It has been an unusual year for Indian cinema so far, and a pretty good one. There is anger and disappointment but, for once, the 100-crore club is out of the reckoning. Many believe the debate over whether Gyan Correa’s Gujarati film The Good Road is a better choice than Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox to represent India officially at the Oscars celebrate the impact of non-mainstream cinema. A couple of months ago, the audience raised a toast to Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus for its unusual explorations of profound issues.
All of this should have made Sachin M Khanolkar happy, but the architect-turned-builder-turned film producer promptly points out the hollowness of such celebrations. Gour Hari Dastaan (GHD), the Hindi film he is producing, is stuck for money. Ideally, that shouldn't have been the case. GHD, directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, a renowned filmmaker, may not boast of A-listers, but Vinay Pathak, Konkona Sen Sharma, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Saurabh Shukla and Ranvir Shorey are fine actors and familiar names. Pathak plays the eponymous role of a freedom fighter, a real-life character, who waged a 30-year-battle to prove his credentials. “The story is such that every Indian would connect with the man as he struggles to find his way through corruption and red-tapism for a freedom fighter’s certificate,” says Khanolkar.
It’s easy to empathise with Khanolkar because he is not into it for profits. “I want to be associated with a good film. Had it not been for the slump in the real-estate market, I wouldn’t have sought help from financers. The shortfall is not much. Even a successful paanwala can arrange that money, but I am looking for someone who will believe in the project and see it through.”
The ‘through’, means distribution and exhibition, without which even a great film is bound to flounder. He has knocked on several doors already. In spite of GHD's wide media coverage, his efforts have come a cropper.
Khanolkar’s struggle would have made sense if he had been an outsider. But his credentials in the film world are solid. The Marathi film Mee Sindhutai Sapkal, his most prestigious venture till date, won four National awards, including one for his wife as producer, and two for Mahadevan for best film and screenplay. It had travelled to several international film festivals, but distribution and exhibition in Maharashtra proved to be ardous. “We started off with 150-200 screens, but the very next week the film was running in barely 15-20 cinemas,” says Khanolkar, disappointed at the state government's reluctance to promote the award-winning film.
“The government’s role is restricted to giving Rs30 lakh as subsidy if a producer makes a second Marathi film. That aid comes only after the film has had a commercial release,” he says. For GHD, there is no such incentive.
Ship... had posed similar problems four years ago for the-then anonymous Gandhi. “I was so scared of stepping into a bureaucratic maze that I didn't approach the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). Instead, I called on several powerful producers. Their refrain was: 'It's an amazing story, a brilliant film potential, but nobody will understand it'. It means only they are intelligent, and the rest of the country is stupid. Meanwhile, I kept the illusion alive that money would come in. That's when Sohum Shah came into the picture as an actor. We soon got incredibly close and he decided to produce the film.”
The other battle was getting someone to distribute and showcase the film abroad. While Ship... was being made, Fortissmo Films, one of the top three international distributors, came on board. “For domestic release, the entire credit goes to Kiran Rao, Aamir Khan’s wife. She made UTV honchos watch the film. Aamir, too, saw it around that time. The rest was easy,” says Gandhi.
The irony couldn't have been starker. Ship... was made and distributed for Rs2.6 crore — less than the budget for a song in a Bollywood potboiler.
Correa puts things in perspective. “The Good Road is the kind of film that most corporate houses will be wary of financing. They will produce 10 big-budget films, and if one of them is a hit, the profits will be invested in making 10 more films. Risk-taking is anathema in such a business because the livelihoods of hundreds are at stake. My script took shape over 7-8 years as I travelled, interacted and lived the lives of the characters. It was an organic process that couldn’t have been hastened due to deadline pressures.”
As the producer, NFDC gave him time to work things out. You know Correa is speaking the truth when he says, “it’s a cold, lonely world for a newcomer; yet he cannot lose faith in his dreams.”
Ananth Mahadevan, however, is strident in his criticism. “Forget financing, corporates even refuse to distribute small budget films. Multiplexes, which enjoy subsidies for promoting regional cinema, allot only a morning show when attendance is thin. They wouldn’t even put up the film’s poster in the premises. You can never get a prime-time slot for GHD. If these multiplexes are willing to listen, I can show them the film's business potential,” he says.
The vibrant exchanges on social networking sites notwithstanding, the new wave in Indian cinema is still a fringe element, too feeble to change the calcified ways of the powerful dream merchants. The battle is far from over for the Anurag Kashyaps of the industry.