could have done better had it not been relegated to poor timings like a 3:30pm slot which nobody could have watched even if they wanted to or if word-of-mouth was strong for the film.

“Critical praise can help a film only to a small extent. Maybe a film that would’ve made a crore will ultimately make a crore and ten lakh. Ultimately, people want to watch their favourite stars in a mad, funny tale with sex and songs. They don’t go to theatres to just watch a film," Kapoor said.

Ankhon Dekhi was released in the same week as Sunny Leone-starrer Ragini MMS2 and, according to Kapoor, this is clearly a matter of inadequate space. “Earlier, a big-ticket film would release 800-900 prints. Now they come with a minimum of 3,500 to take over multiplexes," he said, adding that it’s “stupid" to believe it’s a good time for new-age, experimental cinema in the country.

The good news, in a way, may be the fact that big studios are willing to take the risk to make these films.

“We enjoy doing smaller films and don’t really differentiate in the way we make them," said Rucha Pathak, chief creative officer, Fox Star Studios, which has backed movies like Citylights and Hawa Hawai. “The idea is to ensure they get a conducive release period which means not bringing them alongside a big-ticket film or during a festival or holiday season which are usually taken up by stars anyway or say, a cricket tournament, so that they get enough space in the theatres because there is anyway lesser time to promote them."

But it’s not nearly as much a struggle for the big players as it is for independent filmmakers. The road ahead, therefore, is to look at streams of revenue apart from a conventional theatrical release and modify existing strategies.

“Theatrical does remain the most important goal for every film, big or small," said Kamal Gianchandani, CEO, PVR Pictures. “Ultimately, it is all about the viewer buying a ticket and surrendering himself to the screen and remaining committed to it."

But there is a need to experiment with distribution strategies. “It is important to give the film breathing time, start with perhaps 10 shows and then add more as the buzz grows stronger. This also gives the producers more control over prints and advertising (P&A)," he said.

Shows could be allotted on demand. So, if enough people are willing to watch a niche film on a Sunday morning, that is when it would play and not in the couple of shows it typically plays during the week. Tax rebates from state governments for issue-based films and building on international festival acclaim, like Masaan did, may also help. Ultimately, of course, it boils down to content.

As Rajat Kapoor said, “I will continue to make what I can only hoping that psyches will turn and there will be audiences who think like me."

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