The Independent Cinema Struggle

Lauded internationally but many award-winning independent movies struggle to find an audience back home in India

Many acclaimed independent movies have made India proud at international film festivals, but these award-winning movies struggle for viewership back home in cinema halls. Movies like The Elephant Whisperers, Agra, and All That Breathes, won prestigious awards at international film festivals and captivated audiences across the world with their breathtaking narrative. But the same movies, find little room within the space and place they were born – India. This year, Mumbai-based filmmaker Payal Kapadia won the 2024 Grand Prix at Cannes for All We Imagine as Light.

Concerned Critics

Independent filmmakers, film critics, and directors have repeatedly raised concerns about the release, distribution, and viewership but in vain. Meenakshi Shedde, senior programme advisor for South Asia & programmer for Toronto and Berlin Film Festivals says, “I have always felt that India is a big graveyard of good cinema — good independent cinema.”

She explains that for years India has been making phenomenal ‘world cinema’ but many of these movies do not end up being released or distributed at all. Disappointingly she adds, “Even if some movies manage to get released here, they’re taken off in a week or two.” Speaking of how independent movies differ from mainstream cinema, screenwriter Ramiz Ilham Khan says, “Mainstream cinema is viewed as ‘popcorn’ cinema. It’s simple entertainment that helps you distract from the struggles of life. It is a fantasy you get lost in.” Ramiz opines that independent films have a longer shelf life. They make you think. He adds, “They show you the reflection of the world we live in.”

Lack of Support

There are various reasons why independent movies make it big internationally but do not garner much response in India. Kanu Behl, Indian film director and screenwriter of Agra says, “Lack of systematic support and good distribution avenues are primary reasons for the tepid response these movies get here in India.” India is one of the largest film-making centres in the world. Independent movies have to compete against big-budget Bollywood commercial films. In terms of number of screens and time, independent movies are unable to get hold of enough ‘distribution’ windows.

Shedde points out that Manthan (1976) directed by Shyam Benegal found its place in Indian theatres then. It was restored and shown again in the ‘Classic Section’ of the Cannes Film Festival 2024. This shows how welcoming or rather ‘unwelcoming’ our spaces are, especially for Indian audiences to see world cinema from India. She adds, “It’s really infuriating. I am privileged to see the best of world cinema being made in India but these films are being shown at Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, London and New York.” Ironically, Indians themselves don’t get to see the best of Indian films. “The solution to this is to foster an audience who has good taste in cinema, be it mainstream or independent,” says Shedde.

Taste Matters

Distribution windows and funding serve as root concerns when it comes to the showcasing of Indie movies. There is another view that these movies are not meant to serve a wider audience or ‘Indian audience’ per se. “It is a fact that the Indian public is averse to festival films,” says Komal Nahta, an Indian film critic and trade analyst. Many people think festival films are meant only for a ‘niche’ audience. The common belief is that these films don’t have the usual ‘masala’ of commercial movies. Komal adds, “Masala fare is what they spend their money on!” Komal firmly believes that international and festival audiences tend to be far more evolved.

Actor Chaitanya Chinchlikar feels that in India movies are still a form of entertainment. “They are not necessarily looked at as an art or a craft.” Mainstream movies are a ‘route of escape’ from the daily grind for a majority of the Indian audience. He believes that independent movies perhaps are not curated or made for a wider audience. He says, “Independent movies don’t always mean good, mainstream doesn’t always mean bad, and vice-versa.” Ramiz explains that mainstream movies cater to a larger audience with a “subject” or “theme” that appeals to the masses. This may not be with independent filmmakers and movies.

Curtain Raisers

While critics, actors, and film aficionados share their views, Ramiz says that independent movies need government support. “Look at other countries. They have government grants to help create this kind of cinema.” Kanu Behl adds that independent cinema needs institutional support and a planned push from the government with newer and more innovative programmes. Shedde cites how France is an epitome of a model wherein there is state funding for the production, distribution, exhibition, and promotion of films that are French. Perhaps it's time, India thinks of similar models with a desi touch!

I have always felt that India is a big graveyard of good cinema — good independent cinema.” — Meenakshi Shedde, Sr Programmer Advisor for South Asia & Programmer for Toronto and Berlin Film Festivals

Movies like these show you some reflection of the world we live in!” — Ramiz Ilham Khan, screenwriter

Independent doesn’t always mean good, mainstream doesn’t always mean bad, and vice-versa” — Chaitanya Chinchlikar, actor

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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