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Beyond Bollywood: Indian 'indie' directors struggle at home

Text by Dhananjay KHADILKAR

Latest update : 2013-12-12

A new independent film from India, “The Lunchbox”, has proven popular with critics and audiences around the world. But directors who work outside the mainstream Bollywood system still have a hard time getting funding for their work.

For many, there is no Indian cinema beyond Bollywood.

But beyond the pomp of the typical Bollywood movies, with their song and dance routines and beautiful locales, lies a completely different world of independent Indian directors who strive to make sensitive, socially conscious films.

One of those films, Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox”, dazzled critics at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it premiered in the International Critics’ Week side category. A romantic comedy about two lonely Mumbai residents, the film, Batra’s feature-length debut, is currently in theatres in France and will be released in the US in February.

Though movies like “The Lunchbox” garner strong reviews and prove popular with audiences both at home and abroad (the film has been a hit on the international film festival circuit), many Indian directors say it is a constant struggle to make movies that don’t stick to the Bollywood formula.

“Independent filmmakers don’t have the means to fight the might of Bollywood movies,” remarked Aparna Sen, a renowned Indian director, at a conference on independent Indian cinema held at the Forum des Images, a film institute and screening centre, in Paris in November. “We often have to write our stories according to our budget. We have to fit a film to a budget rather than the budget to a film.”

According to Sen, if a film doesn’t feature any stars, it is very difficult for the director to obtain the budget that he or she wants.

A gay Indian filmmaker turns to ‘crowdfunding’

Besides Sen, other filmmakers present at the round table discussion on “the challenges of contemporary independent Indian cinema” included Umesh Kulkarni and Onir, who made “My Brother…Nikhil”, one of the first Hindi films to deal with AIDS and gay issues.

Onir, one of the few openly gay directors in India, spoke of the difficulties he faced because of the subject of that film. “I had difficulty in making my first film because of the subject, which is a big taboo in India,” he recalled. “I tried to get producers for a long time. Finally, I approached friends and family for financing.”

Though the film was well received, Onir struggled to find producers for his next project. He has financed subsequent films through loans from people he knows and through “crowdfunding” (donations from individuals via online social networks).

“[But] even after you make the film, you need huge amounts of money for print and publicity,” he explained. “Then there’s a kind of unspoken censorship of content. Despite one of my films winning two national awards, satellite channels refused to play it. Recovery of the money which your friends have entrusted you with becomes difficult.”

Another filmmaker in the discussion, Umesh Kulkarni, had a similar experience while making his first film, “Valu”. “My first film was centred around a bull,” he recounted. “Producers told me straight away that they couldn’t put money in a film with a bull as its star.”

After failing to find a producer for a year, Umesh decided to finance the movie himself, borrowing money from friends and relatives. “I had no idea if the film would work and what would happen to the money our friends had entrusted us with. Luckily, the film was a huge success,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether a film like “The Lunchbox” – which, despite its popularity, was passed over when it came time for India to select its foreign language Oscar submission – can change the game.

Date created : 2013-12-12


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