It's not every day that one gets a chance to be on the front lines of filmmaking. Indie films seem to be buzzwords these days with many low-budget-yet-large-hearted films coming out in the last few years and winning acclaim. Whether there's an indie movement or a wave happening, is for the future to decide. What is indisputable is that filmmakers across the country are picking up their cameras and making their films the way they want, unhindered by monetary considerations.
So when I was offered an opportunity to work alongside Devashish Makhija (Agli Baar, Taandav, El'ayichi, Abs nt, Rahim Murge Pe Mat Ro) on his upcoming film, I jumped on it. Here's a chance to see first-hand the mechanics of indie filmmaking in action. I have been embedded with the team for four months now, assisting him while also sharing my observations once every week with you. The film is now in post-production and you can read all the earlier posts here.
Going from the shoot to post-production is like moving from a game of football to that of chess. It has none of the hurly-burly, the cacophony or the adrenaline of a shoot. Sitting in the editing studio, watching the same shots again and again can be quite a meditative experience. Or a soporific one, depending on how the film is shaping up.
"Forget the grand plan. Forget the master scheme. Forget control. That is the bleak but true basis of independent cinema. Inch by motherfucking inch we must, because we have no other choice." I came across this quote by filmmaker Oliver Stone a couple of days back. No prizes for guessing that it was shared by an independent filmmaker, probably going through one of the many moments of self-doubt that are constant company for anyone foolish enough to embark on this journey.
The striking reality of Stone's words captures perfectly my experience of assisting Makhija on his film. The last four months have made me sympathetic to those filmmakers who choose to let go and work within the confines of the studio set up. There's a battle at every turn, and the process of indie filmmaking is marred by disappointments and compromises.
I don't mind my films not making it to the big screen... The kinds of stories I want to make aren't meant for theatrical distribution, they won't work with popcorn and cola. Devashish Makhija
"I don't think there's any need to mythologise the job or romanticise the struggle. I make films because I want to, there's nothing else that I would rather do. The problem begins when people tend to act like martyrs, as if people are obliged to watch their films," says Makhija.
Now that we are in post-production, he seems to have calmed down, relatively assured that the film will see the light of the day. I am also enjoying this part of the filmmaking process where you actually see the film coming together, frame by frame. There's time on our hands too as we throw around ideas for the poster, the teaser and the trailer. In between these we talk about this whole business of making independent films. Why does Makhija put up with all this, the stress, the disappointments, the rejections?
"Cinema is the medium for today's times. If I was born a hundred years back, I would've been an author, maybe written novels. I can reach more people through my films than I could ever hope to reach through my books," Makhija explains.
He thinks this is the best time to be an independent filmmaker. If we look at the evidence around, the numbers seem to be in his favour. Last few years have seen a lot of indie films come out of India. Technology has been a great enabler for those who've had interesting stories to tell but couldn't do so earlier as their stories didn't fit the mainstream narrative. However while production costs went down, enabling decentralised filmmaking, theatrical distribution got centralised in the last two decades ensuring that most of these indie films never saw the light of day or if released, barely mustered numbers.
If the film is going to be seen only on the small screen, then we might have to shoot more close-ups. Do away with the wide shots. I don't mind... Devashish Makhija
However with on-demand streaming finally making a splash that constraint is all set to go away—2016 was the year that saw the launch of Netflix and Amazon's video streaming services in India as well as a rapid ramp up by the domestic video streaming services. All this augurs well for those who are willing to hitch their wagons to digital wheels.
"I don't mind my films not making it to the big screen, in fact that's something I've long given up on. It could easily be construed as a case of sour grapes, but I realise that by giving up on that, I open up a sea of possibilities for myself as a filmmaker. The kinds of stories I have, that I want to make, aren't meant for theatrical distribution, they won't work with popcorn and cola," says Makhija.
No camera accessories, no problem. Give us a rope!
"Think digital, shoot digital, release digital" seems to be his mantra. And it's not a bad one. Although it hasn't worked yet, there's no saying it won't. But what does it mean to think digital? It means having to work with restricted budgets, at least for a while till its proven that it's possible to make blockbusters purely for the medium. It means having to frame keeping in mind the small screens on which the film will be seen.
"If the film is going to be seen only on the small screen, then we might have to shoot more close-ups. Do away with the wide shots. I don't mind that too much, most of my stories are character driven and I like to be close to my characters. So that's not too much of a sacrifice. I am willing to mould my filmmaking to suit the medium," explains Makhija.
Now that's an interesting approach I haven't heard anyone talk about. The lure of the big screen is too strong for most filmmakers to attempt this route. For them a film's journey isn't complete if it hasn't released theatrically. There's a lot of unlearning that needs to happen before more filmmakers adopt the digital route.
Those who do, I suspect, might find the alternative, rewarding. For the sake of good cinema, I hope it works out. Let a thousand filmmakers bloom, I say.