ON MAY 11TH THIS year, the story of a bangle seller and his wife from a little village in Karnataka played to over 400 people at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film was in Kannada and was called Balekempa (2018). In the audience was a nervous young Indian man who quietly stared at the screen from a distance, subtly registering the reactions of a European gentleman seated beside him. A film which he conceived and shot in his hometown in South India was now playing some 6,400 km away from home, for an audience that didn’t know much about his world till that point. For director Ere Gowda, this moment was just short of a miracle. He remembers the day of the screening well, and wonders if it was real or just a big dream. “I hadn’t ever dreamt of stepping out of my village, leave alone my country. Today, when many of the audience members from Rotterdam ask me questions in English, I need someone to translate them, because I’m still learning the language. But it feels good to see that they are interested in my film,” he says.
Till a few years ago, Gowda was a farmer in his village near Mysore. He then worked as a security guard at a film company to earn money for his mother’s medical expenses. Today, he is the co-writer of the 2015 festival circuit favourite Thithi (‘Funeral’) and director of Balekempa (‘Bangle Seller’) that’s already travelled to seven international film festivals.
If Gowda’s story is inspirational, it’s also emblematic of a year in which Indian cinema is making an important breakthrough at international film festivals. In 2018, Indian films— from unconventional genres and themes— made a splash at leading festivals that pick and celebrate the best cinema of the year from across the globe. Be it the story of a man whose super power is being ‘pain free’, or that of a young Assamese girl discovering her true love, or that of an iconic 20th-century Pakistani writer, India stood out at festivals this year. Themes like caste politics, gender wars, sexual dissatisfaction, teenage romance and angst had audiences agog. “It’s not just a testimony to our cinema, but also really a reflection of how much Indian films have come of age in the last decade,” says Anurag Kashyap, an almost father-like figure for Indian films at festivals.
Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018) is the first Indian film to play at the Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) Midnight Madness, a section devoted to shock cinema. Joining Vasan Bala’s film at Toronto was Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyan (2018) and Nandita Das’ Manto (2018), the latter receiving a four-minute standing ovation after the screening. Manto was also screened within the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, where acclaimed Indian films like Masaan (2015) and Udaan (2010) had been screened. Then there’s Ivan Ayr’s Delhi- based female cop drama Soni (2018) that stole hearts in Venice, and Rahi Anil Barve’s much anticipated mythological horror-drama Tumbbad (2018).
Vasan Bala, whose film picked up the People’s Choice Midnight Madness award at Toronto, believes it’s not about the number of films, but the kind of films that are being selected from India. “We have always been a nation of either very commercial films or extreme existential cinema. I think over the past few years, a new wave is emerging that’s in between these two where our filmmakers are experimenting with a story and telling it the way they want to. The Midnight Madness section, which my film Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota was in, represents cinema that purely belongs to a particular genre, like The Raid: Redemption (2011) or Insidious (2010). It’s said that whenever Quentin Tarantino frequents TIFF, this is the section he watches. So for me, it’s in some way a validation of the fact that I can stick to telling my stories my way rather than sticking to a formula for fear of rejection. A film festival like this opens up that door for me,” says Vasan Bala.
“Whether Indian films make money internationally or back home is part of the film’s independent journey and there are no guarantees” - Nandita Das, director of Manto
For filmmakers whose stories are plot rather than star-driven, being part of festivals at Cannes or Berlin or Locarno is chance to win niche acclaim. The ability to reach an eclectic audience is a motivation in itself. “The goal isn’t really an international release as much as exposure within a space that gathers filmmakers from so many different cultures. Many good indie films find it difficult to get produced or distributed within India. They never find an audience or get to make their second films. Festivals are a critical way to get oxygen, get life into these films that are so very representative of the very people in India,” says Meenakshi Shedde, who for over a decade now has been curating Indian films for Berlin and Dubai International Film Festivals. “There was a time when the image of Indian cinema internationally was more to do with colour and grandeur than art. An Om Shanti Om (2007) would play in Berlin to a hall full of Europeans because they knew and loved Shah Rukh Khan. But now that is changing as well. Artistically, India is very rich in the film space and in a good year we have a small film like Thithi, with complete non-actors and a theme of celebrating death that leaves audiences in Berlin in tears,” she adds.
From debut filmmakers like Ivan Ayr who are getting an international platform to veterans such as Anurag Kashyap and Nandita Das, it’s the less commercial films that are getting the world’s attention. Ayr’s Soni, touted as among the best films made this year, takes to Venice a delicate story about two female cops battling crime in Delhi. “I wanted to find out how the policewomen of Delhi were reacting to a rising tide of brutal sexual violence that was constantly putting the city under a spotlight of shame. After the screening at Venice ended, all I remember is being surrounded by chants of ‘Bravo!’, ‘Bello!’ People got quite emotional, and that tells me that before any cultural connection comes the human connection, irrespective of ethnicity or race, which is ultimately a testament to the relevance of my story and the relationships explored in the film,” says Ayr.
INDIA’S TRYST WITH the festival circuit goes back eight decades, with master filmmakers such as Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Chetan Anand, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. India’s festival debut was with a Bengali film Seeta (1934), directed by Debaki Bose and made under the East India Film Company banner. Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946) was the first Indian film to be awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes Film Festival (in 1946). “Films and filmmakers like them have not just set such a great precedent, but really are our biggest inspiration when we want to look back at how we’ve evolved as a cinema-loving nation. It’s easy to say ‘times have changed’, the audience has changed, but the fact is that issues which these films spoke about still exist. Human relationships are still equally complex and those moral dilemmas are still very prevalent. What a festival like Cannes gives us is a platform to showcase these themes completely uncensored and [free of bias],” says Kashyap.
“It’s not just a testimony to our cinema, but also really a reflection of how much Indian films have come of age in the last decade” - Anurag Kashyap, director of Manmarziyan
For many curators abroad, Kashyap’s cinema or even what he endorses is a hallmark of sorts for good Indian work. “He has brought to us some exceptional works like Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and The Lunchbox (2013) and the fact is that we really look forward to his work every year. Eventually a film stands tall only on merit, but the world has woken up once again in the last 10 years to independent Indian cinema with these films, and credit is due to him and a handful of other filmmakers like him,” says Cameron Bailey, artistic director, TIFF, who visits India every year to scout for films.
The Lunchbox was screened at over 25 international film festivals and became the first and only Indian film to be picked up at Cannes and distributed across 70 countries. The film grossed over Rs 100 crore at the box office worldwide, and now acts as the ideal case study for the success of an Indian indie. “The film was co-produced by Indian and international producers, which is one of the reasons it attracted this much attention from the world market. But the fact remains that The Lunchbox is an exceptionally well-made film that really spoke to people beyond language or cultural barriers and hence made such a deep impact on audiences from all over,” says Shedde.
How much of this attention translates into numbers back home is a question that’s still contested among many filmmakers. Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2013) won over the audience at Berlin International Film Festival, but got little attention in India. However, he came back with Sairat (2016), which not only premiered at Berlin but also became the highest grossing Marathi film of all-time. “What’s interesting is that both were films about caste politics within a love story,” observes Shedde.
What of the Indian diaspora? For Nandita Das, who has spanned a wide spectrum of cinema for over 13 years as an actor, a jury member and filmmaker, people of Indian origin are a significant market but there’s no saying what role they play in a film’s success. “The Indian diaspora is huge and forms a big part of the audience in many parts of the world, which is adding to the demand for Indian films,” she says, “But whether they make money internationally or back home is part of the film’s independent journey and there are no guarantees.”
An Indian film can reportedly be offered anything between $5,000 and $200,000 for international distribution. For many Indian distributors who strive hard to promote Indian cinema at festivals, a big challenge is to create a sustainable market for such films back home.
A film like Court (2014), which was widely appreciated at festivals and even picked up multiple national awards back home, barely managed to recover even 10 per cent of its total budget at the box office. “Just because a Lunchbox worked doesn’t mean others will too. That film was excellently mounted, and every independent film that does festival rounds hopes to receive that kind of backing. Every year we scout for good Indian films to take to festivals, but we are still working on how best we can maximise the attention we receive at festivals back home. This year, Tumbbad, a purist genre film that no one’s ever attempted before, premiered at Venice and was loved. The film is also commercially very entertaining, and we are hoping it will attract Indian audiences just as much,” says Sanjay Ram, co-founder, Basil Content, a company that represents Indian cinema at festivals.
Exposure at international film festivals also affords films an opportunity to be picked up by internet streaming majors such as Netflix, which has been especially keen to win exclusive rights to award winners. Many independent filmmakers believe that a Netflix deal makes sense for their kind of fare even if that means having to sacrifice a regular big-screen release.
Rima Das, whose film Village Rockstars (2017) headlined almost every big international festival last year, is now taking her film to the Oscars, and for an Assamese filmmaker who only tells stories about life in her little village in the Northeast, it’s a triumph she’d never anticipated. “I am grateful that my film has received so much love internationally, that it’s translated to this selection back home… Now all I need is for the Indian Government to help me with funds to take my film and promote it at the Oscars,” she says, making a plea.
That’s yet another fight for the indie filmmaker, one that she and others in her place would seem ready to take up. So long as indie gems continue to shine bright among the best of world cinema, it’s a fight that could yet be won.