Reel Life: Who is really watching the indies?

There might be a lot of chatter around films like 'Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon' but are people going to the theatres to watch them? Why would OTTs or theatres then take the indies?

Reel Life: Who is really watching the indies?
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Namrata Joshi

This Sunday, June 26, marked the closure of one of Singapore’s oldest cinemas—the 1939 born The Cathay, housed in the iconic, heritage, Art Deco building of the same name.

Just round the corner from Dhoby Ghaut, it was the first air-conditioned public place in the island nation. I decided to watch one of the last shows there, Everything Everywhere All At Once, a mad, delirious ride of a film by Daniel Kawn and Daniel Scheinert with the indefatigable Michelle Yeoh as the Chinese-American Evelyn Wang swirling in the multiverse.

This last film show, however, is not the point of my column this week. What caught my eye was the accompanying piece of news that The Cathay will make way for a pop-up venue for The Projector to host film screenings and live performances complete with a cocktail and craft beer bar.

The Projector is an independent cinema in Singapore that focuses primarily on showcasing arthouse films alongside mainstream movies and uses innovative modes like small theatres, pop-up venues, cinema on hire, movies on demand facility and now even a dedicated home streaming option to take the more offbeat content to its rightful, dedicated audience. Could that be possible in India?

Should a serious thought be given to opening smaller, boutique properties for the alternate cinema, I wondered. But then is that not wishful thinking in the times when even the big multiplexes are struggling to make ends meet?

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Meanwhile, back home the jury has been still out on whether Jugg Jugg Jeeyo should be celebrated for the jump in revenues on Sunday or trashed for the humungous drop on Monday.

But something else has also been unfolding over the last couple of weeks. A small, independent, experimental film about lives at the margins of Old Delhi, Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon, is continuing its box office run into the third week, when every cynic had written it off, predicting end of the road in the first weekend itself. Far from it.

I remember friends calling to say they couldn’t get a ticket for it at the houseful Delite Diamond at Delhi’s Asaf Ali Road. With shows in the first weekend showing 100% occupancy, two shows were added for it on the Monday following its release at Cinepolis Andheri in Mumbai.

Yes, comparing Ghode to Jugg Jugg is like equating apples with oranges. Yes, the release of Ghode was minuscule, with a handful of shows in Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Pune, Jaipur and Lucknow but it gradually made way for more in Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Bhopal. Yes, we could keep on debating whether it would recover its cost or not.

But the bigger point is whether such selective, controlled release is a way forward and one of the possible options available for independent movies in India which are anyhow starved of a workable distribution and exhibition system?

Its distributor, Platoon Distribution, a wing of Platoon One Films claims to have only one goal: “To help quality cinema reach its audience, and then to maximise it.”

In Ghode they had a good underdog film and a filmmaker with a great eye and attitude. But there was more. Founder of Platoon, Shiladitya Bora claims that they didn’t want to release the film just for the heck of it. “We were well-prepared at the back end,” he says.

A lot of work went into getting a sense of what the audience for Ghode would be and where it could be coming from. This included grassroots marketing to reach out to NGOs, theatre groups, students and the members of the “cult of Anamika Haksar” that Bora seems to be quite in awe of. “It was about finding the right niche, reaching out to the interested community and ensure that they came to the theatres,” he says.

Endorsements from the likes of Kiran Rao, Saeed Mirza and Naseeruddin Shah helped in reaching out to and cultivating a wider audience.

In all this strategizing they were led by a few examples from the past. Like Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla’s 2016 documentary An Insignificant Man which was able to sustain itself theatrically in the initial stages of the release by reaching out to AAP volunteers and gradually pulled the others in and ended up with Rs 55 lakh of theatre share.

Another odd surprise to learn from was the 2019 film The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story which built up a decent business for itself with curiosity and word of mouth. There was the Gujarati sleeper hit from 2012 Kevi Rite Jaish which began with four shows in the first week and had 52 shows going by the 12th day.

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Can Ghode then be declared a new beacon of hope? Can it be a model that can be replicated?

For filmmaker Prateek Vats the idea is inherently flawed because indies can’t be clubbed together as one monolith. Each indie is unique and needs to have its own strategy in place. “Eeb Allay Ooo is different from a Pedro, which is different from Meel Patthar. You can’t fit them in one template,” says Vats.

There is attention needed at each step of independent filmmaking. From raising finance, to writing and shooting to taking the film to the audience, a filmmaker is forced to dedicate herself/himself fully to every aspect. Where does it leave him with the time to think, write and shoot the next film?

Right now, most of these films’ runs are confined to the rarefied world of film festivals and rarely are they able to crack the market. There has been a growing trend of established filmmakers coming on board at the last mile as supporters of the independent films but even that doesn’t seem to have improved their chances for theatrical release.

With the coming in of the streaming platforms and promise of diversified and curated content, the options have opened but only on paper. The film can reach out to more people but that doesn’t necessarily mean recovering the cost or making profits. “The options to show are more but money is still a squeeze,” says Vats.

The rights are bought cheap, and the films often don’t get promoted by the platforms with any zeal and they end up becoming graveyards than nurseries for independent cinema. “With the pandemic and lockdown, the acquisition pattern of OTTs has also changed. The small window has been curtailed further. There is also a churning within the platforms,” says Vats.

Television is a medium that few filmmakers are thinking of courting again. According to Ashish Saksena, COO-Cinema, BookMyShow, the expectations of filmmakers are unreal. They are only looking for a release in cinemas or chasing bigger deals at Netflix. What they need to explore is the pay per view, revenue share model, preferably skewed in the favour of the filmmaker, he says. Like Apple TV or BMS Stream.

Bora takes it all back to the audience. He blames the viewer than the system. There might be a lot of chatter around films but are people going to the theatres to watch them? Not quite, he thinks.

Why would the OTTs or theatres then take the indies? Why would there be any acquisitions? There are certainly no easy answers here.

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