The Camera is There, but Where is the Screen? Or, Why Indian Alternative Film Needs Alternative Models to 'Market'
By Frederick Noronha
Control of information has many faces, not just IP. While digital technology has made it easier to create new content, closed cultural industries control ever more tightly distribution channels in real space. They make it harder, if not impossible, for independent producers to reach traditional audiences. To break this deadlock, new models of distribution are necessary.
Take this dilemma: something big is happening on the small screen across India. Alternative Indian documentary is booming. There's a whole lot of creative output coming out of a wide range of film-makers, who have the skills and courage to tell the truth bluntly, just as it is.
But, the reality is: virtually nobody is watching all these interesting alternative films. In spite of the fact that they bring in fascinating stories from across a subcontinent-sized country. Stories which would otherwise never get told, not in such graphic details and with fairly decent film-making skills that give you the impression of being there. Today most film-makers spend months or a few years making a film which then languishes unseen, un-written about, and largely unnoticed. A lucky few are able to win prizes at international competitions, or make a name for themselves there. But they're really not being noticed where it matters. So what's going wrong?
Alternative film-makers have, without even realizing it, adopted a model of distributing their work which is more suited to large players of the corporate world. Copyright-based models aren't earning them the millions nor taking them to the audiences which they so badly need. Unlike their counterparts in the Free Software world, alternative film-makers in India haven't quite accepted that they could gain both the audiences and popularity (and, indirectly, incomes too) by making a decided shift away from the copyrighted model. Take some of the work being put out by film-makers here, for instance.
Dhananjoy Mondal (37) of West Bengal has made a film on an unusual tribe of crow-eaters. He says: "The urge to know and explore the 'other' world of the marginal men (and women) has led to the formulation of this film." Vinayan Kodoth directed a "nearly non-verbal" film that "builds up a surreal picture of Bombay". It describes, for instance, what it feels like to be part of a desperate crowd of seven million commuters who use the sub-urban trains to travel to work each day. This film won awards at Madrid, Chicao, Uruguay, Ann Arbor, and Seoul.
As Anand Patwardhan, noted documentary-maker and old enough to be the father of many younger film-makers, says: "Audiences in India are ripe for good documentary films. I've had full houses just with word-of-mouth publicity at almost every screening done." Patwardhan
has been working to sell his film at reasonable prices, and as one of the big names in the field of documentary film has managed to get some of his excellent work shown in a few mainstream cine theatres and multiplexes.
In Orissa, eastern coastal India, the Bring Your Own Film Festival at Puri offers five days of films at a fee of as little as Rs 50 for students (four times that amount for non-students). The idea is simply: you bring your own film and screen it. This is no coincidence. Technology has become more affordable. Today, you don't need costly and bulky equipment to create a film - and digital technology is really driving down the price. Computers allow you to edit your movie on your desktop.
That's not all. Today, an alternate film can be shared via a CD. You can make the copies at home, and circulate it to your audience at a few Rupees per CD. At last year's International Film Festival of India held in Goa, the wealth of alternative cinema made its presence felt. Among the 20 'non-feature films' in Indian Panorama section, themes ranged from the nuclearisation of South Asia to the human price of war, films on artists and folk musicians, about ethnic tribal clashes in the North East, and even a film about a film. Films screened included 'The Green Warriors - Apatanis' (on the unusual tribal sustainable agricultural practices in Arunachal), 'I Couldn't Be Your Son, Mom' (about a gender crisis), 'Invisible Parsis: The Poor of a Prosperous Community' by Kaevan Umrigar, and Sanjivan Lal's 'Is God Deaf?' (on religion-linked noise pollution).
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Out there, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands -
in this country of one billion - of enthusiastic people behind the camera making their own films. For a nation which has had little of an alternative film-making tradition, caught in between the mammoth Bollywood world of commercial films and the government-dominated field of documentary film for long, this is quite a positive development.
Take the case of the Kriti Film Club of Alaknanda in New Delhi. They've been running their club to take "thought-provoking cinema" and use it to "deepen understanding of social and development issues amongst film makers and viewers". But, more importantly, they hope to create a space where students, activists, academics, development professionals, media, and friends can come together and interact through meaningful cinema. By keeping these films on sale, they hope to encourage the otherwise neglected film-makers' work.
Most of these young and highly talented people are doing a great job too. They're telling the story in a way which simply doesn't surface in the mainstream media otherwise. They're speaking out in favour of the weak and powerless, who are left without a voice. Of course, there are still thousands of stories waiting to be told, in a country the mind-boggling diversity of India. In more ways than one, it's as if the genie has got out of the bottle. There is no putting it back either. Films are becoming easier to shoot, the technology is reaching the hands of those who can use it, and suddenly you no more need costly hard-to-access equipment to make or view a film or even to easily share one.
But there's one crucial part of this jigsaw that's missing. There's simply no distribution channel for alternate film in India. And alternate film-makers are, till now, reluctant to look at alternate approaches, such as non-copyrighted models. Lawyer Lawrence Liang of Bangalore's Alternative Law Forum has argued that Indian documentary and alternative film makers would do well to think of starting to license their works under an 'open content' license. Liang argues: "Most documentary film makers do not live off royalty in any case. Their films are either commissioned or they earn some money from various prizes, invitations and the like. So the fear of the loss of revenue cannot be a very serious one."
Film-maker Anjali Monteiro, who's based in Mumbai, sees things differently: "The possibilities for public broadcast are very limited, given the censorship (of alt films ) by the state and of the market. While there are attempts to reach out through local, travelling festivals and screenings by activist groups and educational networks, these are sporadic and pitifully few for a country the size of India." Indian alternative film simply deserves a wider impact. But can it think of innovative ways of reaching out to a greater audience?
Frederick Noronha is a Goa, India based independent journalist, co-founder of BytesForAll, and active in both cyberspace and channels for alernative communications. He runs the Docuwallahs2 mailing-list on Indian documentary film at