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Coronavirus fallout: Uncertainty over international film festivals hits India's independent filmmakers hard

Independent films don't have budget for marketing. Their marketing happens in the form of festival participation where independent films get the much-needed visibility and recognition.

March 27, 2020 / 12:21 PM IST
View of the Suquet, old city area of Cannes, before the start of the 71st Cannes Film Festival. (Reuters)

View of the Suquet, old city area of Cannes, before the start of the 71st Cannes Film Festival. (Reuters)

Faizal Khan

Pan Nalin sold his apartment last year in Mumbai to make his new film, Last Film Show. Set in Gujarat, the movie would have been scorching the international festival circuit this year like all of his previous films. But the coronavirus crisis has turned Nalin's plans upside down. "By the time we hit the first week of March, it all came to a halt," says Nalin about stopping production of the film. "Today we are devastated. We have plunged into enormous debts. We have no idea what the future holds for us," adds the director, whose last feature Angry Indian Goddesses had come runner-up at the Toronto festival's prestigious People's Choice Award in 2015.

Independent filmmakers like Nalin have been the worst-hit by the global health emergency that has put a question mark over international film festivals this year. The influential Cannes festival has postponed the May event and uncertainty looms over other international festivals. "Independent Indian movies are like kites without wind. But these kites will need wind and open sky, and only major international festivals can provide that," explains Nalin, known for his works  Samsara (2001),   Valley of Flowers (2006) and Faith Connections (2013).

No avenues for distribution in India

Bauddhayan Mukherjee, another independent filmmaker, was headed for Cannes in May with his new feature film project, Marichjhapi. Early this month, Cannes festival announced the selection of Marichjhapi, which is set in Sundarbans, in its Cinefondation-L'atelier section that helps filmmakers find co-producers, along with 14 other projects from across the world. The selection of Marichjhapi, which revisits the killings of Bangladeshi refugees in Marichjhapi island in the Sunderbans in 1979, promised glad tidings for Indian cinema in Cannes this year, after a disappointing no-show last year.


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"Cannes is a key element in our cinematic journey," says the Mumbai-based Mukherji. "If Cannes doesn't happen, the film gets pushed down the ladder of production and distribution," adds the director of such films as Teenkahon (2014) and The Violin Player (2016). Mukherji's homegrown production house, Little Lamb Films, has planned the shoot in the Sunderbans later this year. "The film is set in winter. If I miss shooting this winter, I will have to wait for one more year," says Mukherji, who had roped in an American co-producer -- Splendid Films in Georgia, Atlanta -- and set his sights on finding a European partner in Cannes.

"Independent films have no avenues for distribution in our country. Film festivals are one window independent filmmakers have to take their films into the world," says National Award-winning film critic Saibal Chatterjee. "For 11-12 days every year, Cannes is the movie capital of the world. If it is not happening, there is a huge gap in the international calendar that will be difficult to fill," adds Chatterjee, a regular at Cannes for the last two decades. "Everything will get affected and it will have a cascading effect on cinema as a business."

Dominic Sangma, an independent filmmaker from Meghalaya, started the year on a high, aiming to start production of his new film, Rapture, in Garo language. Sangma, who was mentored by directors like Mira Nair at Cannes film market's La Fabrique Cinema organised by Institut Francais last May, went to Berlin festival in February as part of the Berlinale Talents, a networking platform for new generation of filmmakers from around the world. Once he was back from Berlin, Sangma's plans collapsed in the coronavirus crisis. "I had planned to start shooting in September," he says. "All the production work has been shelved now. All the actors had to be selected from Meghalaya. But I can't travel for auditions and I don't want to put others at risk," he adds.

The first producer to come on board for Rapture was a Chinese producer. Xu Jianshang, who also produced Sangma's debut film, Ma.Ama (2018) -- also shot in Meghalaya -- remains in isolation in her home in Dongyang, China. "Xu is safe in her home and we are in touch with each other over Skype," says Sangma, who also has French and Indian co-producers for Ratpure that revolves around the disappearance of a ten-year-old boy from a village. "Xu is also planning her first feature film as director and I will be one of the producers," he says. "We need to support each other."

Uncertain future

Independent films from India that were lucky to participate in international film festivals early this year before the health emergency blew up also face an uncertain future. Nasir, a Tamil film by Arun Karthick premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in January, was headed for other festivals in the US and Australia when the coronavirus outbreak hit the world. "We were chosen at several international festivals that now stand postponed," says independent producer Samir Sarkar, co-producer of Nasir. One of the next destinations for Nasir was Museum of Modern Art, New York's New Directors/New Films festival in March-April.

"Independent films don't have budget for marketing. Our marketing happens in the form of festival participation where independent films get the much-needed visibility and recognition for the international and domestic run," says Sarkar, whose Magic Hour Films produced the critically-acclaimed Bengali film Jonaki by Aditya Vikram Sengupta, which premiered at Rotterdam in 2018. "Normally an independent film from India travels for 12-18 months on the international festival circuit that gives visibility and marketing opportunity," adds Sarkar. "Postponement and possible cancellation of festivals will be a huge loss for a film's journey and for the director and producer."

It will also be a huge loss for Indian cinema, which draws global attention through its independent films participating in major festivals like Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin and Busan. While independent filmmakers like Nalin, who had to sell his apartment to fund his film, bring laurels to India, they struggle to find finance for their films in the absence of state support that is common in many other Asian countries like South Korea, which produced the Oscar-winning Parasite. "For now the world is busy saving lives," says Nalin. "As and when the virus passes it is certain that there will be a devastating impact on independent filmmakers world over." Some independent filmmakers, however, are putting up a brave front. "I am certain the Cannes festival will happen this year," says Mukherji. "I have to be optimistic."

Faizal Khan curated India’s first football films festival with artist Riyas Komu at the 2011 International Film Festival of India, Goa. He was the curator of a football films programme in the Artists Cinema section of the second Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014.
Moneycontrol Contributor
first published: Mar 27, 2020 12:21 pm
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