Back to India, where there has never been so much content being made, and perhaps never been so many complex political and commercial factors impacting that content. It feels as if the pandemic never happened in India, as the country is producing a staggering range of films and television – from four quadrant blockbusters like Pathaan, to web series and features for OTT platforms, and smaller arthouse films on the festival circuit, across all genres, languages and aesthetics. But first a fun item…
The Yash Raj Films Affect And Success Of ‘Pathaan’
Smriti Mundhra’s four-part docuseries The Romantics, about late Bollywood icon Yash Chopra and the studio he founded, Yash Raj Films (YRF), dropped on Netflix this week. Chopra’s famously reclusive son and successor, Aditya Chopra, is interviewed extensively, along with Shah Rukh Khan, indeed all the Khans, Karan Johar, Hrithik Roshan, a host of other stars, as well as scriptwriters, costume designers, critics and journalists.
It’s well worth a watch because we rarely get to see case studies of film companies, successful or otherwise, and it gives a useful perspective on the history of Indian cinema. While it has caused some merriment in the local industry (especially its claims that nepo-babies must be talented to succeed) it’s also an insight into good old-fashioned, gut instinct, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, and the dizzying highs and crashing lows that come with that strategy. No algorithms and focus groups at YRF. Just Aditya Chopra visiting a cinema every weekend to watch a film, and more importantly, watching the audience.
While it’s a strategy that Burbank executives would dismiss, there’s something to be said for a studio that has remained fiercely independent, despite being courted by just about every Hollywood conglomerate, is still a recognisable brand after half a century, and still producing hits. YRF has had it share of flops over the past few years, but on January 25, it released Pathaan, starring Shah Rukh Khan, which has become the second biggest Hindi film ever with a worldwide gross of $120m.
Pathaan is not breaking any progressive boundaries, and there’s a theory in India that it succeeded because the audience wanted to support Shah Rukh Khan – a soft target of right-wing Hindu nationalist trolls during the pandemic due to his religion. But in addition to giving us Shah Rukh, the film delivers a blood-smeared hero, gravity-defying fight scenes, explosions, catchy songs and scantily clad heroines. In other words – it gives the audience exactly what it wants.
The question is what happens when Aditya Chopra retires. From what we see in this documentary, many of the other producers of his generation in Mumbai appear to be jet-setting, English-speaking, designer label wearing “filmi” people. They don’t look like they spend much time sitting in single screen theatres. Perhaps that’s why we’re seeing more popular Indian films emerging from production centres in the south.
Indian Films At Rotterdam And Berlin Film Festivals
At the other end of the spectrum of Indian cinema, are the many films that played at this year’s Rotterdam film festival, and a handful to look forward to in Berlin.
Rotterdam screened more than 30 Indian films this year, including Devashish Makhija’s Joram, a survival thriller about a displaced indigenous person, which premiered in the Big Screen section, and two films in the Bright Future section – Vignesh Kumulai’s Tamil-language Karparaa and Varun Grover’s Hindi-language All India Rank, about students cramming for India’s competitive IIT exams, which also closed the festival.
The Harbour section selected two Malayalam-language films – Don Palathara’s Family, a quiet dissection of community and conformity, and Senna Hegde’s absurdist crime drama 1744 White Alto; along with Santosh Sivan’s experimental fantasy Moha, and Shahi AJ’s documentary, Letters Unwritten To Naiyer Masud.
Rotterdam also had a whole section dedicated to India, ‘Focus: The Shape Of Things To Come’, which asked this question: “is the institutional success of right-wing Hindu-nationalist groups and the persecution of dissenting voices a sign for the shape of things to come – and not only in India?”
Films that screened in this section included older titles such as Rakesh Sharma’s 2004 documentary Final Solution, about the 2002 Gujarat riots recently explored in BBC doc India: The Modi Question; Salman Khan starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan, made back in 2015 when Bollywood could still tell cross-religion stories; and new films including Harshad Nalawade’s Follower, about a misguided small-town journalist who supports a populist politician. Hats off to Rotterdam for shining a light on the present-day realities of one of the world’s biggest content-producing countries, and doing so in such a thoughtful and entertaining manner.
Meanwhile, Berlin is premiering Chhatrapal Ninawe’s Marathi-language Ambush (Ghaath) in the Panorama section; Sreemoyee Singh’s And, Towards Happy Alleys, about Iranian filmamkers and activists, in Panorama Documentary; and Ashish Avinash Bende’s Marathi-language Aatmapamphlet, a coming-of-age story set in 1990s India, in Generation 14Plus.
Ambush, set on the fringes of India’s Maoist-affected tribal areas, was selected for Panorama in 2021, but pulled from the festival by its backer Jio Studios for reasons that have never been explained. Produced by Manish Mundra’s Drishyam Films, Ambush has finally made it to Berlin with Shiladitya Bora’s Platoon One Films listed as co-producer, so the company has presumably bought out Jio’s share.
While these festival selections may be the tail end of a pandemic backlog, it’s encouraging to see so many non-mainstream Indian films emerging at a time when there’s not really any government funding and the space for questioning the authorities or tackling senstive topics has been reduced.
Zee Studios is building a slate of festival-friendly films – both Joram and Aatmapamphlet are financed by the studio. Jio Studios has backed other films that had a smoother passage to film festivals last year. But most indie Indian filmmakers I’ve spoken to recently seem to be relying on a system of patronage. Streamlined will attempt to track this space and how feasible it is as the year progresses. At least with the return of Mumbai Film Festival this October, there’s a much-needed platform for showcasing these films.
Self-Censorship Among India’s Studios And Streamers
One film that could have premiered at Rotterdam, but sadly didn’t, is Dibakar Banerjee’s Tees, which as I wrote for Deadline has been shelved by Netflix and not able to travel to festivals, at least while the streamer’s name is still on the film.
Netflix isn’t saying that India’s political climate is the reason for shelving the film, but if that were true, it‘s not totally incomprehensible that its executives do not want to risk being arrested and imprisoned, a threat faced by Amazon Prime Video execs when political thriller Tandav was released. As Streamlined has noted before, it’s easy enough for people in liberal Western countries to judge others who don’t stand up to authoritarianism. They’re not the ones facing a prison cell.
But this situation also highlights an issue with the streamers globally, that with a corporate tap spurting out cash and a platform to fill, there’s usually nobody among the executive ranks to fight for an individual project. Nobody needs to struggle to raise finance, no delicate patchwork of investors and distributors is being pieced together to make a film happen. As a result, it’s more likely there’s nobody at the decision-making level who is emotionally invested. Easy come, easy go…
Banerjee is correct in saying that Tees is his best work to date and not directly confrontational. The film doesn’t attack any particular government or ideology, all it does is ask questions that these days we’re being told we’re not supposed to ask. He’s now left fighting for the project by himself, in the same way that Chhatrapal Ninawe had to fight for Ambush, writing posts on social media after his film was pulled from Berlin. In his case, somebody came along to buy the film from its corporate backer, so fingers crossed this will also happen for Tees.
Of course, this is not a situation unique to India. We’ve seen it happen in so many countries (and it’s happening right now in Hong Kong, where I’m based) in which fear and intimidation and the resulting self-censorship are much more effective than outright banning anything. Bans get widely reported and are not a good look for governments trying to attract tourists and foreign investment, whereas self-censorship is much more difficult to detect and usually nobody gets blamed.
As Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, currently serving as a jury member in Berlin, said at the jury press conference at the festival – cinema is the first thing that authoritarian governments come for. Before the pandemic, lack of finance and distribution were probably the biggest challenges facing independent filmmakers, but we now seem to have this issue of self-censorship in so many countries. It’s becoming more important than ever to figure out where are the spaces in which cinema can survive, and how to defend it.