India's growing tribe of independent filmmakers lack viable platforms and the right distribution structure to push their growth, says debutant director Shailja Gupta, who took the online route to release her film "Walkaway".
"Walkaway", which mocks at the social obligations entrapping young Indian professionals settled in New York, had a modest release in the US in October 2010. But Gupta failed in her attempts to have it screened in Indian theatres.
Then, online was her only option.
"It is very difficult to release an independent film, especially for the Indian market. You have to get front-page coverage in newspapers, get huge promotions and that doesn't come without the backing of big names and production banners. All that is tough for an independent filmmaker," Gupta told IANS in an interview.
Others have struggled like her.
A filmmaker like Hemant Gaba, for instance, who had a shoestring budget of Rs.35 lakh (Rs 3.5 million) could release his indie movie "Shuttlecock Boys" only after a lot of struggle. However, his project earned international acclaim through film fests and finally made it to theatres thanks to PVR Director's Cut Rare initiative.
But Gupta, 38, couldn't do the festival circuit. She launched her movie, a light-comedy drama primarily in English, for Indian audiences online around June through an in-video paywall system, whereby a viewer could watch the one hour 34 minute-long movie any time within 24 hours on a payment of $2.99.
The response, Gupta says, has not been even close to the "200,000 to 300,000" views that thought it would garner. But whatever little views it has had are thanks to social networking platforms, she said.
"Internet is surely the next step for independent filmmakers. But the connectivity in the country is not great enough - one has to wait for long before it buffers and then go back and forth. So, yes, online is the way forward for us, but I don't think very soon," she said.
Audience mindset is also an issue.
"If you want to reach a larger audience, theatre is still the way because when you release a film online, the audience considers it an art film or a different kind of film, which they feel wasn't good enough for a theatrical release. This mindset and attitude need to change," said Gupta, who shuttles between New York and Mumbai for work commitments.
As a person involved in the digital marketing of Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment, the 38-year-old sure knows the tricks of the trade. But she says managing even a word-of-mouth akin to that amassed by a film like "Vicky Donor" demands at least Rs.1 crore (Rs 10 million)
"Word-of-mouth publicity is not easy either. To get the first few people to watch a film, you need at least a crore. What happens to those independent filmmakers who don't even have that? And with a film like 'Vicky Donor', which of course worked very well on word-of-mouth, there was a name as big as John Abraham attached to it.
"So for even 50,000 people to watch the film, it needs good support in India," she added.
Not that Gupta was without a crore thanks to few technology companies, some of her investment banking friends from all over the world, who contributed from Rs.100,000 to Rs.10,00,000 each to shoot the film.
Her budget for "Walkaway" was Rs.2 crore. The project has music compositions by names like Vishal-Shekhar and Ram Sampath and sound mixing by Oscar-winning technician Resul Pookutty. Shah Rukh Khan's Red Chillies Entertainment assisted her in the post-production, editing and VFX, while Bengali production house Venkatesh Films helped finance the DI and prints for her movie.
"Yes, it is easier for me to pick up the phone and speak to industry people for my film, but I have built these contacts over 10 years. It has come with a lot of hard work. So it is much tougher for independent filmmakers with no experience in the industry," she said, admitting that the Indian film industry is now gradually opening up to new filmmakers sans filmy connections.
What will help is a definite structure to aid independent filmmakers.
"New York itself has some more than 40 theatres for independent filmmakers. We need to look at creating such a structure," she said.
(Radhika Bhirani can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)