Mumbai-based filmmaker Onir directed one of India’s first crowdsourced films, I Am, and is developing his latest project through the NFDC’s Screenwriters’ Lab.

Despite India’s booming economy and strong commercial film industry, independent filmmakers find it difficult to raise finance for projects without major stars. Director Onir and producer-actor Sanjay Suri turned to crowdsourcing for I Am, a drama comprising four inter-linked stories that tackle displacement, child abuse, single parenthood and gay rights.

Using Facebook, Twitter and their own website, Onir and Suri raised one third of the film’s $660,000 (Rs30m) budget from more than 400 “co-owners” living in 35 cities worldwide. They also found the film’s composer through Facebook.

Born in Bhutan, Onir studied in Kolkata and Berlin before making his feature debut, My Brother Nikhil, in 2004, which was the first mainstream Hindi film to address discrimination against people with AIDS and gay rights. I Am was his fourth feature and he is now developing Mumbai-set drama Shab, which participated in Screenwriters’ Lab, co-organised by India’s National Film Development Corp and Binger Filmlab.

Why did you and Sanjay Suri decide to try crowdsourcing to finance I Am?

I wanted to make a full-length feature film about each of the stories in I Am. But from past experience, some with these stories, we realised that it would be impossible to get finance from the traditional film finance bodies or studios. That’s when Sanjay came up with the idea that maybe we could develop them as short stories and link them so that it’s one film viewing experience – and at the same time we could get finance separately for each. At that point we had not decided to go the social network way, but somewhere along the development process we decided let’s try this platform and see where it goes. Let’s see if the audience we believe to be there is willing to participate in the making or not.

What were the biggest headaches with this style of raising funds?

I think the making process was rather exciting – to be constantly talking to people, getting them on board from all over the world as financiers or volunteers was an incredibly humbling experience. To experience this kind of trust and to be able to make a film without creative intrusion is the best gift one can ask for as a filmmaker. The headache was in keeping the accounts, as we are literally a two-man army handling it all.

The real headache now is to figure out how to take the film to theatres independently. It’s a lot of work and responsibility and as a filmmaker I sometimes wish that all I would have to concentrate on is the making and not the marketing, distribution etc.

How do you plan to release the film? If it is profitable, will the co-owners recoup?

We are planning to raise some money for p&a independently, aligning with a few partners, and should be releasing the film in February. We plan to return everyone’s money from the business and then share a part of what we earn with all who made this possible.

What kind of support does the indie filmmaking sector in India need?

I feel that the studios who very often fund films worth 40 crores [$8.8m] and above without a script, and lose money, very often should also have the guts to support some small-budget films which are driven by content and also important. I think we as a society need wholesome entertainment in the form of different genres not just regressive comedies.

I also think that maybe the government can come in and support us in terms of providing screen space where muscle power and studio money is not the only criteria for getting good shows. The government has to realise that for a better society we need support for films that also nurture growth as individuals and as a society. So basically there is a need of an alternate distribution chain for indie cinema.

Thirdly I think pricing tickets at a lower price can really get the people see these films. Why should a 100 crore [$22m] film and a three crore [$660,000] film have the same ticket price? The high taxes are killing indie cinema.

Do you think if support systems were in place, we’d see more young Indian directors tackle social issues?

I absolutely believe so, because what I have faced in the five years of my career, and I know many others who face the same thing, is being told “we are not interested in meaningful, serious films. If you can do it in a form of a comedy or have a big star we might look into it.”

How did you find working with the NFDC and [Netherlands-based] Binger Filmlab on Shab? How will you finance that film?

Working with Binger has been an extremely educative process where I have learnt to unshackle myself and become innocent as a filmmaker once again. I was beginning to feel afraid to be who I really am, but Binger has helped me rediscover myself as a filmmaker.

A lot about how we finance Shab will depend on how I Am is received. A filmmaker is reborn every time his film is released on a Friday. We definitely want to revisit what we learned this time in terms of crowdsourcing, but also looking for international co-production possibilities, and thanks to Binger I think I feel more ready now.

Are you working on any other projects?

Apart from Shab I am working on a film set in Kashmir, a political thriller called The Face. I’m seriously thinking of the possibility of working at Binger for this film.