The mainstream and the margin
By Vineet Gill
13 March 2015
Reflections on the independent film scene in India.
Throughout its short history, cinema appears to have fallen prey to countless categorisations. I tend to think that while this approach has its advantages – we like our art history organised into neat piles – it doesn’t do justice to individual talent, to the sui generis. And so, calling De Sica a neo-realist and assigning to Godard the pigeonhole of the nouvelle vague adds little to my understanding of the complex and evolving visions of these filmmakers. For the same reason it’s strange to find Satyajit Ray being termed a figurehead of that geometric absurdity called ‘parallel cinema’, as though this movement was progressing in the same direction, albeit from a distance, as the mainstream. Even more confounding is the epithet of ‘middle cinema’ – an obvious euphemism for middlebrow – bestowed in India upon movies that are not quite art house and not quite mainstream.
And how do we contend with that elephant in the room: Bollywood. The term has often been used as a pejorative in the past, suggesting a cheap derivative of Hollywood (one is reminded of ‘impressionists’, which was initially a term of abuse, but was later assimilated). There are still some within the Hindi film industry who take umbrage at the term, and maybe for good reason, given that Bollywood itself has diversified over the years, for better or for worse.
Anurag Kashyap in a 2012 interview said that in recent years it’s the “mainstream that’s being redefined”.
Now, within this complicated mess – this labyrinth of signposts directing us exactly nowhere – we still have to somehow account for that niche category of filmmaking identified the world over as ‘independent’. In the simplest of terms, independent filmmaking is an attempt to break the monopoly of major studios which largely maintain a stranglehold on the creative freedoms of writers and directors. But we must remember that most independent filmmakers still depend on big studios for the distribution of their films, implying that the break from the mainstream hasn’t been as definite as one would like to assume. In this attempt to understand contemporary Indian cinema, I am beginning with the credo that categorising art can amount to simplifying it. So when I use the term ‘independent’ in the passages that follow, I use it, for valid reasons, loosely.
I spoke to filmmakers who straddle the divide between independent cinema and Bollywood, as well as to those who are now attempting to carve a niche for themselves within a more resolutely independent space of filmmaking, setting themselves in opposition to the mainstream and everything it stands for.
Without a doubt, we are witnessing an unprecedented boom in independent filmmaking in India. A number of annual film festivals, dedicated to screening independent films, have opened in the last decade. Films like Ship of Theseus and Court, to take a few recent examples, have received worldwide acclaim and prominent international screenings at the Toronto and Venice film festivals respectively. The box office success of The Lunchbox – a low-budget film made by Ritesh Batra, which according to reports, had grossed INR 160 crores globally by Dec 2014 – has broken the myth that independent cinema’s box-office aspirations are unfounded.
Anurag Kashyap, seen as a modern-day auteur, has contributed in no small measure towards altering the very landscape of Indian cinema and furthering the cause of independent filmmaking with his genre-defying films like Dev.D and That Girl in Yellow Boots. Yet, at the same time, Kashyap has become the darling of the mainstream film industry.
“Why you hated me?” was one of the questions Karan Johar asked Kashyap on his primetime chat show Koffee With Karan, early in 2014.
Kashyap showed some signs of embarrassment, looked towards the ceiling, put a finger on his lips, and joked about his irritation at Johar bagging every mainstream award for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998 (The film Satya, which was co-written by Kashyap, was also in the running that same year). Then he explained more seriously: “I think at that time I had this big resentment towards everything that was mainstream and I was also more idealistic. I was extremely judgemental of people… You to me were the, like oh, these rich kids from, who have struggled,” he laughed, “in Malabar Hill.”
There’s a moment of general merriment. And then Johar: “Toh anyway, all’s good in the hood now.”
Johar was once synonymous with the ‘gloss and syrup’ (to borrow Amit Chaudhuri’s phrase) style of Bollywood filmmaking, and in 2013 he partnered with Kashyap, Zoya Akhtar and Dibakar Banerjee for an anthology of short films called Bombay Talkies. Now this can either be read as the mainstream’s new, evolved and mature avatar or can simply, and more cynically, be viewed as Bollywood chieftains wanting a slice of the independent pie.
It’s a commonly held view that the American independent film movement of the 90s was thwarted, and its filmmakers absorbed, by Hollywood. A 2001 documentary on this issue, made by the Public Broadcasting Service, posed a straightforward question to the viewers: “Has Hollywood swallowed up ‘independent film’?” However, some have taken an optimistic view in this regard. In the context of Indian cinema, Anurag Kashyap in a 2012 interview said that in recent years it’s the “mainstream that’s being redefined”, instead of identifying the independent film as an entity separate from the mainstream. So the impulse to cross over is embodied as much by the mainstream as it is by the independent pockets of filmmaking in India. Producer Kiran Rao’s decision to help release the self-consciously erudite Ship of Theseus for Indian audiences in 2013 is only one of several examples of such an exchange.
Beyond the mainstream
Some Indian independent filmmakers are even beginning to see strategic value in such collaborations. Producer and director Hansal Mehta is as much a veteran of mainstream film and television as of independent cinema. His 2013 feature film Shahid (which was co-produced by Anurag Kashyap, Sunil Bohra and others) won two National Film Awards.
The film is centred on the life of a Mumbai-based human-rights lawyer, Shahid Azmi, who was assassinated in 2010. In the movie, the protagonist is accused of being a ‘jihadi’, is arrested, tortured, jailed and, after lengthy legal rigmaroles, is finally acquitted. Shahid then studies law and decides to defend other Muslim men falsely accused of colluding with terrorists under the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Films dealing with similar themes in the past have struggled for viewership, coming up against needless hurdles put forth by the state’s censorship machinery, which continues to grind today. A salient example is Kashyap’s own film on the 1993 Bombay blasts, Black Friday – first screened in 2004 – which was held back from release for two years.
At the time of its release, Shahid made around INR 2 crores at the box office, and in Mehta’s estimate, this means that around 300,000 people watched his movie when it first came out. “And I am still showing the film at festivals. I was in Berkeley earlier, and I will be going to Paris next year in February with this film.” Where studio-produced potboilers die out within a short span – no doubt after a flash and a bang – an independent film, Mehta said, usually has greater archival value.
Independent films in India have also acquired a greater reach. Multiplexes and the internet have surely contributed to that. And by all accounts, there’s now a ‘demand’ – that word so dear to the Bollywood-funded focus groups – for variety and quality in Indian cinema. Mehta told me that today audiences exist to sustain independent filmmaking, and that it’s up to the filmmaker to find ways of reaching them. “There’s certainly a growth in the audiences for independent films. Every kind of film has its own audience. We have to recognise that,” he said.
Independent filmmakers in India are only beginning to find their unique signature, their own language of cinema, and that many promising directors are using the mainstream to their advantage.
When I asked him about independent cinema in general, Mehta called it a ‘much-misused term.’ “Cinema,” he said, “is never totally independent. You always depend on either funds or producers or studios for distribution. I think independence has more to do with a state of mind. It refers to the freedom of expression exercised by a filmmaker.” In other words, an independent film expresses – or should express – an individual interpretation of reality, as opposed to the mass-produced sentiments of mainstream cinema, driven either by focus groups or by the financier’s whims.
The distinction between cinema and movies, made by the American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, can be instructive here. According to him, cinema “is a specificity of vision… It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary, and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint.”
Mehta told me that independent filmmakers in India are only beginning to find their unique signature, their own language of cinema, and that many promising directors are using the mainstream to their advantage. “I have been part of mainstream cinema, so I know how to work around the mainstream to make the films I want to make,” Mehta said. “It’s a line I used in Shahid, ‘if you want to change the system, be a part of the system.’”
Using the mainstream to one’s advantage, for many, translates into making enough money on the big stage and channelling it into one’s independent, and creatively riskier, projects. The fact that a mainstream film culture exists in India – unlike in Europe or South Korea – is itself of significance for independent filmmakers here. Studios, production houses and extensive distribution networks are already in place in India. These enable the budding filmmaker to tap into the existing potential of a fully-functional film industry, instead of worrying about starting from scratch.
Cracking the system
“There are countries that make one film in three years. Fortunately, India makes films. We have our own infrastructure – labs, studios, theatres – and all this can be used for good purposes,” said the Pune-based director and writer Umesh Kulkarni, whose films have been featured at festivals in Berlin, Rotterdam and New York, and whose 2011 movie Deool won the National Film Award in India for best feature film of the year.
Whether or not you’re part of the system, when you’re making independent films you have to ‘crack’ – a word Kulkarni used – the system. “How to sustain a model of filmmaking where an artist doesn’t have to compromise, and at the same time the investors get their money back. We’re trying to find that balance,” he said.
But this doesn’t mean that the Indian independent scene has fully found its feet. Funding and distribution – that is, getting a film to the audiences – remain a massive challenge for most young filmmakers. Not every Anand Gandhi is backed by a Kiran Rao. Even the more established filmmakers in this field, like Hansal Mehta, are cutting corners when budgeting a film.
According to Mehta, “Films don’t fail. Budgets fail. I work on the model of minimising risk. Make in with the lowest possible budget. If a film is budgeted at X amount, I will make it at X divided by two.”
There may be big changes in the wind, but ‘change’ is still too strong a word to denote this new strain in Indian cinema. Kulkarni gave me a nuanced alternative. “It’s a beginning of change,” he said, referring to the inchoate outlines of an Indian independent film circuit that he now perceives. The ‘scene’ can best evolve from here on if those interested in every aspect of filmmaking, and not just writing and directing, come forward and become a part of it. “We need to have not just filmmakers, but people who want to produce independent films or distribute those,” Kulkarni said. “But most of all, we have to make really good films, with some compelling content.”
The progress of cinema and certain aspects of modern technology have been coterminous with each other. That the rise of digital videography has brought about a revolutionary shift within this medium shouldn’t surprise us. Gone are the days of 60mm and 35mm, and though we still continue to call this medium ‘film’, film, in its literal sense has been rendered obsolete. Camcorders, DSLRs and even iPhone cameras are commonly used by professional filmmakers globally. And another crucial advantage of the digital medium is that it enables young talent to emerge, by casting away the trappings of funding and distribution.
Take Pushpa Rawat, a 27-year-old filmmaker whose debut Nirnay is a documentary that revolves around the lives of a small group of the filmmaker’s female friends in a residential colony in Ghaziabad. Mentored by a freelance filmmaker and teacher in this enterprise, Pushpa started filming Nirnay when she was only 22. The film came out in 2012 and has until now been screened both at domestic venues (festivals in Mumbai, Dharamshala, among others) and abroad (San Francisco, Stockholm, etc.). Nirnay also won the ‘Most Innovative Film Award’ at the Mumbai International Film Festival early last year.
“I never knew that the film would get such a response,” Pushpa said. She also told me that she liked the idea of playing with the camera since she was a kid. And when the dream became reality, Pushpa, equipped with a camera, set out to record reality. “I wanted to make a documentary,” she told me. “Because I find the documentary form more challenging than fiction. I find fiction easier. Nothing is pre-planned in a documentary. It is about real life.”
The documentary style itself has thrived within the space of independent filmmaking globally. John Cassavetes, who is considered the pioneer of the American independent film movement, was a great proponent of this style. His movies were shot with a handheld camera under natural light at real locations. Some of the earliest critics of cinema believed that a film can only qualify as art if it successfully manages to transform reality into fantasy. There was no artistic merit, they argued, in merely capturing reality with a mechanical device such as the video camera. Similar doubts had confronted the world of painting after the invention of photography. And we’re not here concerned with the philosophical concept of ‘reality’ or truth, but only with the idiom of the real. (At its best, a camera is likely to misrepresent reality just like memory; and at its worst it can be made to convey insidious lies.)
So the realistic idiom of the kind popularised by Cassavetes and countless other indie filmmakers after him was a response to the Hollywood-style fantasy that had completely subsumed the popular imagination. If we carefully appraise the recent crop of independent films from India, we’ll find a similar aesthetic shift from the dream-visions peddled by Bollywood of the late 90s towards a kind of naturalism of style.
Court does away with all artifice, quite literally transporting its audiences inside a courtroom to silently observe the proceedings.
If the film screen was earlier a canvas, on which we saw for so many years painted images, and indeed painted faces, it has now, in the hands of independent filmmakers, become a mirror; and in this mirror we sometimes see our own lives reflected – ordinary, banal, distressing, sad and comical.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film, Court, is a fair instance of this. The courtroom drama, acquires a strange freshness in this film. Strange because the film’s novelty is rooted in the sense of familiarity it conveys – anyone who has been inside a courtroom will find Tamhane’s portrayal instantly convincing. And fresh because a court scene is exactly the thing that Indian filmmakers historically have tended to overdramatise. Court does away with all artifice, quite literally transporting its audiences inside a courtroom to silently observe the proceedings. And of course it’s to Tamhane’s credit as an artist that the reality of the courtroom, and the city of Bombay the film is set in, is actually all artifice. The courtroom we see in Court was built for the screen from scratch.
“We wanted to create something that we had in our memory,” Tamhane said after the screening of Court at the Dharamshala International Film Festival. “We don’t want to see a polished Mumbai.”
Extensive preparation was required before the filming of Court. So Tamhane, attended court hearings, interviewed judges, lawyers and academics to get the hang of his subject, as did the rest of the crew. Tamhane was also particular about the casting process. The film’s producer Vivek Gomber, who is also an actor, plays the main lead. But a number of other roles in the movie are played by non-professional actors. “We made a database of people working in banks, schools, offices and so on before we began auditioning,” Tamhane said. “The man who plays the judge in the movie actually works as a music teacher in a school. Most of them have never acted before.”
The point of the film was that it all had to look natural. Ordinary characters had to appear ordinary. For one sequence, Tamhane said, “the crew was made completely invisible”, so that an amateur group of ‘actors’ could feel at ease.
At this point, we must guard ourselves against the notion that this form of high realism is by default superior to fantasy. Every work of art has its own inherent logic, and the artist has to choose a form that best suits it. Towards the end, Court has a wonderful equivalent of a cinematic joke on the conventions of what the French called Cinéma vérité, or ‘Truth Cinema’ – a documentary-style of filmmaking known for its fly-on-the-wall camera technique and rejection of narrative voiceovers.
In this particular shot in Court, a stationary camera, kept somewhere far in the back, inertly records people – judges, lawyers, clerks and attendants – exiting a courtroom towards the end of a workday. The shot stretches on – until one of the attendants begins to turn off every single light inside the courtroom, using first a switchboard at one end of the room, then at the other. Light after light goes out. The screen is dark save for the luminous rectangular portal of the door, which, too, is duly closed and locked.
So the shot continues, and the audiences are now staring at an almost dark screen. A grainy black image barely outlining the contents of a locked courtroom: the perfect moment, one would think, to bring to a close a film called Court.
When this shot started, many viewers at the Dharamshala screening of Court were expecting the final credits to roll up anytime; some were about to loudly handclap in earnest post-show tribute when, joltingly, the next shot begins: a discordant, bathetic jump from this moment of closure to a scene of a moving bus on a busy Bombay afternoon.
So the film didn’t end after all with the scene of the shut courtroom. One of my friends was offended that Tamhane had wasted a good enough ending. The filmmaker was asked the expected question after the screening – “Why didn’t you end the film there?” He laughed, saying that he had been asked this question at many other screenings around the world. But no answer was forthcoming. Tamhane simply said: “If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for you.”
But this episode is significant in that it goes to show how the film, arguably the genre par excellence for many radical and experimental artists of the twentieth century, can still cause shock in viewers when it pushes the boundaries of convention. As a result, independent filmmakers are already being called upon to respond to a set of accepted aesthetic standards.
A formula of sorts slowly emerges. An independent film, according to this formula, usually entails a realistic and mostly undramatic approach; it deals with themes such as personal loss and often appeals directly to our sentiment without overt display of sentimentality; and it is politically engaged (preferably left of centre) and therefore of immediate social relevance. The recurring themes of suicide and death in a number of films to have emerged from the independent sphere also cater directly to what the writer David Shields, in his book of the same title, called our ‘Reality Hunger’. In the span of a few films, I came across characters respectively contemplating, committing and witnessing suicide.
So where might a filmmaker find a mix of these ingredients? We needn’t look too far: a hospital ward as in Ship of Theseus, a courtroom as in Court, a prison house and torture chamber as in Shahid, or inside a government office and a handjob parlour as in That Girl in Yellow Boots.
This is not to take away from the obvious strengths of the films mentioned above. But it is indisputable that contemporary cinema of any stripe, independent or otherwise, is as susceptible to working formulas – which soon become cinematic clichés – as any mainstream film from the past.
Watching some of these films over the past few weeks, and that too in a series I felt glutted with reality, my reality hunger more than fully satiated. That’s when I began to think of what the bird says in T S Eliot’s ‘The Four Quartets’: “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” How true.
Indian independent cinema, with its ample shades of brilliance and mediocrity, has, for the most part, done reality rather well. But where are the filmmakers who don’t want to simply portray what’s real so much as transcend or, even better, subvert it?
The answer to all these questions I was to find in one letter of the English alphabet – Q.
The name, or the assumed moniker, derives from Takashe Miike’s 2001 film Visitor Q, which left a great impact on the Bengali filmmaker Kaushik Mukherjee (aka Q) back in the day when he was still an advertising professional.
“The film completely shattered everything I thought I knew or could understand,” Q said.
Q is only one of the masks that Kaushik has at his disposal. His other alter ego is called Gandu, which comes from his own film, the Bengali cult classic Gandu, which won great praise at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2011, earning its director international headlines like this one from CNN: “Is Q India’s most dangerous filmmaker?”
I met the country’s most dangerous filmmaker in a small café in McLeod Ganj a day after the screening of his latest documentary/feature film Nabarun, titled after its subject – the leftwing writer and poet Nabarun Bhattacharya.
I asked him about his multiple identities and the need for these.
“This Kaushik is a Bengali guy, horribly confused,” Q or Gandu told me.
Then Kaushik told me: “I am much more in control over these doppelgangers.”
And finally, I think it was Q, who added, “Reality always fucked me over. I could never deal with reality.”
Q’s cinematic vision is perhaps the most unique of all filmmakers working today in India because his understanding is that independent cinema is only independent insofar as it lies separate – economically, aesthetically and physically – from the mainstream.
“In the 80s, when the independent scene started in America, it’s worth noting that it didn’t begin in Los Angeles, but in New York. That’s the difference. You have to place yourself physically on the other side.”
What happened to the American independent movement, after it had passed its peak, doesn’t make for an uplifting story for young hopefuls. In Q’s words, “they [the American indie filmmakers] were consumed by Hollywood,” and the Indian independent breed, facing very similar prospects, would do well to bear the American example in mind. “Even Larry Clark got conned into doing that shit.”
Kaushik was interested in making films that he knew wouldn’t be produced, distributed, or even screened. And to mask the fact that these scandalous films – laced with sex, drugs and violence – were made by this docile member of the bhadralok, named Kaushik Mukherjee, Kaushik became Q.
Q now has his production company, and he told me that his eureka moment arrived when he realised that to succeed as a director in this field mattered less than turning oneself into a canny producer. Q said, “Producing independent films is also no longer a problem now. It’s distributing them, getting these films to the audience, which is tough. If we find a solution to that…”
“But”, I asked him, “what of using the mainstream to your advantage? Do you think those who do that are… on some level… making a compromise?”
“On some level?” Q said. “I don’t believe in this system within the system bullshit. It’s bullshit. The word for it is appropriation. The mainstream is appropriating you. Everyone knows that. You join the system you are the system. You can’t change from within and all that.”
He then smiled and looked me in the eye through his orange-rimmed spectacles. “Change always comes,” he said, “from without.”
~ Vineet Gill is a freelance writer based in Delhi.