Sunil Doshi is not a man who gives up. He calls himself a film activist – for decades now, he has remained committed to the cause of quality storytelling. Back in the 1980s he ran a film society in Mumbai that initiated viewers to world cinema. He put his own money into the 2007 comedy Bheja Fry starring Vinay Pathak. He also made a pioneering attempt to bring world cinema to our drawing rooms by launching the movie channel NDTV Lumiere with Prannoy Roy and Manmohan Shetty. The channel gave us access to great titles like the Spanish horror film The Orphanage and the French-Iranian film Persepolis. Unfortunately, he had to fold when it went into heavy losses.
These setbacks, says Doshi, hasn’t killed his optimism or his larger goal of increasing cinema literacy in India. To that end, this Friday Doshi brings to us Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning film The Salesman. This is the first of many films that will be shown in India courtesy Sunil Doshi Presents, a new label under his company Alliance Media and Entertainment.
Even as he kicks off his new venture with hope and excitement, Doshi admits that the process of bringing a foreign language film to India can be long, tiresome and thankless. Here he takes us through the battle of bringing a film from a foreign festival to an Indian multiplex.
1. Wooing The Sales Agent
When we meet world sales agents or producers, we have to tell them that we’re not in the position to afford the kind of prices they are asking for. The first question that they ask is, ‘Are you kidding us? You are a country of 1.3 billion people. Are you negotiating this price based on a myth or a lie?’ It is very difficult for us to convince them that even with 1.3 billion people, 9000 screens, and Hollywood and regional films releasing every Friday, it is impossible to reach out. I was breaking my head to tell them that there is no market and that we are in the process of developing one.
2. Getting Customers To Pay
This brings me to my other challenge. People do not want to pay. They want to go to festivals, screenings or download it online. So there are many mindsets to challenge.It was the French sales agents who came down with a huge delegation and actually saw what we were talking about. They went to every film festival and saw that when Persepolis was shown the theatre was totally packed. But when I released it in about 9 theatres across the country, I had a total paid audience of 62 people. I couldn’t even cover the cost of a small block of advertising in the entertainment pages.
3. The Custom Challenge
We had to pay more than 130 per cent duty. At one point of time, we were importing Beta and Hi-band tapes. People didn’t understand that this was content. They put us in the same category as equipment or consumables.
4.The Distribution Struggle
Once when I was trying to bring a film down, a person I rather not name told me, ‘I can’t even remember the name of your film, forget about showing it to people.’ I initiated the channel NDTV Lumiere with Prannoy Roy and Manmohan Shetty. We had acquired about 600-700 world cinema films for it. We pumped in about Rs 35 crores. Can you imagine cable operators asked us for Rs 10 -20 crores to just carry our signals so that people can have access to our channel? We folded up. We weren't just swimming against the tide, we were swimming against the tsunami of the mindset.
5. Getting Past Our Reputation
We don’t have the best reputation. Agents see us as a country of pirates – people who download illegally. Also there is a history of people who thought this could be a great business so they had done a oral deal and did not go through the complete cycle of deal closure. So a lot of people have lied and deceived world sales agents in the past. Even on The Salesman, our OTT, DVD and TV holdbacks were up to December 2017. I said by then the minuscule portion of people in our country who want to see would have already seen it in an unauthorised manner.