Mumbai: The most unusual ingredient so far in the marketing plan for Ritesh Batra’s debut feature Lunchbox: the movie critic.

Lunchbox, a Mumbai-based love story starring Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, has mostly earned praise wherever it has been shown, whether at film festivals (it was shown at the International Critics’ Week at Cannes this year), or private industry screenings. Lunchbox will be shown to critics in Mumbai on 23 August, a whole month in advance of its 20 September release. Movies are usually screened for reviewers only a few days before their release, mostly to offset negative feedback and prevent piracy. But Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions Pvt. Ltd, which is presenting Lunchbox in India, and DisneyUTV, which is distributing the movie, are confident that it will have very few, if any, detractors.

“We are going to back the marketing campaign on the viewing of the film, and we will replicate this in other cities too," said Shikha Kapur, executive director, marketing, studiosat DisneyUTV. Johar decided to throw his weight behind Lunchbox in much the same way that filmmaker Kiran Rao threw hers behind Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, added Apoorva Mehta, chief executive of Dharma Productions. “Every weekend, a small film that you have never heard of gets released, and that would have been the case with Lunchbox," Mehta said. “Since it’s already been made, it’s not like we can change it or anything, so the idea is to lend it support. Karan saw the film at Cannes and loved it, and since he is a brand and people enjoy films that come from him and his production house, they might take notice and watch this film too."

It’s sometimes easier to make offbeat cinema than to get it released—it is not unusual for independent movies to wait months and even years for distribution. The only initiative that patches together independent cinema and multiplex audiences, which is PVR Cinemas’ Director’s Rare, doesn’t work for many filmmakers—they don’t want to be restricted to the cinema chain’s multiplexes, and they often cannot abide by the requirement that they bear the costs of screening the movie and paying for publicity.

In the circumstances, the best hope for the independents is to lose some of their independence. Or, as it’s now known in indie circles, find your own Kiran Rao—hope for a celebrity personage who will adopt your labour of love, rope in a mainstream distributor, work the phonebook down to its spine, and create a whirlstorm of positive opinion through social networking websites, all in the hope that audiences who usually patronise mainstream entertainers will also spare a thought for your kind of movie.

Kenny Basumatary’s martial arts comedy Local Kung Fu, which was shown at the Osian’s-Cinefan Film Festival last year and which will be released through Director’s Rare on 27 September, already has a presenter in place—Mumbai-based entrepreneur Durlov Baruah who runs Kuhipaat Communications. Basumatary is also trying to get his Guwahati-set movie, which was made for under a lakh of rupees, released in Assam. “Durlov saw the film and got on board—he will give the funds necessary for the release and help with the publicity budget," Basumatary said. “We will be marketing the film mostly through the Internet, since that’s where our target audience is. We will also be showing the film to a couple of celebrities and get their bites on camera."

Celebrity support can bridge the gap between the mainstream and the alternative and help independent producers overcome their limited promotion budgets.

“It’s challenging to release such movies because publicity and advertising budgets are very high," said Guneet Monga, whose Sikhya Entertainment is one of Lunchbox’s many producers. Monga also works closely with Anurag Kashyap Films Pvt. Ltd, and between the two banners, she has a bunch of offbeat titles, including Vasan Bala’s Peddlers and Hansal Mehta’s Shahid. “It’s great that bigger studios and producers are coming along to support good films," Monga said.

DisneyUTV is most likely going to release Shahid later in the year, while Grazing Goat Pictures, run by Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar and former television channel head Ashvini Yardi, is likely to support the release of Peddlers.

Shringar Films, which was one of the earliest backers of independent filmmaking—it made the release of Nagesh Kukunoor’s Hyderabad Blues possible in 1998—has picked up Nitin Kakkar’s seriocomic drama Filmistaan, which won a best debut award at the International Film Festival of Kerala and the National award for Best Feature Film in Hindi, both in 2012. “It’s a brilliantly made film," said Aditya Shroff, executive director at Shringar Films. “The movie has a lot of potential, given the fact that audiences are welcoming fresh talent and good concepts." Filmistaan is likely to be released at the end of the year.

The Ship of Theseus case study proves that it’s possible to release an alternative-minded movie on a handful of screens and then increase the number of shows depending on the response—what is known in the trade as a platform release. Gandhi’s existential drama was largely promoted through the Internet, and its distribution changed depending on audience reactions, said DisneyUTV’s Kapur. “Ship of Theseus started with five cities and went up to 37 cities," Kapur said. “Technically, it was a mainline release. We used the first weekend as a marketing platform, and waited for the word of mouth to grow. The movie trended on Twitter for five days, and it gave us the push the film needed."

Lunchbox won’t take such a rarified route, Kapur added, but will have a wider release. And just because Dharma Productions is presenting the movie in Indian cinemas, it doesn’t mean that the company will be setting up a boutique movies division. “This is a one-off, since Karan felt very passionately for this movie," said Mehta of Dharma Productions.

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