Wave Riders

Indian Quarterly, October 2015

In the last few years, an unprecedented wave of independent Indian films has made a splash on the international film festival circuit. After years of relative neglect, the big festivals—Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, Sundance—are not only programming more Indian films, these films are winning awards. More interestingly, some of these movies, on the back of their international acclaim, are breaking into the Indian market and actually proving to be commercially viable. Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, which made its debut at Cannes this year, is the latest in a line of recent films that has been lauded abroad and then found critical and commercial success at home.

In film festival terms, it is not unusual for films from certain countries to become the flavour du jour. China, Iran, South Korea, all had their moment in the spotlight. But equally, these phases coincided with the simultaneous appearance of fresh talent and a burst of exuberant filmmaking from these countries. Are we witnessing a similar breakthrough in Indian filmmaking?

After the heady days of parallel cinema in the Sixties and Seventies, the “art” film movement in India went through a prolonged phase of decline. It was only from the 1990s onwards that independent filmmaking began to revive, nurtured by the success of filmmakers like Ram Gopal Varma, Sudhir Mishra, Deepa Mehta and Anurag Kashyap. But we are only now witnessing the full flowering of this movement as a younger generation of filmmakers emerges and makes its mark both internationally and domestically.

In my part-time role as co-director of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), I’ve witnessed this trend first-hand. The sheer volume and variety of new Indian films that has come our way in the past four years has been overwhelming. But what really stands out is that so many of these films—otherwise diverse in their themes and approaches—are made by first-time feature filmmakers. Debut features we screened at DIFF include: Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, Karan Gour’s Kshay, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry, Nitin Kakkar’s Filmistaan, Avinash Arun’s Killa, Geetu Mohandas’ Liar’s Dice, Sange Dorjee Thongdok’s Crossing Bridges and Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court. An impressive list, and a good indication of why this current crop of indie films has something special going for it.

Two major developments may have catalysed this movement. First, the rapid evolution in digital technology and the resultant drop in the cost of production suddenly made filmmaking more economical. And second, the concomitant revolution in information technology opened up access not just to world cinema, but also to a global culture that cut across borders and traditional boundaries. A new generation of savvy filmmakers is ready to make films, unencumbered by the weight of the past and open to the new possibilities, influences and resources now available to them.

They are helped by the emergence of equally aware young producers willing to raise funds from unorthodox sources, including crowdfunding, and forge international co-productions. Also, a new breed of film entrepreneurs is willing to invest in alternative films; Manish Mundra’s timely intervention on Rajat Kapoor’s delightful Aankhon Dekhi is an oft-cited example. Kannada filmmaker Pawan Kumar, whose Lucia was partly crowdfunded, has invited people to pre-order his next movie.

Exciting times, then, for indie filmmakers in India, but one more component needs to fall into place: more venues to showcase their films. In the absence of arthouse alternatives to multiplexes, festivals remain the only forum for audiences to watch offbeat films, and these are limited in number. However, multiplexes are taking notice. PVR Director’s Rare has been at the forefront of screening such films, like Oorvazi Irani’s recently released The Path of Zarathustra.

That there is an audience for such films is without doubt. Enough indie films have proved this point commercially. Masaan, The Lunchbox and Anand Gandhi’s abstruse and experimental omnibus, The Ship of Theseus, have all been rewarded at the box office. Court is another case in point. Appearing out of nowhere, it won two awards at the Venice International Film Festival last year and garnered overwhelmingly positive critical response. That this genre-confounding film, with its elliptical storytelling, received a theatrical release in India says much about the readiness of audiences to accept unorthodox and “difficult” films.

When films get noticed abroad, their cachet goes up in India and they stand a better chance of being noticed, and finding a theatrical release. At the moment, the new wave of Indian independent cinema is enjoying a good run. For my part, I have my hands (and eyes full) with a slew of contenders to choose from for this year’s edition of DIFF. These films originate from all parts of the country and are as unexpected in their subject matter—forbidden love in small-town India, the allure of pizza for slum kids, the urban solitude of working couples—as they are adventurous in their filmmaking.