Chhatrapal Ninawe’s Ghaath And How Studios Mistreat Independent Filmmakers In India

The filmmaker's allegations against Jio Studios is another reminder of how studios disregard the effort and passion poured into small, independent films, which vanish without a trace
Chhatrapal Ninawe’s Ghaath And How Studios Mistreat Independent Filmmakers In India

Director Chhatrapal Ninawe asks me if I've seen Nagraj Manjule's Jhund. He wants to explain the alleged injustice being meted out to him by a studio using a scene from the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer, where a character (Ankush Gedam) is stopped by airport security for carrying a knife, and a heavy silence hangs around what will happen next. "My passport is cleared, I have no police case against my name, and my plans are in place to get on that plane. But Jio Studios is contesting that the football I play with is theirs, and hence I shouldn't be on the plane. Can you believe the absurdity of my situation?" Ninawe asks during a phone interview.

Last week, Ninawe wrote a detailed post that was shared widely on social media platforms, accusing Jio Studios of 'killing' his Marathi feature film, Ghaath, without so much as a courtesy call/text message/email to the writer-director. What seems to be getting attention is how the film was retracted after being selected for the Panorama section at the 2021 Berlinale, and how the studio has completely stopped communicating with the filmmaker since. According to Ninawe, employees of Jio Studios have refused to meet him despite his many attempts to reach out to them to seek clarity on why the film was being buried. 

Ninawe has spent the last 15 months deliberating over many questions – why would a studio send a legal notice to retract a film from one of the most prestigious film festivals? If so, why wouldn't they voice their concerns directly to the filmmaker? Ninawe mentions that he last heard from Jio Studios in 2019. As revealed by some screenshots shared by him, Jio Studios also got an offer to buy the film from their producing partner – Drishyam Films, who helped Ninawe submit Ghaath to the Berlin competition. Did someone at Jio Studios get cold feet because of the political sensitivity at the core of Ninawe's film, given that some of the characters featured are Maoists? Like in his post, Ninawe mentions that Jyoti Deshpande (then head of Jio Studios) agreed that Ghaath wasn't a 'political' film. While Ninawe claims to be left with no option but to go public, even a cursory glance at the last decade will tell you that Ghaath isn't the only film to vanish like this. This is more often the routine than the exception with independent filmmakers. 

Director Suman Ghosh was looking forward to the release of his first Hindi film, Aadhaar, on Feb 4, 2021. A few weeks before the scheduled release, he received a call from Jio Studios' Jyoti Deshpande informing him that the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority Of India – the statutory body behind the implementation of Aadhaar in India) had requested to see Ghosh's film. It had already been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification, and yet it was reported that the UIDAI had a few copyright objections about the use of Aadhaar's official logo. The body requested 28 cuts in the film, which was a strange request considering the film had a censor certificate. When Ghosh asked Deshpande if he should speak to concerned authorities, she is believed to have assured him that Jio Studios will take matters forward. After Ghosh gave a couple of interviews in June citing the translucent circumstances, the UIDAI reportedly said that the makers should add a disclaimer to the film citing that the body doesn't support or endorse the film in any manner. 

When Ghosh communicated this to Deshpande, her reaction was unexpected. According to Ghosh, Deshpande said "your stance of issuing a disclaimer is not something we can rely on, unless Drishyam films gets a clearance from UIDAI" – which was a lot of jargon to say that she was refusing to trust a statement issued by the UIDAI in the public domain that was carried by national publications, something Ghosh found strange. 

Curiously, the co-producers of Aadhaar (like Ghaath) are also Jio Studios and Drishyam Films. While Ghosh says that he's constantly been 'pleading and begging' with Deshpande and her team at Jio Studios to release the film, he hasn't gotten a single response from them. The film remains unreleased. Ghosh shares his hypothesis about what must have happened: "I realised it was probably more complex than I initially thought. Even though we had a go-ahead from the Censor, they (Jio Studios) were scared. There was probably some diktat from someone among the higher-ups. I don't know for sure."

This isn't the first time that Ghosh is being met with censorial forces. He faced similar hurdles with his documentary on Amartya Sen. He was asked to mute some words in the film such as: 'cow', 'Gujarat' etc. When Ghosh met with CBFC chief Prasoon Joshi, the 'objectionable' words had been whittled down to one: 'Gujarat'. "We argued amicably, putting forward our own respective points. Prasoon Joshi explained to me that the word 'Gujarat' was to be beeped because the Supreme court ruling was awaited on the Gujarat riots, and I accepted," says Ghosh. He's been hoping that a meeting like this might turn around the fate for his first Hindi feature film.

It's been almost exactly a decade (to the month) since Vasan Bala's Peddlers played at the Cannes Critic's Week in May, 2012. Even though Bala has gone on to direct a feature film, along with participating in a Netflix anthology, he's still asked about where one can watch his debut film. "I have no clue why the film can't come out on any platform. It's beyond me now, I don't seek any answers for it. I am tired and exhausted of even recollecting the years. I can only let go," says Bala in a text message. 

Even though Bala is not one to quickly assign blame on the studio (Eros International), he also notes that these things are more complex than they seem, there are no easy 'villains' here and yet it's the filmmaker who ends up losing in the end. Perhaps, one of the most disappointing things for Bala in the end is how Eros saw Peddlers as "a small, dispensable film."

We reached to Jio Studios about Ninawe's allegations and their spokesperson came back with the following response: "Jio Studios is committed to responsible storytelling and is working with more than 50 film makers across 120+ multilingual stories as we speak. It is our endeavour to extend the best possible support to our partners and filmmakers to achieve the highest critical and commercial success that every story deserves. We have an ongoing legal dispute with Producer Drishyam Films on a multi film deal due to which we will abstain from making any specific media clarifications. However we want to expressly clarify that we have no dispute with any director. We deny all baseless allegations against us."

Chhatrapal Ninawe calls foul on the latter portion of Jio Studio's statement, where it claims it has no dispute with any director. "If that's the case then why would you hurt the film by retracting it from Berlinale. Whatever might be Jio Studios' legal dispute with Drishyam Films, it is the fight between two parents. Would you murder your 'kid' in the process?" asks Ninawe. The studio might be looking at it only as a "festival movie" whose budget they could afford to lose in the larger scheme of things, but what Ninawe takes offence to is the passion and the hard work of the 200 technicians on his film who he claims worked for very little money, because they liked the story and were too busy pouring their passion into the film. "What Jio has done is pulled the plug on a project because of whatever money dispute they might have with Drishyam Films. You think everything is money power. And yet, you're in the business of making art. You're behaving like it's just another commodity. It's the voice of me and my collaborators that you've killed," alleges Ninawe. 

Chhatrapal Ninawe
Chhatrapal Ninawe

When Ghosh read Ninawe's social media post, he says his eyes welled up more than once, because he went through a similarly lonely ordeal. Ghosh bemoans the fact that A-listers who spoke up around the Super-censor issue last year, didn't say a single word when Aadhaar was stalled. "Even in Chhatrapal's case, no one except Hansal Mehta tweeted. I guess everyone is dependent on Jio Studios in one way or another. Chhatrapal and I are small filmmakers, and only if someone big supports us would we have a chance at some form of justice," says Ghosh.

Meenakshi Shedde, a renowned independent curator and South Asian Delegate, Berlin Film Festival, clarifies that her comments are being made in an individual capacity, and are not an official Berlinale statement. She was moved by Ghaath's 'raw power' when she saw it, and recommended it for the 2021 Berlinale.

Talking about the film being retracted, Shedde says that the decision left her confused. "There are different reasons to make films. You want some to earn money, others to be at festivals." She added that Jio Studios' strategy is puzzling – "If they wished to withdraw as producers of the film, Manish (Mundhra of Drishyam Films) had made them an offer to buy the film out. They were not obliged to associate with it, they could have sold their stake and bowed out, especially after the Berlinale selection. Why they chose to sit on it, only they can explain."

Ninawe realises that going public with screenshots of messages and emails might have put a target on his back and question mark on the future of his career. "I chose an execution over a suicide. If I'm executed for revolting against a system, then so be it. I was an independent filmmaker. I'll find a way. I'll find another medium of expression. If my career is finished then so be it. At least the next time they try to do this, they'll think twice. Better than being quiet," says Ninawe. 

Shedde says Ghaath's case is tragic: "It's the first time a film has been withdrawn after selection at Berlinale in my nearly 25 years working with them. It's worse because it is more challenging for an indigenous filmmaker to access resources for filmmaking." She described the plight of unreleased films in India as a 'larger grief'. "India produces about 2500 feature films, censored by the CBFC in a year," she says. "Barely 10% of Bollywood releases recover or make profits; many remain unreleased. "India's infrastructure doesn't sustain independent films," Shedde concludes.

It's this volume of cinema that allows studios to behave unreasonably with independent filmmakers. After all, there are so many new films coming out every day, it's only a matter of time we forget about an unreleased film. The outrage will gradually flicker, despair will make way for pragmatism, the world will move on, and some filmmakers will be defeated.

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