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DIM THE LIGHTS

Will Covid-19 be a curtain call for indie cinema?

REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni
Small dreams on the big screen.
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India’s calendar of film premieres is usually packed. The country is one of the most prolific movie producers in the world, releasing nearly 2,000 films in 20 languages every year.

Thousands of people look forward to Fridays because that’s the weekly release date for films. And it’s not just massive Bollywood blockbusters showcasing choreographed dancers in glitzy clothes—the industry produces hundreds of small independent films in regional languages featuring up-and-coming actors and understated narratives. Over Diwali, Eid, and Christmas, the country’s 9,500 theaters traditionally attract massive audiences eager to watch the year’s most popular films.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has rolled the credits on a lot of filmmakers’ plans.

As with the rest of the world, India’s movie theaters shut down when the country went into lockdown in March, and only reopened—with Covid precautions such as spacing and frequent sanitization—several months later, if at all. In the interim, film shoots were delayed, funds dried up, and budgeting for Covid safety measures made filmmaking even more expensive.

High-profile Bollywood directors have decided to either wait out the pandemic or have partnered with digital streaming platforms—also known locally as OTT (over-the-top) services—to release their films. But independent, low-budget films, which often cater to smaller audiences speaking regional languages, have been left in limbo.

The Malayalam film industry, which originates from the southern state of Kerala, caters both to Bollywood fans with larger-than-life dramas, as well lovers of low-budget regional films. It is just one example of a slice of Indian culture that, prior to the pandemic, had found a way to thrive and grow through mainstream and indie cinema. But that growth has come to an abrupt halt.

“The Malayalam film industry used to churn out 150-170 films every year. Only a handful have gone to OTT platforms, and nearly 60-70 are pending release,” says Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, a writer and filmmaker who has created Malayalam titles such as Sexy Durga, a film about religious divides in Kerala’s social fabric.

“Unless you have a superstar-level cast, or an international funder backing your project, the situation is hopeless at the moment,” says the filmmaker, who is based in the south Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram.

Worldwide, independent cinema is vital in surfacing new narratives, pushing the envelope cinematically, and providing a platform for fresh talent. The fate of niche movie producers, particularly those who don’t have access to streaming platforms, is often intertwined with those of small theaters at home and abroad. What’s happening in India—a curtain call facing independent cinema—is happening everywhere.

Small cinema, big troubles

Bollywood—India’s massive homegrown Hindi film industry—is worth $2.6 billion, and consumes much of the international attention around Indian entertainment. But in its shadows is a rich and complex culture of independent filmmaking in regional languages, which has found some success, in part due to the country’s extensive, albeit shrinking, network of 6,300 small theaters.

Regional-language filmmaking in India falls into three tiers, explains Shiladitya Bora, film producer and founder of Platoon One Films. The top-tier among regional languages belongs to the southern Indian languages of Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu films. “Their filmmakers, star power, and even audiences come together to form a highly evolved market,” he says. Most of their mainstream filmmakers often see big box office success, and even inspire remakes in Hindi.

The second tier is occupied by Bengali and Gujarati films, which include some hits, but fewer films every year, and smaller budgets. The Bhojpuri film industry, known largely for its localized plot lines and small budgets, falls in this category, too. Marathi, a western Indian language, straddles the first and the second tiers; its rich literary heritage has created a devoted film-going community.

The third tier belongs to nascent industries, which issue films in eastern Indian languages like Assamese. Only a handful of successful indie filmmakers have emerged from this tier to mainstream success—Rima Das’s Village Rockstars is an outlier in this space. As India’s official entry to the 2019 Oscars, the Assamese film told the story of a 10-year-old impoverished girl who dreams of forming a rock band with boys in her village. While it didn’t win the Oscar, the nomination helped the indie film garner a huge international audience.

Cracking the OTT code

In recent years, OTT platforms have been a boon for many of India’s filmmakers. Big-ticket films such as dark comedy Ludo and Gulabo Sitabo, which stars Amitabh Bachchan, have found success through a direct release on Netflix and Amazon Prime, respectively.

But these digital avenues are not an option for many indie and regional-language filmmakers, in part because the platforms’ algorithmic underpinnings mean their success is powered by audience preferences, which don’t necessarily reward obscure, niche content.

This isn’t much of an issue for big-budget films in India’s south Indian languages like Tamil and Telugu, and featuring superstars like Rajinikanth and Surya—they thrive across multiple platforms, commanding huge audiences in person and online. Take, for instance, Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya, a Telugu comedy-drama about a photographer vowing to avenge a public humiliation. Filmed in 2019, it was licensed by and released on July 30 on Netflix, and remained in the top 10 list in India for over a week after its release, according to Srishti Arya, director for international original film at Netflix India.

But for smaller, low- and mid-tier films in languages like Bengali and Gujarati, “these films still rely on running in theaters, and then selling rights in countries like Bangladesh where the language is spoken, or in countries with a sizable Bengali diaspora community,” Bora explains.

They may not make much money on a local release, Sasidharan notes, “but what they do gain is huge publicity, which, in turn, helps them sell rights to OTT platforms and in overseas markets.”

Bengali and Gujarati films were initially popular with large digital streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime around 2016, when the OTT market first saw a boom. But Bora hypothesizes that bigger films have taken over because “it’s all about data and algorithms.” “Maybe these platforms don’t find that kind of viewership in some languages, which is why title acquisitions are now slower to come by,” he says.

Still, being able to release to streaming platforms has helped India’s filmmakers big and small find exposure among newer audiences. With theaters closed, regional-language and niche OTT platforms helped the industry stay relevant with viewers. For instance, for Bengali films and TV series, loyalists have flocked to Hoichoi, a homegrown platform specific to the language. Launched in 2017, the platform now has 13 million subscribers, 40% of whom live outside India.

Similarly, Indian production and media distribution company Shemaroo saw growing interest from viewers of Gujarati and Marathi cinema across its own digital streaming platform. “Our regional offerings saw an impressive surge in viewership especially in the Gujarati category, with viewership as high as 102% in the peak months of the lockdown,” says Hiren Gada, CEO of Shemaroo Entertainment. Through its Marathi language movie channel, Shemaroo MarathiBana, Shemaroo screened hit films like Lagna Mubarak, Poshter Girl, Razzakaar, and Classmate, which Gada says “saw good audience pull and visibility.”

Film entrepreneurs used the opportunity of the pandemic to launch platforms like Cinemapreneur, a dedicated, pay-per-view platform for indie cinema that was founded in August. There is also MovieSaints, an OTT platform that hosts cinema across regional languages, that has been catering to this niche community since 2015.

The small and single-screen theater space India was already shrinking in India before the pandemic, as an increasing number of consumers are drawn to multiplexes, which offer more variety and amenities to the modern moviegoer. Streaming platforms have helped fill the gap.

The red carpet release

Still, nascent industries like Assamese films are too small or niche to necessarily catch the attention of big streaming platforms, or to have their own dedicated, homegrown digital channels. Beyond a local release, there is a third avenue for success: at the independent film festivals held in Toronto, Cannes, Berlin, London, and more.

“The Indian film industry is still largely driven by stars, blockbusters, and tentpole productions, which is what the masses end up going to the cinemas for,” says Ritika Bhatia, festival consultant at Mumbai-based production house Drishyam Films. “If we don’t have the big star pull, we need something else. Going through the international film festival route adds credibility, especially since you are representing your country,” she says.

There are well-documented successes from this route, such as Drishyam’s film Masaan. It did not see mega box-office success in India, despite running commercially in physical theaters and being widely talked about in the domestic market.  But an international release helped launch the careers of actors Vicky Kaushal and Sweta Tripathi, who have gone on to bag lead roles in Bollywood films like Uri and web series Mirzapur.

Rima Das’s Village Rockstars might not not have seen the kind of critical acclaim and success in the Indian market in 2019 had it not been for its festival premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017.

Others on the international indie film scene are also struggling to gain a global reputation without the one-two punch of theatrical releases, OTTs, and film festivals. Europe’s small filmmakers, for example, rely on a theatrical release, which became near-impossible because of Covid-19. “The much-hyped increase in online film audiences has created a route to release for some films but it only represents a fraction of the revenues generated by a full theatrically-led campaign,” writes Europa Distribution, a network of European independent film publishers and distributors. “Indeed, online success is still heavily linked to successful physical release.”

In response, European governments have stepped up with economic aid packages for their domestic film industries. Germany, for instance, has a €15 million ($18.3 million) fund to support companies to restart film production and tide over whatever extra expense safety precautions would need. But in India, that number is miniscule. Only some state governments have announced incentives to support small filmmakers, such as minimum electricity charges waivers for cinemas, and a reimbursement of state taxes to small filmmakers.

Four films from India debuted to international audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. This year, just one made its way to the virtual festival—The Disciple, a Marathi-language drama.

For many industries across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted deep costs, while also providing surprising opportunities. In India, it has shown the strength and appeal of streaming platforms, which provide a critical outlet for independent films. But the country needs small theaters to open again at home and abroad. Without them, the films that have proved so critical to preserving India’s multilingual cultural diversity risk simply fading away.