The local box-office success of a number of non-mainstream Indian films has prompted financiers to take note. Now the challenge is to win over distributors.

As the fifth edition of India’s projects market, Film Bazaar (November 24-27), gets underway this month, the country’s indie film-makers will have much to feel confident about.

The trend of smaller films making waves at the local box office continued throughout 2011 with hits such as Delhi Belly, Tanu Weds Manu and No One Killed Jessica. Delhi Belly was a particular surprise, raking in $4.5m on its opening weekend in India, and out-grossing Salman Khan vehicle Ready in the US. Though distributed by Indian studios, these were unconventional pictures without major stars.

India’s non-mainstream films are also drawing greater interest from international sales agents and film festivals. Ribhu Dasgupta’s Michael, produced by Anurag Kashyap Films, premiered at Toronto and was picked up for international sales by Fortissimo Films. Punjabi-language drama, Alms Of The Blind Horse, premiered in Venice’s Orizzonti section, while Mangesh Hadawale’s Watch Indian Circus, an uplifting drama with a social message, scooped the audience award at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.

The success of some of these films is making investors in the region sit up and take notice. In the past, star vehicles have soaked up nearly all the finance available for Indian films, but it is now becoming easier to raise finance for smaller stories without major stars.

‘Marketing your film is much more stressful than making it’

Anurag Kashyap, writer-director-producer

“The success of Delhi Belly sent shock waves through the system,” says director Aditya Bhattacharya, who is shooting the privately financed cop thriller BMW: Bombay’s Most Wanted in Mumbai. “I’ve always believed the Indian audience is ahead of the curve — it’s the [mainstream] industry that’s lagging behind.”

For the first time in decades, there is also public money available for production — India’s National Film Development Corp (NFDC) is in the process of co-financing or fully financing a slate of around 20 films in 11 Indian languages.

“We like to support new talent and promote regional cinema, so we look at projects in various languages,” explains NFDC managing director Nina Lath Gupta. NFDC productions include Alms Of The Blind Horse — one of the first Punjabi-language films to screen at a major festival — and Punjabi drama Qissa, a co-production with Germany’s Heimat film and other European partners. The government film body is also co-producing Qaushiq Mukherjee’s Bengali-language Tasher Desh with Anurag Kashyap Films and Belgian producer Entre Chien et Loup.

The result of this increase in private and public investment is a wave of films outside the usual Bollywood formula, ranging from traditional arthouse to youth-oriented, gross-out comedies such as Delhi Belly.

Somewhere in between are films such as Watch Indian Circus, described by producer Chirag Shah as “thought-provoking, commercially viable cinema”. The film deals with the issue of poverty in an uplifting manner, which makes it palatable to Indian audiences, but also has a world cinema sensibility that could help it to travel.

India is also seeing an increase in moody urban-crime thrillers, such as Bhattacharya’s BMW and Amit Kumar’s The Monsoon Shootout, also in production.

But it may be too early for India’s indie fraternity to celebrate. Though the diversity in the country’s output is encouraging, there are still major problems when it comes to distributing these films in their home market.

“This country has a fascination with cinema, so eventually you’ll find someone to invest in your film,” says Bollywood star Vivek Oberoi, who produced Watch Indian Circus with Shah and two other producers. “The difficult part is securing distribution and finding enough screens.”

This is a problem lamented by all of India’s indie film-makers. Despite the rise of multiplexes, alongside the single-screen cinemas, smaller films still battle for screen space with tentpole Hindi and Hollywood titles and regional-language films. They also face prohibitive p&a costs, due to the size of the country and the dominance of mass media.

“Marketing your film is much more stressful than making it,” observes director-producer Anurag Kashyap, one of the leading lights of India’s indie scene.

Bhattacharya adds: “We don’t have an arthouse circuit, specialised TV channels or any other way of advertising these films. When you reach out to the audience, you’re up against a major studio like Eros.”

Larger Indian studios such as Eros, UTV and Viacom18 often finance or acquire smaller projects, but the indies say that is not always appropriate as it means compromising the content of your film.

With one foot in Bollywood, but determined to also maintain an element of independence, film-makers such as Kashyap are mulling over options to help smaller films reach a decent number of screens.

Some of the strategies under discussion include the raising of p&a funds; the launch of a creative studio, along the same lines as United Artists in the early days of Hollywood; and a collaborative scheme for the marketing of indie product.

‘We don’t have an arthouse circuit, specialised TV channels or any other way of advertising these films’

Aditya Bhattacharya, writer-director

“I was recently in Brazil where I saw film-makers joining together to share the p&a costs on their films. We’re thinking about doing something similar in India,” Kashyap explains.

There is also nothing quite like using a Bollywood star to persuade an uncooperative cinema manager to show an unconventional film — the route taken by actor-producers such as Oberoi and Delhi Belly producer Aamir Khan.

“The audience appreciates different kinds of films, so if people like me push them, we can really make something happen,” Oberoi says.
However, the indie community is aware there is a limited number of cine-literate stars, and that there is a pressing need for development in the distribution infrastructure.

With growing numbers of international sales agents and festival programmers descending on India, including at events such as Film Bazaar, the indies may find they are first recognised by the international industry and, hopefully, audiences. But after years of being in the shadow of other world cinemas, not to mention India’s own commercial film industry, that could be the first step towards India’s indies breaking the distribution deadlock at home.