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Indian Indie Movies Find Bazaar Backing, But Ignore Asian Neighbours

India's indie movie sector, a more down-to-earth antidote to traditional Bollywood fare, has found backing through the country's annual Film Bazaar, but could such a vehicle boost the current woeful level of China-India co-productions?

Photo: Sunrise: An Indian indie funded via the Film Bazaar.
Sunrise: An Indian indie funded via the Film Bazaar.
Photo: Sunrise: An Indian indie funded via the Film Bazaar.
Sunrise: An Indian indie funded via the Film Bazaar.

While India is known globally for its distinct brand of mainstream movies – usually referred to as Bollywood – quite another kind of Indian cinema has started to make waves in recent years. More realistic than Bollywood, this new style of independent filmmaking focusses on strong stories and convincing acting, rather than big stars and song-and-dance routines.

Its biggest success so far has been Ritesh Batra's romantic drama The Lunchbox, which premiered at the Cannes film festival in 2013. It was then successfully released in dozens of other countries, including Hong Kong. It was not a one-off success, however. Many other Indian "indie" films have won awards at major international film festivals over the past few years, ending a drought that has lasted since India's "parallel cinema" movement ran out of steam back in the 1980s.

Chaitanya Tamhane's Court – a drama that saw a lawyer defending a singer accused of driving a man to suicide – won best film in the Orizzonti section of this year's Venice film festival. Earlier in the year, Avinash Arun's childhood drama Killa won a Crystal Bear at the Berlin film festival, while Kanu Behl's Titli, the story of a young boy trying to break free of his criminal family, premiered at Cannes.

All these films can trace their origins back to the annual Film Bazaar co-production market. Back in 2007, this was launched by India's National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) in a bid to nurture South Asian filmmakers working outside the Bollywood studio system.

Held alongside the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa, the event supports all aspects of the film production process. This includes everything from script development and raising finance to fine-tuning rough cuts and searching for a distributor.

This year's Film Bazaar (20-24 November) was the biggest yet, attracting 1,050 attendees from 38 countries. The backbone of the event is always the Co-production Market, which selects around 25-30 projects each year and introduces them to potential co-producers and investors.

The market also hosts filmmaking labs, which see international experts give their advice on scripts and films at the rough-cut stage. It doesn't hurt that these meetings take place in a relaxed beachside locale, rather than in the more frenetic setting of Delhi or Mumbai.

Many are only too keen to pay tribute to the importance of this particular event. One Indian director, Bikas Mishra, said: "My film wouldn't have been possible without Film Bazaar." The film in question, Chauranga [Four Colours], his debut, won the first prize in the India Gold section at this year's Mumbai Film Festival.

Acknowledging the role played by the Bazaar, he said: "We received script development funds soon after we pitched our project here [in 2011]. It offers a wonderful platform to meet Indian and international film professionals and to explore real possibilities of working together." In further proof of the event's effectiveness, at this year's Film Bazaar, Mishra met an investor willing to distribute his film.

Although India is not short of investors, they tend to focus on Bollywood movies. This leaves local filmmakers needing to find international co-producers to raise financing for those story-driven films that don't feature big stars. Co-production partners can also help them to secure distribution in overseas markets. When the Film Bazaar was launched eight years ago, though, with the avowed aim of connecting the local film industry with overseas partners, many Indian directors and producers didn't see the point.

Nina Lath Gupta, Managing Director of the NFDC, was inspired to launch the Bazaar after attending Cinemart, part of the Rotterdam Film Festival. Commenting on the Bazaar's success, she said: "We seem to have changed the mindset towards co-productions. When we got started, filmmakers and investors didn't really see the value, but there's now a growing acceptance that co-production can widen the audience for their films."

The Lunchbox is a perfect example of how co-production helped transform a small Indian project into a global phenomenon. The film was developed through the Screenwriters Lab at the Film Bazaar and later secured investment from the NFDC. The film's Indian producer, Guneet Monga, also teamed up with France's ASAP Films and Germany's Rohfilm. This saw the overseas partners help raise additional finance, submit the film to festivals and secure a sales agent – The Match Factory – that eventually sold the film to 37 countries.

Just as Indian filmmakers are starting to see the value of international partners, overseas producers and sales agents are now attending the Film Bazaar in the hope of finding the next Lunchbox. Explaining his own presence, Michael Henrichs, a German producer, said: "I've been coming to Film Bazaar for many years and, throughout this time, a wealth of diverse and original stories has reliably come out of the Indian independent scene.

"The NFDC has taken decisive measures to support these stories and the filmmakers behind them through a variety of labs throughout the year, as well as through the well-curated Film Bazaar, through its different sections. My visits have always been rewarding and productive."

Several of the projects selected for this year's Film Bazaar came with European co-producers already attached, although many were still looking for more. Rohfilm has already boarded its next South Asian project – Norwegian-Pakistani director Iram Haq's What Will People Say. Ashim Ahluwalia, who made a splash with art-pulp drama Miss Lovely at Cannes in 2012, was also back at the Bazaar this year, this time with The Boyfriend, an adaptation of R Raj Rao's novel about a gay love affair. This is to be co-produced with France's Octobre19.

Photo: Titli: Overseas success story.
Titli: Overseas success story.
Photo: Titli: Overseas success story.
Titli: Overseas success story.
Photo: The Lunchbox: Co-production phenomenon.
The Lunchbox: Co-production phenomenon.
Photo: The Lunchbox: Co-production phenomenon.
The Lunchbox: Co-production phenomenon.

A large Canadian delegation also attended the Bazaar, all hoping to find Indian partners in the wake of the recent signing of the India-Canada co-production treaty. Over the course of the market, Canada's Studio Film Group (SFG) signed on to co-produce Abhijeet Singh Parmar's Overcoat, a movie based on Nikolai Gogol's short story of the same name, but with the action relocated to Varanasi, a city in northern India.

The success of these indie films is also starting to attract new Indian investors, many of whom are strangers to the film business, but are interested in backing a diverse range of movies. Film Bazaar helps to identify these people and match them with filmmakers who need funding to finish their films.

Deepti Dcunha curates the market's 'Film Bazaar Recommends' and 'Work-in-Progress' sections and sees attracting new investors as her priority. She said: "Many Indian filmmakers start production with no real budget for post-production, let alone marketing and publicity. So we try to introduce them to investors who can provide gap financing or come in as co-producers at a very late stage."

Perhaps understandably, one of the most popular visitors at this year's Film Bazaar was Manish Mundra, the oil entrepreneur. He recently financed Rajat Kapoor's film Ankhon Dekhi, and is now backing a substantial number of other new Indian indie projects. Explaining the importance of attracting the likes of Mundra, Dcunha said: "India lacks creative producers, but we've had people turn producer after attending the market and learning more about what the role entails."

So far, Indian filmmakers have only looked to Europe and Canada for co-production partners. This is largely because Canada – and a number of European countries – offers government funding and subsidies, access to top film festivals and has decades of experience when it comes to distributing arthouse films.

At present, Indian filmmakers rarely seek funding from their Asian neighbours. This may change, though, especially in light of the recent signing of a co-production treaty between India and China. India's film industry has also been encouraged by the positive response to a number of its films – notably 3 Idiots and The Lunchbox – from audiences in China and Hong Kong.

This year's IFFI, held alongside the Film Bazaar, hosted a joint working group of Chinese and Indian government officials in the film sector. The festival also presented a lifetime achievement award to Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, and the event closed with a screening of his latest film, The Grandmaster, which was attended by its stars, Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung Chiu-wai.

Over at Film Bazaar, Zhou Jiandong, Deputy Director General of China's Film Bureau, explained to Indian filmmakers how China's film market has grown so rapidly in recent years. He also noted that three China-India co-productions are already in the works. He said: "Wong Kar Wai is planning a religious historical drama about the Tang Dynasty monk [Xuanzang] who travelled to India.

"Hong Kong director Stanley Tong is planning an action comedy called Kungfu Yoga and Xu Zheng, director of US$200 million hit Lost In Thailand, may get lost in India for an upcoming film."

While there are still many obstacles to China-India collaborations, there are a number of compelling reasons why they should work together. Such a move could see the two countries get access to each other's huge box office territories – the second and sixth biggest film markets in the world.

This would be an interesting development for India's indies. With the exception of a few breakout hits, they struggle to find distribution in India and overseas. While the indie scene is booming in terms of new productions and festival plaudits, Indian multiplexes devote all their screens to Bollywood and Hollywood product. Ironically, films such as The Lunchbox and Anand Gandhi's Ship Of Theseus, which both managed decent box office results in India, are often promoted by Bollywood directors and stars.

Explaining the problems facing the indie sector, Partho Sen-Gupta, an Indian director, says: "Finding distribution is still an enormous battle. In India, releasing independent films theatrically is paid for by the producer 90% of the time. The distributors take whatever they can collect and films are often thrown out of the cinemas very quickly. Satellite TV sales are the only fallback we have." Sen-Gupta's own film, Sunrise, the story of a policeman haunted by the kidnapping of his daughter, premiered at this year's Busan International Film Festival in Korea.

Photo: Miss Lovely: 2012 Canne’s hit.
Miss Lovely: 2012 Canne's hit.
Photo: Miss Lovely: 2012 Canne’s hit.
Miss Lovely: 2012 Canne's hit.

The problems facing India's indies, however, is a story that will be depressingly familiar to Hong Kong and China's arthouse filmmakers. China, though, has a longer history of producing arthouse films. Now that India has also managed to establish a pipeline of independent movies, the NFDC is turning its attention to the distribution challenge and looking to build a market both in India and overseas. It's one area where Chinese and Indian filmmakers could share their experiences and, perhaps one day, even collaborate on films that Chinese and Indian audiences will both want to watch.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Goa

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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