The Indian Independent Film Industry: Where Do We Go Now?

Guest post by Ritesh Batra

Where do we go now? A somewhat reasoned rant on the Indian Independent Film Movement and the business of Indian Indie film.

There is something in the air in Bombay, everyone’s talking about it. Sometimes it feels very real, and at other times it feels more like Yeti- the mystical creature somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas, many of have seen his footprints in the snow, no one seems to have met the guy or lived to tell the tale. It was pre-maturely named the Hindi new wave by festival directors in the West. It was expected to arrive sometime in 2009, just after Slumdog Millionaire, the Slumdog effect, but it did not quite materialize then. The following years, 2010 and 2011 were good years for Indian Indies with some travelling to major film festivals and even pulling in good numbers in the local box office. Yes, something’s definitely in the air, the water has pulled back and exposed all the artifacts on the sea floor- shells, fish carcasses, water bottles, rocks, even Ganesh idols that refused to melt, etc., people have walked in and are eyeing all these things with curiosity and this big Hindi New Wave is expected to come and sweep them off of their feet anytime now. But guess what, its not coming anytime soon, because unlike tsunamis, film movements take time to mature and bear fruit, a set of visionaries and the convergence of fortuitous events turn it into an industry, an ecosystem that can only develop organically.

It brought a smile to my lips recently when I saw a screenwriting class advertised, to be held in New York City, ‘the craft with an eye to the Indian Independent Film World’, its like selling Yeti t-shirts in all sizes, including triple XL  - Yeti’s own size! But it’s a good thing; it means that the Yeti that is the Indian Independent Film has left his footprints in the snow again recently. People will come out and sell Yeti mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads shaped like footprints in the snow. But more importantly, the explorers, the visionaries may just find Yeti now, now that they have one more clue. When that happens, the real Indian Independent Film Movement will become an Industry.

The conflict of the modern and the traditional that defines our lives more and more everyday and the angst that comes from it will spur stories and storytellers. There will be the quintessential Indian Independent Films one day they will be a true reflection of the idea of India and the Indian life at this moment in time, and there will be people lining up to watch them as well, either in dedicated indie film venues or on their i-pads. But it’s not going to be easy to get there, not as easy as selling Yeti Foot Print Shaped Mouse Pads.

To build and sustain a viable Independent Film Industry in India we need an ecosystem. This ecosystem of studios/financers, production houses, filmmakers with truly independent voices, talent development programs, festivals with real curatorial authority, dedicated venues for indie film/exhibitors, independent film press to solely review indie films and only report on specialty film box office, and most importantly - organizations and institutions dedicated to audience building - The audience that will buy the tickets/ DVDs/ downloads/ merchandise/ what have you, and pump the monies into this ecosystem.

But before we come to that, what exactly is an Indie film?

Indie in the West is a non-studio funded film, or a film with bold themes or one that goes into unchartered territory, is truly experimental, etc. There will be 3 or 4 definitions of an ‘Indie Film’ in the West. In India, it is more complex. “How complex is your complexity?” put that on a t-shirt. “India - our complexity will boggle your complexity’s mind” put that on the back.  In India, there are as many definitions of Indie film as our Gods have hands and our demons have heads. The definition of ‘Indie Film’ depends on the person you ask – some will say it is a film without songs, other like to say an Indie film is an ‘issue based film’ which could mean anything from ‘it is a bad script where all the subtext  - the aforementioned issue, is summarized in scrolling text or voiceover at the end’ to ‘a film without songs’, other definitions doing the rounds are an Indie Film is a festival film/at times black and white for good measure/ made by so and so/ starring this, that or the other/etc. etc.. Among audiences an unspoken consensus seems to have emerged – “an Indie film is a low budget film with no stars that may or may not have songs peppered in its narrative, it is likely that it will be slow-paced, it may deal with a current affair, and it will surely have a beginning, middle and end. “

A highly scientific poll of my family, friends and neighbors generated this last definition. I am skeptical about everything usually, including and not limited to Elvis’s passing, but for the sake of argument lets assume that this definition is accurate. Why is this dangerous to our very existence as filmmakers or players in the Indie World? It is simple really; our audience has a very broad and loopy definition of our product. By audience I don’t mean foreign film festival audiences, I mean the local audience that is our Bimbo bread and Amul butter. The audience that decides whether we get to buy real diapers for our kids or just pretend to be eco-friendly and use hand washed cloth diapers over and over.

This broad and loopy definition results in too many films being clubbed into the ‘Indie film’ category. If the audience thinks every low budget, non-song, slow paced, issue based feature is an ‘Indie film’. We are developing our audiences with a good ‘Indie Film’ and killing it with the 10 bad ones that will follow until the next good one comes along. We will go 1 step ahead, 2 steps back, and no prizes for guessing where we will end up. We will end up hand washing cloth diapers.

Why does the Indian audience have such a broad and loopy definition of the Indian Indie film? Because there are not enough tastemakers, curators, festivals with real curatorial authority, reviewers, gurus, filmmakers, etc. telling the audience what an ‘Indie Film’ really is. It may be low budget or medium budget, may or may not have stars, stripes or songs in it. But it is essentially a good story well told, that asks questions rather than gives answers, and for that reason it will live in your conscience long after you have left the theater. Hence you must purchase the ticket and provide us with our bimbo bread, amul butter and real diapers. Indie in India has very little to do with its funding model, it is content with an independent spirit. The difference between the Bollywood film and the Indian Indie is just that – the quintessential Bollywood musical gives the audience what they expect, and the Indian Indie ideally gives them what they least expect but hopefully want. The other difference is that the Bollywood apparatus like a true industry is very good at defining its product, hence making it ‘commercial’, and the Indian Indie World is not. If I don’t tell you what it is that I am selling to you, why would you buy it from me? Therefore, when you tell someone in Bombay that you are a filmmaker, the first question they ask it – “Commercial or Indie?” The obvious implications being that the Indian Indie film is not a commercial enterprise, and yes you can marry my daughter but only over my grave.

So what does this indie ecosystem need to look like? No matter who we are in this ecosystem - studios/financers, production houses, filmmakers with truly independent voices, talent development programs, festivals, venues for indie film, independent film press, organizations and institutions dedicated to audience building…we have work to do. Currently, our Indie ecosystem works much like our cities - Everyone cleans and jazzes up their own home while ignoring the common spaces that bind our lives together.

What we don’t have & need…

1. Festivals with real curatorial authority, or just festivals with distinct and unique personalities – Film festivals that matter have a vision, and a visionary helmer, a person who sets the tone, and makes sure that the bouquet of films that the festival is going to offer up to the festival audience that year is going to collectively say something about their World and reality at that moment in time. Coherence. That is what draws audiences in and over time makes the festival relevant to the local audience and a real curatorial authority. The mark of quality or aura that these festivals with real curatorial authority provide films and filmmakers, what if we had a festival like that in India?

Indian filmmakers have a common gripe – a film that went to Oberhausen, Tribeca, Rotterdam, Fribourgh and other premier film festivals, but they have no clue what would be a fitting festival for the film in India. I know that the film is a strange and funny take on life so festivals like Rotterdam and Oberhausen that encourage unique perspectives and weird views of the World we live in are good platforms for it, but what are the unique personalities of our local film festivals?

Many of our local festivals are trying to bring the hottest films on the festival circuit to India, have great panels and master classes, and a great international guest list. But few are trying to develop their own unique personality and curatorial style, to make sure all these films collectively say something to our local audience. Our homegrown SXSW/ Sundance/ Tribeca with an independent spirit and a platform that would help Indian Indie filmmakers unlock and access our own local audiences.

2. Savvy indie film marketers - I saw a film on a flight a few months ago called “Rocket Singh - Salesman of the Year”. It was deftly written, well directed, the performances were great, and overall in my humble opinion no less than ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ - another slice of life film that took the American Indie World by storm a few years ago. It is a big Indian studio film with a big star, but it had a true independent spirit in that it was a reflection of our times and moral conflicts, a good story well told where there were no stock characters, no villains but real people with real conflicts. If that film had fared well at the Indian box office, it would have done more for Indian Indie film than many ‘Indie Films’.  Perhaps it should have been positioned as an Indian Indie that can cross over. Had it crossed over to western audiences and then come back to India with accolades, it would have done better business? I don’t know, but it’s worth speculating. The example I am using is subjective of course, I like this film, others may not, but surely we all agree we need good marketers who can take a good story well told and sell it to a relevant subset of our own audience.

3. Dedicated venues – It is very heartening to see many screening series and organizations trying to build up our film culture. Sundance’s Film Forward program recently came to India, and PVR theater chain’s Rare initiative gets talked about as well. But the key missing piece in this whole ecosystem is the dedicated venues for Indie Film. Where do I go to buy my ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’ mug, my DEV D hip flask, and DVD set of the Apu Trilogy that is on sale during the Ray retrospective? In a city like Bombay with real estate going through the roof, a dedicated venue may not be viable, but in smaller towns? In Indore, Pune, Banglore, Hydrabad, others? The IFC Center in New York is perhaps not raking in the moolah for IFC but it provides their films with a much-valued theatrical release, and it’s a space through which they nurture their audience. It’s not possible to monetize a community of film lovers without giving them their go to places to commune – become a community and grow.

4. Development – As a writer your only currency is time, you have nothing else really. You have clear choices to make, should you work on an that unauthorized or authorized remake some has offered you, should you write dialogues for someone else’s picture (in India the dialogue writer is often different from the screenwriter, because screenplays are written in English, dialogues in Hindi/other local language), or should you toil away at a story that has been nagging at you to come on the page? Should you distil this story through your life experiences and risk the effort to come up with a good story well told? But wait a minute, you have bills to pay, bread to buy, maybe even butter. Stories are like buses. When the story bus hits you, you have to put it down on paper and give it the love, the attention, the toil, and the compulsion it deserves. If you don’t, the bus takes off, looking for another storyteller. Do this enough times, and this is every Bombay writer’s biggest fear – the God given receptors you have to observe the human behavior around you and bring it to your stories will dim, that story bus will stop coming if you let it go enough times. Talent is not democratic. Very few have it. So why don’t we have mechanisms in place to protect those who do?

The concept of ‘development’ does not exist in the jargon of most producers and studios in India.  But what if it did?

Who we don’t have enough of…
1. Uncompromising storytellers, uncompromising reviewers, and an uncompromising audience – How many times have we heard or read this – “that was good for an Indian film” or “I went with low expectations so I liked it” or someone gave me this gem recently “even though it was clearly a rip off it had a very Indian spin to it”. If we don’t hold each other and others accountable for lazy writing and unbridled stealing then we deserve the sub par content that is served up to us.

Slowly, a set of mainstream reviewers, portals and independent blogs are gaining traction, dearcinema.com, longlivecinema.com are among the sites that are dedicated to the Indian Indie and not only provide a place to commune but also try to keep everyone honest.

2. A personal connection to our stories – Enough said. This was a big year for India at Cannes, we had 4 Indian Films in various sections and festival side-bars. The World wants more, and we should want more from ourselves.

3. Producers who can navigate international markets and the festival landscape – Why is this important to create our own local ecosystem of Indie film? If our stories travel to international markets, and our films travel to international film festivals and have major sales agents on board that can sell them in international territories. That flushes dollars back into our indie ecosystem, the monies that will sustain this ecosystem. It also helps to set up co-productions wherein foreign producers who have produced content for the World markets come on board as creative stakeholders. It helps to raise the bar on content, and enhance the universal core of our stories. How many people can this story talk to? 1 billion? 6 billion? In the future, the future Mr. Gittes, the film will have a longer long tail, it will be consumed on multiple platforms long after what we now know as windows (Theatrical, Satellite, TV, Hotels & Planes, DVD, everything broadband) are exhausted. Films that will make full use of this longer long tail will be stories with a strong universal core, stories that can speak to 6 billion because the creative team – writer, director, producers, and actors were able to go deep and find something that everyone can hang their hat on.

4. Talent Development Programs – While this is the most obvious need in any industry, it is the hardest one to nail.  We need more Talent Development Programs for writers and directors devoid of the usual suspects. We need many more safe places for writers to develop their craft.  A talent development program for nurturing savvy producers in navigating co-productions and alternative funding and distribution models is perhaps an even more critical need of the hour.

The arrival of Sundance in India via Mahindra is great step ahead to shine the light on and to nurture writers. The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) has been visionary with the NFDC- Binger Screenwriters lab, now in its fifth year and the Film Bazaar. Both the lab and the Film Bazaar have become launch pads into the international markets for projects with a universal take on the Indian experience. The Film Bazaar attracts programmers from the major film festivals and all the major sales agents and showcases Indian Indie projects like they have not been showcased yet.

5. Visionaries & disruptors – People in the creative process and in every step of the journey of the film that question why we do what we do in the way we do it.

What does an alternative distribution model look like in a country with a billion people and the most rapidly growing middle class in the World? And the fastest growing cell phone market in the World? Can a piece of the specialty film business in India be a volumes business? And more questions even more interesting than these. The thing about visionaries and disruptors is that they don’t always know the answers but they have the exposure and receptors to ask the right questions. You cannot track Yeti down without asking questions.

6. Audience building initiatives – In this entire ecosystem of the future Indian Indie film business, the people/person/entity/organization that may own the biggest piece of pie, is the one that invests in audience building today. The one that helps to gather, collect, nurture the audience under a virtual or physical roof will likely also be the one to monetize them effectively.

Where do we go now…

There are overlaps of course throughout this value chain that goes from writers to exhibitors. For example, most Financers in India are also Producers. And the curators and tastemakers are not just festivals but also the press and Indie stalwarts who tweet, but no single part of this ecosystem can exist for too long without the others being alive and well. There is the potential for huge rewards throughout the Indian Indie value chain but it is clear that all the links need to function if we want to expand our local audiences and tell our stories to the World.

India is in flux. And its not an organized and controlled flux akin to China, it is leaps and hops, spurts and bursts, backwards and forwards. It is a screenplay with the most erratic pacing, and us – the characters that live the screenplay that is India, have seen the biggest scams, the biggest income gaps, the biggest dreams and the biggest nightmares come alive all at once. Attitudes and tastes are evolving fast. What is a taboo today, won’t be one 6 months or a year from now. You can’t write this stuff and yet we must. The Indian Indie film World has the unique privilege to document our society at a time like no other, to not only commune with each other but also commune with our audience. To tell them that we don’t know how to deal with this stuff either, but here’s a story about it, we are all in this together.

Ritesh Batra is a writer/director based in Mumbai.  His feature script 'The Story of Ram' was part of the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors labs in 2009. His new feature feature 'The Lunchbox' was selected for the Cinemart 2012. 'The Lunchbox' will be shot on location in Mumbai in 2012.