The 61st National Awards have been swept by a swarm of independent films. At a time when it is assumed that the Indian film industry is constituted solely by the commercial genius of Bollywood and the various powerful regional industries, the emergence of the Indian ‘indies’ have taken a large slice of popularity as well as dependence away from these conventional film industries – the National Awards this year is a glaring example.
The film medium has become as fluid as ever, with more and more possibilities arising for those who choose to be independent of the shackles of the industry. Indie films are the result of the practice of like-minded individuals coming together, pooling in their personal resources and skills to embark upon a film project. They are raising money through various off beat means, be it crowd-funding to even investing their life’s savings for their dream project.
One of the prominent names among the indie filmmakers in India is Anurag Kashyap, who started off as an independent filmmaker to eventually make it big in Bollywood. However, he has refused to conform to the popular straightjacket by making films that push the very limits of cinema and filmmaking in India. He continues to encourage young aspiring filmmakers who want to tread the same path.
Sceptics question, “what are these ‘indies’?” and “who are these indie filmmakers?”. Indie in the West is a term used to refer to non-studio funded experimental films. In India, it is not so easy a definition. Indeed, Indian indie cinema is still floundering to carve out an identity for itself, as they continue to cater to an audience that industry experts find difficult to categorize. Lack of distributors and big production names make it difficult for the makers to pitch it at the festivals or to release them at the theatres, not to mention the costs of going for theatrical releases in India even in this age of digitization.
It is difficult to deny the fact that Cinema in India is driven by a star culture, whereas the very idea of indie films is to flow against this trend. However, as experts point out, India lacks the basic necessities to promote an indie film culture like dedicated venues, savvy indie film marketers, talent development programmes, and most importantly, festivals with proper curatorial authority.
Thus, taking a cue from the National Awards this year and the flux that India and its indie film industry is facing, I have created by own list of ten Indian indie films that I would recommend to others.
Kshay: Written and directed by debutant director Karan Gour, Kshay is a psychological drama about obsession. Completely shot in black and white, the director manages to bring out the drama through Rasika Duggal’s power packed performance of the portrayal of an obsessive housewife. The plot weaves around Chhaya (Rasika Duggal), a middle-class Indian housewife’s growing for an expensive statue of Goddess Lakshmi, which she and her husband Arvind (Alekh Sangal) can ill afford. The film was shot in Bhayandar near Mumbai within a shoe string budget of 4 lakh rupees. It took the director and his one member crew four years to complete the film. The film was initially shot in colour and then converted to black and white in post-production. The film received critical acclaim and awards in various international festivals around the globe, including the prestigious Dubai International Film Festival.
Mumbai Cha Raja: one gets a peek into the Mumbai underbelly during the Ganesh festival in Manjeet Singh’s Mumbai Cha Raja. Touted to be India’s answer to Hollywood’s Slumdog Millionaire, the film revolves around Rahul, the misunderstood and troubled adolescent protagonist, who lives in the slums adjoining Mumbai’s high-rises. Rahul lives with his father who is an alcoholic, his mother who works hard to make ends meet and his younger brother Babu. Rahul spends an awful lot of time with his friend, the balloon seller called Arbaaz.
The film is about how these kids escape from the dark realities of their lives by gambling, selling roasting potatoes, stealing an auto rickshaw just for the fun of it, and of course, chasing girls. The film was made with a micro-crew so that the presence of camera does not make the kids (who were not seasoned actors) conscious. Hence, no natural lights were used and the film was shot in a small digital SLR camera. As the director claims, the film is a tribute to their spirit of finding joy in the simple things in life. The film was selected at the Toronto International Film Festival 2012, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival New Horizons Competition as well as at the 14th Mumbai Film Festival’s Indian component.
Miss Lovely: This Ashim Ahluwalia project takes us back to the genre of C-grade Bollywood horror and porn films. The film is about the Duggal brothers who produced sleazy sex-horror films in the mid-80s. The plot goes on to explore the gradual destruction of the fraternal relationship between the two brothers. The star cast is studded with the likes of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Niharika Singh, Anil George, Zeena Bhatia and Menaka Lalwani, who are known for pitching themselves in projects that are an aberration to the general Bollywood churn out.
With a heady combination of period costumes and densely layered pulp style narrative, the film manages to capture a slice of contemporaneous modernity. The film has been shot on a combination of Kodak Super 16 and 35mm film in widescreen to dramatically capture the central themes of repressed sexuality and censorship. It also helps to make the swift genre changes – from hard boiled film noir to romance to documentary to melodrama – that marks the entire film. In fact the project started as a documentary on the C-grade sex cinema of Bollywood, which flourished between the 1970s and 2000s to be only paralysed by the rising popularity of internet pornography.
However, since shooting of pornography is considered illegal in India, this project was shelved and then later reworked into a film script. The film also touches upon the material nature of celluloid, tracing the deconstruction of a genre to look into the idea of the extinction of cinema itself. Interestingly, the film’s score is almost tribute to the rare works of Italian composers like Egisto Macchi and Piero Umiliani. Both were known for their contribution to the genre of exploitation films. Of course, there is a fair share of film songs of composer Illaiyaraja and Biddu.
Apart from a Cannes premiere, the film received rave reviews from critics and has been screened in various film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival as well as the International Film Festival Rotterdam. It also won the National Award under the Special Jury category.
Shuttlecock boys: Made by a bunch of first timers who are not professionals, this film has quite managed to grab the eyeballs of the clique audience that these films address. Through the film, director Hemant Gaba tells the story of success and failure of four friends from Delhi. It questions whether one should accept what life has to offer or get up and do something in life. In their quest to seek answer they embark upon a journey that will change their lives forever.
Badminton is the one thing that unites these four friends – Gaurav, Manav, Pankaj and Loveleen – for it is the one time of the day when they meet up and unburden the dreariness that life has to offer. It is during one such badminton nights that they suddenly decide to do something on their own. Hence begins a story of determination, courage, luck and a spirit of friendship.
The film was shot in 22 days in and around Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida with a motley bunch who had had no prior experience in film production. The film is closely related to the lives of the crew and many of us do closely associate with the characters at some point or the other. Indeed the film is about snippets of stories taken from some part of all our lives. The film finally made its way to various international and national film festivals.
Peddlers: This is a crowd-sourced indie film where the film’s producer, Guneet Monga, raised half of the production cost by posting the script of the film on Facebook. With a name like Anurag Kashyap tagged to this production, there was bound to be exciting ways that the makers had to tell. Written and directed by Vasan Bala the film is set in Mumbai and captures the lives of the twenty-something year old destitute boys who get trapped in the drug trade.
The film is narrated almost from the point of view of the young cop who tracks these boys and that is how the entire story unfolds. The film was screened as part of the 2012 International Critics’ Week, which is an independent film festival that runs parallel to the Cannes Film Festival.
Qissa: Qissa is an Indian-German drama film, directed by Anup Singh. It tells the story of Umber Singh, who after being displaced during the 1947 partition, migrates to Punjab with his three daughters. When his fourth daughter was born, he raised her as a boy, Kanwar Singh, and who eventually went on to become a truck driver. Complications develop when Kanwar is married off to a girl, Neeli.
The film was screened at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival in the Contemporary World Cinema section and went on to win the Netpac Award for World or International Asian Film. With Irrfan Khan and Rasika Dugal in the lead roles, the film creates quite a ripple for the attempt and evocative performances. This is a NFDC co-production, which is eagerly awaited to be released in 2014.
Lucia: It is a Kannada film starring Sathish Neenasam and Sruthi Hariharan with a non-linear storyline which showed that the end was really the beginning. It all starts with a detective coming down to investigate the incidents that led to the protagonist, Nikhil, going into a state of coma. Nikhil is an usher in a movie theatre in Bengaluru and an insomniac. He is approached by a drug dealer with a wonder drug called Lucia that would help him to sleep. It would help a person to dream a life he wished but with a deadly side effect – that when stopped the same dreams would turn into nightmares.
The film made headlines within the indie film fraternity for its offbeat means of generating money. It indeed opened a whole new avenue for future independent filmmakers to alternative modes of funding as well as distributing. Director Pawan Kumar did not go with his film to any of the conventional crowd-funding platforms. Rather he crowd-funded his film through his blog and other social media platforms.
However, more than his funding it is his innovative way of distributing his film that has grabbed the attention of many. He distributed his film via a digital self-distribution tool called Distrify. The film was later released theatrically as well and completed a 100 day run in several theatres. He sold the cable and satellite rights to Udaya TV at a massive sum of 95 Lakhs INR. The film has been screened at various festivals and has even won the audience award at the London Indian Film Festival. The film was also in the race to be the year’s official Oscar entry.
Fandry: This Marathi film received rave reviews for its hard hitting and authentic take on the caste prejudices prevalent in our country. It is the directorial debut film of Nagraj Manjule, starring Somnath Avghade (who won the National Award this year as child actor) and Rajshree Kharat as the leads in the film.
The film has its share of romance with the whole caste angle firmly implanted within it. The film won the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best First Film of a Director. The film was widely praised at the Mumbai International Film Festival, winning the Best Film award and Zee Entertainment did not waste much time to pick up its distribution rights to about 150 screens within Maharashtra. It also won the award for the Best Film at BFI London Film Festival, Pune International Film Festival, Abu Dhabi Film Festival among the notable ones.
Liar’s Dice: Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Geetanjali Thapa, two of the finest actors in the Indian indie films teamed up for Geetu Mohandas’s Liar’s Dice. It is the story of a young woman’s hazardous journey from a small village at the Indo-Tibetan border to the capital city of Delhi in search of her missing husband.
It poignantly captures the plight of the migrant workers in the city, who leave their home and family in distant lands in search of jobs. Apart from that, this film definitely makes for a good road movie, charting through amazing landscapes. Geetanjali Thapa won this year’s National Award for Best Actress for her performance in this film.
Ugly: The last one in the list is icing on the cake – an Anurag Kashyap project, which started its journey from the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes Film Festival and went on to be screened at festivals in Warsaw and Melbourne. It is a Hindi psychological thriller with a touch of emotional drama, written and directed by Anurag Kashyap, sure to keep you at the edge of your seats.
More that could not be included in the list but worth mentioning are Gattu, Supermen of Malegaon, Good Night Good Morning, Delhi in a Day, The Lunch Box, Monsoon Shootout, and I.D.