Morning: Distant Future.
I wake up full of dread. Have to head to another one of those banal producer pitches in the back of the beyond. I cross Versova, the long-dead indie film haven of Mumbai. The rickshaw guy asks if I’m a filmmaker. Out of sheer nervousness, I start narrating my idea to him — a stewing dark tale of a repressed bus conductor’s descent into sexual hell. He perks up, and says it sounds interesting. He takes out his phone, opens Netflix and wants to know the name of the film?
I tell him the film is yet to be made. He asks my name, saying he will watch it on his lightning-fast internet phone as soon as it is out. I tell him he’s not supposed to be on his phone while driving. He laughs and says I have a point. He’ll go watch it on his Apple TV at home. I ask him how much he earns. He says, enough to subscribe to the service for a month, all year. And rent, food, etc…I look at him, unsure, but he smiles broadly. Then he talks about “real Indian stories” and how he can access them now that he has a smartphone and digital is the future.
I ask him how long he drives every day. He says 16 hours but that it is “so much fun”! I try to remind him of the power of a big, dark hall and how cinema was supposed to be a collective experience. He laughs louder, says he can’t even find the time to meet his mother, forget going to the cinema hall. And, anyway, he advises me to concentrate on my career if I wanted to tell stories about him and those he wanted to see. Big screen stories are fantasies, designed to take us away from our everyday lives, not put us back in the middle of them again! I better think on a smaller scale. He senses my confusion and says that we have to make India great again. Then he drops me right in front of the gates of the friendly neighborhood digital giant. “Go pitch here,” he says.
I’m welcomed with open arms. They tell me how they loved my previous film and would “like to push the envelope” but ask me to stay away from political or biographical accounts. That could get them into a legal wrangle. I’m taken to a test screening room where an Uber driver, a cobbler, and a garbage collector gush over Game of Thrones and The Night Of. The boys tell me they’ve even started taking English classes to watch these shows.
A senior exec smiles. Says you’re at the home of cinema. They hear my pitch and ask me if I can run it for three seasons. That long form is where true auteurs need to innovate. I try to mention the possibility of a theatrical release before the eventual digital distribution, but they give me stern stares. Who goes to those rubbish Rs 1,000-a-head seaters anymore? Only the privileged and the dumb.
The Big Screen is Dead
I give them figures of the only six metro cities that are the hub of the so-called “digital network”. They baulk, saying they’re preparing for the future. That digital’s going to be the “it-thing” in 50 days, whether anyone’s ready or not! I ask them what the plan for laying out carbon fibre cables is? They angrily thrust a contract in my hand and say it’s either this or nothing. Do I want money or not? I choke a little and sign the papers. Promptly, the national anthem starts playing. Everyone stands up in attention, tears in their eyes. I start crying too.
I step out into the afternoon sun. The nearest vada pav vendor says he has no change. I Paytm him the money and he gives me some extra chutney, swaying happily. He smiles and reassures me it’ll be fine, almost like he knows what’s up with me. He tells me how cinema was for the masses and how its power to harness change and seed ideas will never wither. He talks about Tarkovsky and Ghatak. I look at him, surprised. He says he used to be a filmmaker too.
The Bollywood producer I was supposed to meet turns up in his Mercedes. He hands over some sheets to the vada pav guy, saying he needs script changes by the evening. The vada pav guy nods, exchanging his IFSC code. He tells me that he’s making a lot of money on the side. He’ll stash it all abroad, reinvest it and become rich. Then open a theatre where only “good films” will be played. I smile despite myself and finally feel like I have a friend. I pull my script out to give it to him when, out of nowhere, cops come and pick him up for storing beef in his refrigerator. As I watch him getting lynched, I lose my voice.
A bank branch assistant watches me from afar. He smiles and walks up to me. Says I’ve got to change my perspective on life. Business is booming, sales have tripled and the GDP is growing. I’ve got to think numbers. So what if I can’t speak? Writing is where it’s at. I can do whatever I want — as long as I don’t offend the censors; as long as I listen to the gatekeepers; and as long as the stories are set in fantasy lands with fantasy people, dressed in fancy dresses.
He takes me to the biggest distributor/producer’s office. The producer gives us the numbers — Friday, 3,000 screens, nothing else to see, Rs 150 crores, game over. We’re all rich and laughing all the way to the bank! I sit down to write what they want. Outside the window, familiar faces get off their Ubers, lining up at the digital giant’s doors. All harbingers of the next revolution!
Dumbf**ks, I snigger. My fingers drum on the laptop. The hero dives off an airplane, fights 50 men while in the air, flips a cigarette and lights it, landing right in the middle of an item number.
Kanu Behl is the director of Titli.