alternatives and independence

I’ve been feeling a bit old lately – not only because the years are ticking on by- but because I realise now that in my life so far I can actually speak of something that changed in a seminal way, pinpoint a big shift: the shift being from using the term “alternative” when speaking of any film work that wasn’t mainstream (which in the early 90s  meant Bollywood) to the term “independent film.”

This bothers me for several reasons. One, because the term independent film – or indie as it’s being used today is such an American paradigm (sort of like 26/11 is India’s 9/11). Used first as a term that referred to films made outside the Hollywood studio/corporate systen, it’s usage in India is ironic. Because all of mainstream Bollywood producers before corporatisation became more common, were independent business owners. So the usage becomes more amorphous here, referring to styles of filmmaking and film content that goes against the prevailing groove – although it’s also often imitative of the American indie film in its rather masculinist interest in drugs, rock and roll, violence and all things noir, rather than a form that seems tied to expressing a different experience of life. So really we could argue all night about what constitutes or does not constitute the spirit of independence in a film. But there’s no consistent world view – political, artistic and economic that this terminology and maybe practice, seems to allude to.

The other reason it bothers me is because it’s a term that has narrowed rather than expanded our understanding of the independent creative work happening in film, restricting it mainly to a sort of  off-Bollywood fiction film production, rather than including the many different type of engagements with filmmaking that happen anywhere, including here in India. As a result there tends to be a great insularity of people within their own genre rather than an active relationship with work around them that might excite for reasons beyond the fact that the film has found a producer and a cast.

For instance, there has been a huge expansion in the kind of documentary work happening in India over the last decade – a number of styles, forms, voices; films that engage you in different ways. One can argue about the funding framework of documentaries too – I would say they fall into the same grey space in terms of their production. But there is a way in which documentaries in significant number, are articulating very independent creative and political voices and also trying to create alternative screening/distribution paradigms which is very interesting. While people always use commercial release or broadcast as an index of “outreach”, the fact is, documentaries have been screened in completely different ways -in colleges, small home screenings, by voluntary groups, activist organisations and over time have become more popular, more able to connect with audiences. In the last 5 years alone we’ve seen 3-4 distribution endeavours, a weekly broadcast on NDTV and countless small film festivals. Last year alone I’ve had requests for my films from small festivals in Jaipur, Gorakhpur, Bhopal, Bangalore, Chennai, Kanpur, Bhuvaneshwar, colleges in Delhi and on the internet. Almost every day notification of a screening somewhere lands up in my inbox.

I do think these are powerful things – different than people watching stuff online – because it takes a certain sense of ownership, belonging and investment for a group of people to get together and do something – organise the festival or watch the film, to talk about it afterwards – to build a different cultural space than that of the multiplex; to build a space of your own and not only avail of the space or template given to you by someone.

Obviously when something grows in this semi-trackable, mostly spontaneous way it comes with its own questions. How do we make our work sustainable? When does it translate from cultural capital into an alternative market?

One of the difficulties has been that there is a great deal of puritanism about the term market – our imaginations limit themselves to the idea only of the capitalist commercial market. But in reality when we speak of independence we also speak of other ways of transacting these economic relationships.

To this extent there’s a lot of questioning among the filmmaker community now about whether screenings which have so far been free, should now be paid for with some nominal amount – maybe as little as 30 rupees. Whether festivals should now pay some sort of screening fee to the filmmaker. I personally think this is a hard one – in principle I feel yes, viewers should start to pay, filmmakers should start to get this screening fee, no matter how small. In practice I know it’s not always possible. Sometimes the groups that organise the event really have no money and they’re doing it with passion and whatever they can scrape together. At this point we are all invested in building this other thing together – the filmmaker who makes the film she or he believes will ring true for the audience; the “exhibitor” who finds a way to show that film; the viewer who supports this work by coming to watch it.

But no cultural idea can afford to stay static in this way because it starts to sicken at the edges, to use the idea of political passion in a convenient way. At Vikalp screenings I’ve seen young people who will think nothing of spending over 350 rupees to watch a crap movie at a multiplex and come out cribbing, evade the 30 rupee donation we collect or hand it over reluctantly when I keep looking pointedly. Some NGOs that regularly use films for trainings, will ask to borrow a film rather than buy it. Film festivals by organisations that are funded never think of reimbursing filmmakers the cost of couriering DVDs leave alone  offering a screening fee. Recently I had email from an organisation in Chennai asking for 3 of my films, saying their previous festivals had been a great success and well attended. I gently suggested that maybe they should consider charging an entry fee in that case for this time’s festival. To which I was told “oh we do charge an entry fee” but “we can’t pay a screening fee.” In the past I’ve always just sent the film because of believing in the cause, because of feeling embarased, because the moment a documentary filmmaker raises the issue of earning money from a film they are accused of being mercenary. This time, I just didn’t send the films. Eventually even paying the small amount of money towards this is also a political act, a way to grow this market; to be moralistic about it is political hypocrisy of the most brahmanical kind.

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  1. This echoes so many confusions in my own mind. The key question remains how does one make alternative/independent work sustainable? When Prakash and I used to run the monthly screenings 24/25, I suggested to him that we should charge at least 30 to 50 Rs. for a screening, instead of a yearly membership of some 200 odd rupees which very few people paid, and one had to chase like anything. And sure enough, without money, the venture folded up in a year, with money having been spent out of Prakash’s pockets.

  2. I had once asked a friend who is a pretty avid cinema viewer if he was willing to spend Rs.20 or Rs.30 for a documentary. His answer still rings in my ears – “I’m willing to pay Rs.200 for entertainment but gyaan should be free!!”. With this kind of attitudes prevailing no wonder the its well nigh impossible for sustainable screenings of documentaries and similar independent /alternative expressions of cinema. Sad indeed…

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