Who is an independent filmmaker? This was the question trending in Malayalam film circles after Lijo Jose Pellissery, the director of critically acclaimed films Ea Ma You and Jallikkattu and the commercial blockbuster Amen, declared on social media that he was an 'independent filmmaker'.
Historically, those who keep themselves out of the studio system of filmmaking have been identified as independent filmmakers.
'Studio', another term for commercial film production process, has a tried and tested way of executing a film project right from its announcement, release in theatres to promotions. Those who make independent or ‘indie’ films do not submit themselves to these processes because they fear the restrictions dictated by the market might stifle their creativity.
For many of them, filmmaking is a form of self-expression and a quest for critical acclaim; if commercial success comes along, that is indeed a bonus.
However, the term 'indie' is used by different people to denote different things. In India, the term is generally used to mean low budget, parallel films, either self-funded or crowd-funded, which are very often made for the festival circuit.
In the West, this definition does not hold much water.
For example, the racism drama 12 Years a Slave, a 20-million-dollar production funded by the director Steve McQueen and the lead actor Brad Pitt along with a couple of production companies, swept the awards including the Oscars in 2014 and grossed nearly 188 million dollars (a whopping Rs 1350 crore) worldwide. Can it still lay claim to the indie tag? Not only accepted as one but is counted among the best in that category.
Another differentiator between an indie and a mainstream studio production is the distribution. Most Indies are premiered in film festivals and use the festival fame to create a buzz rather than spending huge money for promotion.
Take Lijo Jose Pellissery’s case. His debut film, Nayakan, and sophomore, City of God, which established him as a director with potential, were not backed by big production houses and were box office disasters. His third film and his first blockbuster, Amen, too was bankrolled by a lesser-known production house.
The film was released without much publicity and promotions.
His last two outings Ea Ma You and Jallikkattu, despite having the backing of the production houses, were produced and released like true Indie films.
Ea Ma You had bagged some top honours before it hit theatres. Jallikkattu was premiered in the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, screened at the Busan Festival and selected for the best director trophy at the IFFI that year before the theatre release.
The festival buzz and awards were effectively used to promote the films. By the time Jallikkattu hit OTT, it was already a familiar name across audiences, cutting across language barriers.
Now, look at Sufiyum Sujathayum, the first OTT release in Malayalam. Though many people mistook it for an indie film, it is indeed a commercial production meant for the theatre audience.
Its director Naranippuzha Shanavas, who had earlier made Karie - easily one of the best Indie films in Malayalam - was trying to walk a different path.
It is worth noting that Karie didn’t get the attention it deserved because of the lack of budget and support it faced as a true-blue Indie film. Many are discovering the film after he made news with the OTT release.
The commentary that creates the art house-commercial divide attempts to exclude those who use the mainstream 'studio' way of producing and marketing films from the indie category. However, a lot of films that claim to be independent films use the mainstream actors and producers to promote and distribute their films. Do these directors engage with those in the other side of the spectrum in their own terms? We cannot say that with absolute certainty. It’s a give-and-take deal in most cases.
Mainstream actors, such as Manju Warrier or Joju George, who come forward to produce and act in an independent director's film might also be trying to boost his/her career with awards and acclaim from the festival circuit by playing a part in a movie that has the potential to win critical acclaim. In return, the filmmaker gets the necessary funding, publicity and opportunity to release in a higher number of theatres. For an onlooker, it looks like a win-win situation.
Nepotism and networking
It is worth noting that nobody brands Adoor Gopalakrishnan or Shaji N Karun a commercial filmmaker even though they had made multiple films with the superstars including Mammooty, Mohanlal and Dileep with the support of production houses.
The pioneers of Malayalam independent cinema had produced classics that will be remembered forever. The reason: they chose to be distinct from the rest of the crowd and introduced the audience to a new grammar and fresh content. Despite the backing of production houses, they had complete ownership of their movies and could work independently of mass market sensibilities.
Unfortunately, those who were expected to take the legacy of the masters did not innovate enough with content or form. Instead of being fiercely independent in ways they romanticise parallel cinema, most of them accepted funding from the government in the name of 'packages' and worked with curators and lobbies that monopolise the award and festival selections and continued to pay lip service to the cause of independent cinema.
Recent selections to international festivals and coveted awards would explain how nepotism and building connections work wonders for some at the expense of the truly deserving.
The Indie tag is no excuse to produce a different type of formulaic film. It is neither an excuse to stick to old-school production values.
Independent cinema will exist as long as new filmmakers who are willing to experiment come up with fresh and innovative ideas.
Take Off director Mahesh Narayanan making See You Soon on an iPhone inside an apartment with Fahadh Faasil, with minimal cast and production infrastructure, is not a lesser experiment than anything that a 'certified' indie filmmaker does. Efforts to restrict them in boxes won’t help the art. Channelising the resources that they possess, be it their own production infrastructure or talent, towards the right projects might because the complete lack of resources, funding and connections is indeed a major hurdle that a newcomer faces.
It is time we moved to a different kind of production and distribution model for independent cinema that factors in the changes that have happened over the years. Scores of Indie production companies exist in the West that do a stellar job of taking the best indie films to the world stage to bag top honours.
We should replicate the culture by forming a wider alliance and pooling in all available resources. This lockdown is an opportunity to reflect and make amends.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)