Wednesday, February 14, 2007

An Autograph of Acceptance

There is always is a strong stinking sense of incompleteness if the film that you have made does not get the opportunity to be viewed widely. The mainstream cinema is lucky to be having a business model in its production-distribution-exhibition chain that facilitates this process of dissemination. But it has its own set of unwritten rules that defines the likes and dislikes of its audience. Unfortunately, in the little interaction that I have had with the harbingers of mainstream cinema, my Tulu language digital feature film SUDDHA has been branded as a film that will not be accepted by a ‘wider audience’. It has been portrayed as THE ‘eternal truth’.

While I do accept that it is becoming increasingly difficult for my film to find a wider audience within the well entrenched production - distribution - exhibition system that the mainstream cinema can boast off, it is a total myth that films like SUDDHA cannot lend itself to a wider audience. There are quite a number of people who would like to see the film on the big screen, but unfortunately because it is perceived that this audience is not substantial enough to cope up with the economics of a conventional theatrical release, the existing exhibitors are very reluctant to show the film in their theaters – and this is true even if you are willing to take the risk and pay the theater rentals before hand!

In such a scenario, how do I get across my film to a willing audience – however small it might be when compared to the pan-India audience that a mainstream Hindi film has?

Fortunately, through a little bit of external funding, I now have the opportunity to exhibit this film in a scale that can bring in the wider audience. Instead of solely relying on conventional theaters, I can target schools, colleges and small film clubs in Coastal Karnataka, where Tulu language is spoken. If nothing else, they would be having a space to screen the movie and a ready made set of audience as well. For the past six months, I had already arranged around fifteen sporadic shows to such an audience. But to achieve a target of one hundred screenings, one needs a road show. And this is now possible.

Soon enough, for the first time in my life, I came to know that in every district in Karnataka, there exists a government officer called the Deputy Director of Public Instructions and that I had to seek his permission to screen my film in the high schools that come under him. I was suggested by his office that I take a nominal contribution from the management of each school amounting to five rupees per head . As soon as I agreed, the typist was instructed- “Madam, please type a permission letter similar to that we had issued to those ‘science guys’.”

Apparently, there were some people who wanted the high school students to see some science based instructional films on how airplanes worked. Yes, the fact that my ‘award winning’ film was being put at the same level as the ‘instructional film’ did put me off for a while. But sometime it helps to take what one gets first. It allowed me to long for more. Having tasted blood, I went to the Deputy Director of Pre-University College, and even got his permission to screen the film in the Pre-University colleges that came under him.

I had to complete my first set of screenings by February 2007, for this was the time when the kids either had their exams or were busy preparing for them. I decided to focus on just one Taluk, mainly because life would be easier in terms of logistic arrangements. Dates and timings of the screenings were decided upon based on long distance calls made from Mumbai to the respective heads of the institutions. Ten working days from a total of fifteen would have to be converted into twenty five screenings – so at times I had to have three shows a day!

The screening venues would be classrooms, school halls, or even college offices where, unfortunately, considerable day light would be sneaking through. Therefore, the projector needed to be powerful. I armed myself with a 3000 luminance projector, a bulky 7x5 inch portable screen, a DVD player and the necessary cables. To maintain uniformity in the sound quality to an audience that I presumed should not be more than two hundred per show, we zeroed in on a system that included a 250 watts amplifier and two 100 watts bulky speakers along with their stands.

All this meant that I needed to hire a vehicle and an assistant to help me with the screenings. I got Harish, a local under worked still cameraman, to accompany me. Suresh, the taxi owner cum driver whom I had hired, came to know about my filmy connections, and immediately increased his stake. But thanks to the highly visible portable screen kit tied on to the top of the car everyone knew that the screening guys had arrived.

It was a struggle to stimulate the optimum conditions that are needed to screen a film. The venues were dirty – they had to be cleaned and mostly such a thing happened only after our arrival. Benches and desks had to be arranged or removed – depending on where the kids were going to be seated. In the front rows, they would normally be squatting. The teachers sat on dignified chairs, followed by the kids who occupied the benches and then the desks - which had higher levels. In the last row or two, people even stood up on these benches.

My audience per screening ranged anywhere from 70 to 600 in number. In one particular venue, some primary school kids, who had sneaked into the hall in excitement, sat 180 degrees to the screen and saw the film - their eyes and mouth wide open. Where the number exceeded 200 and where the possibility of two screenings were bleak, I had to boost the sound levels through the amplifier. The front row guys would therefore hear a slightly distorted sound and the last row would complain that the volume was low. Besides, in most of the halls and classrooms, there was no proper ventilation – the closing of the doors and windows was not adding to the cause.

Frequent power cuts, forced me to hire generators. To deal with the resultant power fluctuations, I had to hire a bulky stabilizer, or else the extra-sensitive projector would on its own, switch off its bulb. Soon, I got the heads of each of these institutions to request the Karnataka Electricity Board not to implement a power cut when the screenings were on. They responded well, except in cases of major unscheduled cable repair work – and it came up at regular intervals.

And then there were the sundry issues to deal with - In one case a single principal was managing two institutions that were located 25 kilometers apart from each other – creating lots of coordination confusion. In another, we wasted a lot of time thinking that there was a power cut – but actually it turned out that the wires connected to electricity pole next to the venue had a loose connection. The windows to the hall of another institution were all stolen and used for firewood by the villagers! And there weren’t enough drama curtains to block the immense amount of light that came in.

And above all, I had to face stiff competition from the ‘science guys’, who kept haunting me off and on throughout my screening schedule. When I landed up in one school, I realized that the head master had also given the same appointment to my competitors. And because they showed an educational film called ‘How planes fly’, they were given preference and I had to pack my bags. It also did not help that I was an ex-student of the same school.

In Malpe, a village very close to the sea, the students were quite noisy. A strict physical trainer who herded the students branding a long cane, whispered to me that the ‘science guys’ had come a week back and the kids were very quite during the screenings because the films shown were dealing with the functioning of the human body – of both male and female. He was very sad that I was not making enough money through these screenings and suggested that the next time I come up with films that dealt with animal life – especially ones that showed their procreation.

But it is amazing to realize that in each of these screenings different audiences reacted almost similarly, to similar points in the film. They liked the spirit of the college going girl trying to be independent. They enjoyed the predicament of the rebellious college drop out who has no courage to do what he says. They loved most of the caesuras - points in a film that provide much needed pauses to the story line. They loved the Tulu dialogues – the typical phrases, sayings, similes and the metaphors used, all taken from every day life.

Of course, it did help when, during the mandatory introduction to the film, I made it a point to remind my young viewers that this film is not like the popular special effect movie 'Krishh', but is closer to ones own soil. The characters in the film might straight be out their own families or their neighborhood. Besides, I announced a competition for the kids – any write up on the film would stand a chance of winning a prize and getting into a proposed book or booklet on Tulu Cinema. The teachers, who had already heard about the film thanks to a publicity blitz that it had received after it won the best Indian Film award at the Osean Cinefan Festival of Asian Films, New Delhi in 2006, loved this academic touch and were very sympathetic.

Almost ninety percent of the educational institutions that volunteered to screen SUDDHA were either government colleges that had poor facilities or that which were financially unstable. An exception was the pre-university college in a village called Nitte where, amidst almost nowhere, exists a private campus that provides educational courses of all kinds. The kids here were taken to the comforts of a generator operated air conditioned auditorium where the neatly arranged seats and the total darkness provided a certain degree of formality that was absent in the classroom screenings in other educational institutions. Sitting in the comforts at the last row of the auditorium, I did not seem to miss the fact that I did not have a multiplex release of my film.

My last screening in this lot was in a girl’s college in Karkala. When we were packing up a after the screening, I was approached by a confidant young teenager named Hemalatha, who had earlier vigorously swept the hall almost single handedly to facilitate the screening. She had with her a note book and a pen. and She recalled an interview that I had given to the local All India Radio station some months back, had liked it and now wanted my autograph!

For a second I did not know how to react. But soon, I gathered myself and scribbled something in Kannada. She thanked me for giving her the opportunity to see ‘such a nice’ film and without wasting a second, she then disappeared into the corridors of her college.

That was how my first road show ended – on a note of acceptance.

That brings me back to the point - films like SUDDHA, which are slightly different from the mainstream cinema, does have an audience. We just do not have a financially self sufficient exhibition system to take these films to those to need to see it. To use business parlance, there could be the existence of many kinds of soaps in the market, and each of these soaps would be targeted to specific but different set of users. The marketing system of the soap distribution would allow such a co-existence. Not so in films.

The screenings of SUDDHA in coastal Karnataka cannot boast itself of being self sufficient in nature – in the sense that the screening costs are barely covered, leave alone the thought of generating some funding for your second film. But I do have the satisfaction of finding and creating an audience for my film through the large screen – something that was not available to me earlier. It was the least I could do, after having made the film!

In India, such road screenings are not entirely new. Historically, the state of Kerala in South India has been active in this regard. But the issue that is now scratching me is - can this ever be converted into a financially viable proposition?

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