At the party that followed the National Film Awards function in 2015, where banker OP Srivastava’s debut documentary, Life in Metaphors: A Portrait of Girish Kasaravalli, received the Best Biographical Film award, he was told that Doordarshan will screen all awarded films. For the next five years, Srivastava, 61, wrote to them about screening his film, albeit unsuccessfully. “What is Doordarshan for, what kind of state body is it, if it can’t show all National Award films?” he asks. He knew the ocean of theatrical releases would drown his small film, and OTT platforms told him they “don’t have any slot for these kinds of films”.
A man looks up at a spider web doing ballet on the ceiling, he couldn’t be made more aware of his loneliness in his house. Girish Kasaravalli speaks in metaphors. Srivastava’s childhood desire to make films would come to fruition only in his 50s, when at an FTII workshop, he met the Padma Shri and National Award-winning Kannada filmmaker.
Srivastava tailed him on his shoots (documentaries on UR Ananthamurthy and Adoor Gopalakrishnan) for over two years, to learn the grammar and idiom of filmmaking. Each day, he discussed with Kasaravalli and his crew the texture of his films – these, interleaved with music and digitised clips of his films, became the documentary Life in Metaphors: A Portrait of Girish Kasaravalli. As Kasaravalli’s Kraurya (1996) plays on MUBi this month, Life in Metaphors streams on the just-launched OTT platform catering Indian independent cinema – Cinemapreneur.
“At a film bazaar, if 300 films come, 15 get a theatrical release, 10 go to Netflix, five to Amazon, so what happens to the rest? The idea is to celebrate festivals as soon as they end by bringing some of those films to those who can’t go there,” says Gaurav Raturi, 35, who, along with Rupinder Kaur, 35, founded the OTT platform. Raturi’s Filmbooth used to organise shorts and docu festivals in Delhi from 2008-12.
Like MovieSaints or NFDC: Cinemas of India, Cinemapreneur is a pay-per-view transactional video-streaming platform, where – unlike the subscription-only Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, MUBi, etc. – one doesn’t have to subscribe monthly/annually, but just pay per film. “Bigger OTTs are a library as they acquire more content, we are a smaller bookstore for (Indian) indie films. We want to complement, not compete,” says Raturi. The subscription model leaves the consumer with an all-or-nothing choice, thereby losing out on millions of viewers, in that regard, transactional/pay-per-view models can be more profitable. Cinemapreneur offers feature film (at Rs 149), feature docu (Rs 99), 60-minute docu (Rs 79), and short film (Rs 49).
The OTT launched with 25 films – including Marathi feature Kondan on farmer suicide, Mrs Nambiar documentary on a pre-independence-era teacher, short film Arabian Nights on imagination and oddity of flat Earth societies that won at New York Indian Film Festival – and plans to acquire 300 by year end. They’ve received 200-plus entries, and, in just one week, 10,000 cinephiles explored their catalogue. Such models allow for “a cross-pollination of audiences, the moment their film is discoverable, other avenues and monetisation streams open up,” says Raturi. He adds, “If a film, say, made in 2017-18, hasn’t been released yet, how will a buyer get to know? We can bridge that gap.”
Had Cinemapreneur not been born, Anirban Dutta wouldn’t have been able to show in India his Bengali debut feature which has travelled to festivals in Romania, the UK, Hungary. Jahnabi is streaming on Amazon Prime Video in the US, the UK, and Canada, but the Indian distributors told him “it’s too arty for our audience”.
The hour-long silent visual poetry shows the stillness and ripples of Jahnabi’s life, seeking an anchor, marital bliss, but her wont is to flow. Her love – like poetic thoughts or muses – ebbs and flows, to melancholic esraj notes, in static frames. Dutta wanted to show that “a poet, even if male, his poetry comes to the female/feminine in him.” Jahnabi – beloved, nurturer, goddess – is a river’s personification. “There’s no human emotion that doesn’t find resemblance in water,” says Dutta, 30, once a navigation officer, in whose works (short film Veins), water is a recurring motif.
“Of what use is new technology, if we filmmakers don’t develop our unique signature? Films give a philosophy, and our generation lacks a philosopher of our times,” says Dutta, adding, “My film won’t make a lot of money, but we have to be brutal in our craft.”
“And be ready to suffer for it,” adds Amartya Bhattacharyya, 32, whose Odia experimental feature Khyanikaa: The Lost Idea, about two men – old poet and young painter – claiming ownership of an idea/woman, was pulled down after two days of release because it didn’t fall under the nine Indian languages that Amazon Prime Video India supports. It’s streaming in the US, the UK, Australia and Canada. Cinemapreneur offers two films by Bhattacharyya, whose Benaras: The Unexplored Attachments won the National Award for Best Non-Feature Film Cinematography (2016). These include the silent black-and-white short documentary Mercy of God – a discarded wooden chair, a broken people and their silent screams – on Cyclone Fani’s devastation in Odisha last year, and Bengali short fiction Sarbabhuteshu (The Eternal), about a young guy, in a mental asylum, in love with goddess Durga.
“Today, a culture of convenience is setting in. COVID-19 has been a gift, it’s made people digitally dependent, and films more accessible,” says Srivastava, adding, “Cinemapreneur, with a good curation, is projecting the image of standing for genuine, quality cinema. That culture needs to be cultivated.”
“While being a huge blessing, OTTs have become congested with the entire mainstream jumping onto them,” says Bhattacharyya, who works at Infosys. “Netflix came to India with potent indies like Q’s Brahman Naman (2016) and Bauddhayan Mukherji’s The Violin Player (2016), but last year, it signed a (multi-year content) deal with (Bollywood producer) Karan Johar. It’s a U-turn in protocol: coming with a certain perception and becoming something else. Cinemapreneur’s indies-only statement is not lucrative but is responsible. Hope they retain their vision after they grow,” he says.