‘The Slow Death Of Indie Cinema’: What Happens When Big Commercial Films Go Film Fest-ing

My Name is Khan at Berlinale, SS Rajamouli at TIFF, Adipurush at Tribeca — on paper, there’s space for both indies and blockbusters at film festivals. The reality is less roomy
‘The Slow Death Of Indie Cinema’: What Happens When Big Commercial Films Go Film Fest-ing

When news of Om Raut’s Ramayana adaptation Adipurush being selected to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival broke, the reactions were far from complimentary. How did Adipurush, roundly criticised for its shoddy VFX back home, land a coveted international festival spot? Was it really the best way of “introducing audiences to the joys of popular Indian Cinema” as Tribeca’s writeup of the film claimed? What did Tribeca – which describes itself as “a platform for independent filmmaking, creative expression and immersive entertainment” – see in it? With right-wing outfit Vishva Hindu Parishad claiming that Adipurush “ridiculed Hindu society”, was Tribeca aware that the film was attracting criticism from its own target audience? What did it even mean that it was part of the festival’s Escape From Tribeca sidebar, dedicated to movies that “make audiences stomp their feet and shout out loud”? (Screening alongside Adipurush are Bruce Lee-starrer Enter The Dragon, which celebrates its 50th anniversary, and an erotic body-swapping horror about multiple-personality disorder.)

India has a long history of its commercial films being selected to play at international festivals. Think Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998) at the Cannes Film Festival back or the numerous Shah Rukh Khan films that have played at the Berlin International Film Festival. In the past few years, Zoya Akhtar’s rap movie Gully Boy (2019) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali's sex worker biopic Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) have premiered at the Berlinale’s Special section, which, according to the festival, is for “glamour and popular films…and the honouring of extraordinary film personalities.” In January this year, tickets for SS Rajamouli’s RRR (2022), screened 10 months after its release as part of Beyond Fest’s ‘encoRRRe’ event, sold out in only 98 seconds. (Beyond Fest describes itself as the highest-attended genre film festival in America.)

Prabhas in Adipurush.
Prabhas in Adipurush.

What happens when big, splashy films do the rounds of the international festival circuit? It’s easy enough to understand why Indian documentaries and indie films would want to be selected by film festivals. Grappling with grim prospects of being released theatrically, a lack of budgets and low commercial viability, festivals offer platforms and a rare opportunity to be seen, discussed, celebrated. In addition to getting media coverage and audiences, there’s also the prospect of landing distributors. What do commercial films with an in-built fanbase and hype machine have to gain from a festival selection? It seems even their makers are skeptical.

“I hear things like, ‘Oh once we put the festival laurels on the poster, it will diminish our commercial prospects back home.’ They think the mass audience will see that and think, 'Oh this is a festival film, it's not a mass film’,” said Josh Hurtado, a programming consultant at Fantastic Fest and the founder of film marketing and distribution company Potentate Films. Given the rigid dichotomy between the mainstream and arthouse in India, Hurtado’s requests to programme certain commercial films into festivals are often rejected. Most producers don’t see touring the festival circuit as a necessary expense or valuable investment either.

If they play their cards right, however, it’s becoming apparent that their films could walk away with international attention, foreign funding and even awards recognition.

Bhansali in Berlin

“It's very telling that right after the Berlin International Film Festival discovered Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam in 1999, the Cannes Film Festival selected Bhansali’s next film, Devdas (2002), to play out of competition,” said Meenakshi Shedde, South Asia delegate, Berlin Film Festival. “Berlinale was the first to give mainstream India cinema the respectability it had been denied in the rarefied art house festival circuit."

A festival selection works as a signifier of quality – international audiences who have been following the festival for years are likely to pay attention to a selection because they assume that if the programmers have included it in their curated lineup, there must be something that makes it worthy of the festival’s time. It’s the kind of credibility a big mainstream release can’t earn through box-office receipts alone and it holds out the possibility of expanding one’s audience. If the film does well, there’s always the possibility that the audience will be motivated to seek out more of that director’s work.

The way a commercial film catches a film festival’s attention can sometimes be case of luck by chance. Take, for example, the case of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), which German curator Dorothee Wenner caught at a Colaba cinema, upon the recommendation of the taxi driver she had become friends with as he ferried her around the city. She’d been in Mumbai to make selections for the Berlin International Film Festival’s lineup and all her time was spent inside filmmakers’ studios and editing suites, watching as many films as she could back-to-back. Enamoured by the Bhansali film, she decided it would play at the festival. Great news, except it was slotted into the Forum, the Berlinale’s most experimental section. Meenakshi Shedde, the Berlin Film Festival’s South Asia delegate, still remembers her reaction: “First of all, you're taking Bhansali, that too Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and then you're putting it in the most experimental section? This is the most mainstream film on the planet. Please explain what’s going on here.” 

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s first screening in Berlin was a 9.30pm show, scheduled to end after midnight. The other films in the section included a documentary about the conditions in Belgrade following NATO's bombing, and an anthology of 14 short films, each shot with a static camera. 

Aishwarya Rai and Salman Khan in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.
Aishwarya Rai and Salman Khan in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.

The story has a happy ending. Not only did Bhansali’s film about grand romantic gestures get a packed house, but on seeing the crowds outside who refused to go home, the ordinarily strict festival organisers made the rare exception and let people sit in the aisles. Bhansali, who stood at the back, smoking throughout, was overwhelmed. The film ended to a roar of applause. By the time he finished the Q and A session, it was past 1am.

Finding new audiences 

A film like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam didn’t need the certificate of approval that comes from a film festival to improve its commercial prospects, but exposure to international media buzz can help a film find markets beyond the traditional diaspora or non-resident Indian pockets. In many cases, the stamp of approval from a big film festival can translate directly into funding. The massive response to Don (2006) being screened at the Berlin International Film Festival’s International Forum section led to its sequel becoming a German-Indian co-production, made by Excel Entertainment and Film Base Berlin. Don 2, which went on to have its premiere at the 62nd edition of the Berlinale, was also the first Hindi film ever to be shot in the German capital. “Shah Rukh found in Berlin a non-diaspora audience. German audiences fell in love with him,” said Deepti DCunha, former South Asia consultant for the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight and artistic director of the Mumbai Film Festival.

Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra in Don 2.
Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra in Don 2.

Shedde concurs. This year, she had to fend off furious Shah Rukh fans asking why Pathaan wasn’t selected for Berlinale (its release date of January made it ineligible for the February-scheduled festival, which prioritizes international and UK premieres).

It’s not just Shah Rukh – DCunha explains that exposure to international media usually benefits actors rather than directors or writers. The results aren’t always direct or immediate, but the attention these stars garner at red carpet premieres and screenings aid their career down the line. As the story goes, Julia Roberts, having watched Devdas at the 2002 Cannes International Film Festival, called Aishwarya Rai “the most beautiful woman on the planet.” “Next thing you know, Aishwarya has a L'Oreal contract and she's walking the Cannes red carpet every year,” says DCunha. “We already knew that she's incredibly beautiful. Cannes just gave her a platform for the world to recognise that.”

And then there are the awards campaigns that a festival run can help bolster. Hurtado convinced an initially reluctant Rajamouli to participate in the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) talk by describing the visibility that one of North America’s largest festivals could bring him. He positioned TIFF as one of the top five film festivals in the world in terms of the talent it could attract, which worked. It also helped that filmmakers Werner Herzog and Park Chan-wook were part of that year’s industry conferences and that the speaker whose slot was right before Rajamouli’s was actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry. Months later, RRR was being tipped for Golden Globes and Oscar nominations in the American media. 

‘The Slow Death Of Indie Cinema’: What Happens When Big Commercial Films Go Film Fest-ing
SS Rajamouli On His Process, Balancing Art And Commerce, And RRR’s Big Release

“We were very fortunate to get that spot, which helped raise awareness of the film,” said Hurtado. “It gave Academy voters or film critics a reason to say, ‘If TIFF thinks Rajamouli’s important, maybe we should check out what he’s done.’.” He also said RRR’s selection to Beyond Fest was “crucial” to the film nabbing the Golden Globe and Oscar win for best original song. “We had an audience of almost 1,000 people. A lot of Academy voters were in that audience,” said Hurtado. Once RRR re-released across American theatres in the run-up to the Oscars, Hurtado recalled talking to people for whom it was the first Indian film they’d ever watched and who were now more open to checking out other films from the country.

Hurtado also traces RRR’s success back to Rajamouli film Eega, a revenge tale of a man reincarnated as a housefly, being selected at film festivals back in 2012. “Having that film appear at festivals showed the financiers back in India, like Shobu Yarlagadda who produced Baahubali, that Rajamouli’s work had value outside of an Indian audience,” he said. “If Eega hadn't gone outside of the diaspora, Baahubali and then RRR would’ve been made on a smaller scale. Rajamouli’s been able to make those advances based on the successes of his past films, to which festivals have been crucial.” It was Yarlagadda who convinced a hesitant Rajamouli to agree to Eega being programmed at Fantastic Fest. The film then went on to play at the Busan, Shanghai and Madrid film festivals and at the Cannes Film Market.

Nani and Samantha Ruth Prabhu in Eega.
Nani and Samantha Ruth Prabhu in Eega.

Winning an award at a festival itself takes hard work and an astute contextualisation of the film. When DCunha worked as India consultant to Marco Mueller, artistic director of Rome Film Festival in 2014, she recalls positioning Vishal Bhardwaj as an Indian auteur who was adapting Shakespearean works. “It was carefully thought of – we held a panel discussion with him at the oldest theatre in Rome, along with three or four other theatre directors who’d put on Shakespeare’s plays,” she recalled. “We said, ‘Here comes a director from India whose Macbeth rivals that of Akira Kurosawa’s.’.” This framing of the film in a relatable context worked: Bhardwaj's Hamlet adaptation Haider beat neo-noir thrilller Nightcrawler for the festival’s People’s Choice Award. 

What do the festivals get out of it?

For Berlinale, which earns a substantial part of its revenue from ticket sales – Shedde estimates it sells 3,30,000 tickets a year – programming a Shah Rukh Khan film is a no-brainer. “You can never ever program a Shah Rukh film in any of the cinemas in West Berlin, which are these tiny 300 or 500-seaters. You can only program it in the cinemas of former East Berlin, these Soviet-style massive 1000-2000 seaters,” she says. Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), Om Shanti Om (2007) and My Name is Khan (2010) have all played at the fest. According to news reports from 2010, MNIK tickets sold out in five seconds flat, with some later being auctioned on eBay for 1,000 euros (then about Rs 60,000) each. Programmers even describe fans queuing up in -2°C weather.

The ability to attract big names is also a draw for sponsors. “Festivals require glamour to sustain themselves because with the glamour comes the marketing and the sponsorship and the people giving the festival money to run itself,” says DCunha. “Festival programming is always complex – they’re championing arthouse cinema, while falling back on commercial cinema to support themselves.”

Harder to measure, but just as important, is prestige. Which festival doesn’t want to be the one that’s ‘discovered’ an exciting new film or a breakthrough talent? Public perception matters, says Hurtado, who programmed Eega at Fantastic Fest knowing that its unique premise and its many set-pieces would generate excitement and conversations, particularly among an audience that hadn’t been exposed to an Indian film before.

As he explains it, the relationship between a film and a festival is a mutually beneficial one. While festivals help to raise the film's profile, a film doing well at a festival tells producers and sales agents that this is a good place to go from a publicity and marketing point of view. “Then we use that as leverage while trying to secure other film premieres and say, ‘Look, we did this for such-and-such a film. Why wouldn’t you want that for yours? It’s a matter of reputation on both sides.” For many programmers, finding that rare hidden gem is a point of curatorial pride – it doesn’t matter how much buzz a film has back home, if you’re the one who’s introduced it to an international audience, job well done.

Take the Vermont International Film Festival (VTIFF), which screened RRR in November last year and made it a point to note on its website that this was possibly the first blockbuster the fest had ever presented in its 38-year history. “There was so much publicity around the film that it drew my attention,” said Orly Yadin, the festival’s executive director. While VTIFF prioritises independent cinema, and acknowledges RRR most definitely isn’t, it still jumped at the chance to introduce audiences to a film from a different country. Vermont doesn’t have a large Indian population, and it’s rare for non-English films to screen at local theatres, but Yadin still hoped RRR was a film at least a part of the audience had heard of or read about. “We’re a non-profit organisation and our mission statement is 'Bringing the world to Vermont through film'. We’re trying to educate the community,” she said. The screening wasn’t completely sold out, and four people left during the intermission explaining that the high-decibel, high-octane film was just “too much” for them. Still, the ones that stayed were appreciative of the novel experience, she added.

Fighting for space

“The arthouse guys are wild and up in arms. I’ve got nasty stinkers from some of them,” said Shedde. “They feel that festivals are their last little cabbage patch left where they can have some breathing space and some oxygen because no arthouse films can be assured of a theatrical release?”

Producer and publicist Mauli Singh, who works out festival strategies for indie films, points out that the filmmakers are right. Post-pandemic, it’s become even harder for independent films to secure distributors. Globally, streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video have changed tack and are looking to woo new subscribers using mainstream projects, often preferring celebrities and big names. In India, few streaming platforms are willing to pick up independent films and those that are pay peanuts. Some insist that the film release theatrically first, which is often an impossible task and sometimes feel like an exercise in self-sabotage, especially since it doesn’t guarantee a platform. Take, for example, RK/ R Kay (2022), an eccentric drama about a director who discovers a character from his film has stepped out of the screen and into his life. Despite releasing in theatres and getting good reviews, the film is not available on any platform. 

Festivals remain one of the few avenues where independent films can find an audience. Recently, however, more and more mainstream producers have been asking Singh to help them submit their films to festivals. “It’s like an elephant competing with an ant. The mainstream is encroaching on a space which is so sacred for independent film. This is the slow death of indie cinema,” she said. Singh added that while festivals help blockbuster films simply find newer markets to conquer, they’re also the only area where a first-time filmmaker has a shot of being discovered in the first place. Think of the Venice Film Festival, where Chaitanya Tamhane’s 2014 legal drama Court premiered and won the Best Film in the Horizons category, and where his 2017 film The Disciple became the first Indian film since Monsoon Wedding (2001) to be selected for the main competition category.

‘The Slow Death Of Indie Cinema’: What Happens When Big Commercial Films Go Film Fest-ing
Chaitanya Tamhane, After The Premiere Of The Disciple At The Venice Film Festival: “Every Film Is A New Battle”

However, programmers maintain that selection to a festival depends on the quality of the film, and the festival’s vision and scale. It’s wrong to assume that a commercial film could nab an independent film’s slot, and vice versa. “I never program one over the other. My job is to recommend great cinema, irrespective of any label,” said Shedde.

What’s stopping more commercial films from playing at festivals?

Traditionally, mainstream filmmakers and producers have steered clear of film festivals. Studios are well aware that they don’t need a festival to help promote their film, which makes it hard to convince them otherwise. “Their budget is far bigger than what the festival prize is,” explains DCunha. Festivals are seen as a hassle, for which they have to work out the actors’ dates, possibly move or cancel shoots and coordinate travel plans. And once a film has released, the natural impulse is to move on to the next. 

‘The Slow Death Of Indie Cinema’: What Happens When Big Commercial Films Go Film Fest-ing
Hit Seekers: Are OTTs in India Turning Away From ‘Good’ Films?

Many producers are also terrified of potentially negative buzz ahead of a film’s official release. It’s understandable – when you have Rs 500 crore riding on a movie, the last thing you want is for it to be savaged by critics at a festival before the rest of the world can buy tickets. “It’s a genuine problem,” said Shedde. “They might be confident of their film, but they’re also terrified of the reviews.” It doesn’t help that films in the country are usually worked on till the last possible moment, which means even those producers who are willing to submit theirs to festivals run the risk of missing deadlines.

Often, it’s a question of release dates. Festivals value premieres, which means films that plan to release earlier or have already released are automatically out of the running. “Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur (2015) had been submitted to and accepted at a major festival, which took place after the film’s proposed release date,” said Hurtado. To lock down the festival premiere, however, the studio would have to postpone its release day. They declined. “I tried to get Andhadhun (2018) for Fantastic Fest but they wouldn’t give me anything to watch or work from,” he said. Indian films that release beforehand in the United Kingdom (UK) are ineligible for the Berlinale, which mandates, at minimum, a European premiere. Since the UK is a major market for Indian films, however, studios see it as ripe for box-office returns rather than festival laurels.

Radhika Apte and Ayushmann Khurrana in Andhadhun.
Radhika Apte and Ayushmann Khurrana in Andhadhun.

RRR played a handful of festivals, including the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, much after its official theatrical release and even after it had dropped on Netflix. That it had already become a phenomenon worked in its favour, prompting festivals to platform it in the hopes of attracting a bigger audience. “If we’d programmed it at Beyond Fest before its initial release, I don't know if it would’ve had the same impact,” says Hurtado. “The Beyond Fest screening worked like a victory lap.” 

Adipurush’s first Tribeca screening is on June 13, just three days before it releases in theatres. As a publicity campaign, it may be a clever move. If the film is well-received, it could be a fantastic boost (especially considering the lukewarm reception to the film at home) and if it’s criticised, then buying tickets to watch it in India can be pushed as a way of defending the Hindu story that the film retells, against the criticism of the West. Incidentally, on Tribeca’s website, director Om Raut is described as “award-winning”, a descriptor that is not included in the film’s trailer. 

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