Friday, June 01, 2007

A Premier

A few months back I had approached Mr. T.A. Srinivas of Chitrabharathi, to distribute my Tulu digital film SUDDHA (The Cleansing Rites) in Mangalore. Tulu films have a history of just over thirty five years. On an average, one Tulu film is being made every year. In the two districts in which Tulu language is spoken, Mangalore is the biggest center for such films – followed by Udupi and Putthur. A four weeks run in each of these center is enough for a Tulu film to be considered as successful. If the production costs of the movie is kept to the minimum and if it is intelligently publicized, Tulu films do recover their money. Some producers even swear that profits can be made.

Srinivas is from Mangalore. He has made a career out of distributing the Kannada films of Dr. Rajkumar in Coastal Karnataka. His love for his native Tulu language and his fascination for the film production bug, has seen him venture into the making of a couple of Tulu movies which, by his own confessions, were just moderately successful. Srinivas takes immense pride in his language. He banks on his wisdom that the audience to his Tulu movies would come to the theaters for their sheer love of the language. His logic is that if you have a movie which has a little bit of song, dance and fight; and therefore quality in it, the viewers would follow. What is at stake is the ‘Tulu Pride’.

When I first met Srinivas, I was already in talks with a Mumbai based company that facilitates the digital exhibition of films. The company has a network of theaters all over India, especially in the western region. These theaters have digital projection facilities. Being the only player in Coastal Karnataka, its presence in the region is immense. My film SUDDHA is shot digitally and when I proposed to the company that they facilitate the distribution of the film in two of their theaters in Coastal Karnataka, they were taken aback.

Up till now they had just facilitated digital exhibition of feature films that were shot in celluloid. Huge film production and distribution houses look up to the digital exhibition of their films mainly to reduce their print costs. Besides, with digital exhibition there is the possibility of having a simultaneous release of their films in centers across the country, thereby increasing their revenue earning capacity. The digital projection facilitating company takes a certain amount of money from the exhibitor as well as the distributor for each of the show it helps project.

And here was a guy who had shot a small feature film in standard definition video, in an obscure language and was asking for just one week of theatrical time in two small town theaters! Their first reaction was a big 'No'. Then after two test projections, in which I got my material converted to a format called 720P, they agreed. A few weeks later, their CEO vetoed the idea – my guess is that it just did not make business sense for them to help release a feature film for just two weeks, that too in the morning slot. The official reason given to me was that the films they take up for distribution facilitation are the ones that are at least shot on High Definition Video (HDV).

Srinivas was open to the idea of a digital screening of SUDDHA. But as the saying goes, even if the gods are willing, the priests refuse. He keenly followed my interactions with the digital exhibition facilitating company, but was not entirely disappointed when they refused to take up the film. By now he had seen a copy of the film which I had send him and had unilaterally declared that it was fit for the ‘classes’ and not the ‘masses’. When I suggested that we hire a theater, a digital projector and facilitate the release of the film ourselves, I sensed that he was not too keen.

He blurted out facts on how much we would stand to loose in case the ‘public’ never came to the halls. Over the last few years, he said, he was disappointed with the declining ‘Tulu Pride’ of his audience. Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam films have had decent runs in Mangalore, but no one bothers about Tulu any more, he lamented. A few months back, he had organized a Tulu Film Festival to celebrate 35 years of Tulu Film Industry. But the ticket sales were pathetic, he complained. As for me, getting SUDDHA distributed in mainstream theaters in Mangalore was slowly getting transformed into a distant dream.

Then, all of a sudden a month back, I got a call. Srinivas had booked one of the biggest halls in Mangalore for the 26th of May. He was willing to hire a LCD digital projector and have a single show of SUDDHA for the people of Mangalore. He would not charge tickets, but would collect donations form sponsors, invoking their infamous ‘Tulu Pride’. He even promised me a token amount, asked for the film stills and a copy of the censor certificate. He meant business, although the scale was much smaller than we had originally thought of. The flip side of it was that I was to be felicitated with some fruits, a heavy garland, a traditional brass plate, a huge memento and a red shawl!

I agreed - anything for the release of my film!

So, on the 26th of May, 2007 I had the opportunity to witness the ‘premier’ show of my first feature film. Also felicitated during the occasion was my co-producer Mohan Marnad and two of my actors. Srinivas had made a huge poster of SUDDHA which was displayed at the venue. The design, I must admit, was eye catching. He even had a press conference, three days before the screening. But when Srinivas sheepishly confessed that the advertisements that he had proposed to publish on the day of the screening, never made it to the local press, I choose to believe him. A few people knew about the screening. Yet, there was an audience of around three hundred.

The screening started only after all the sponsors of the event were given an opportunity to speak and have their moments of glory. After all, they were honoring the film and the team that had given international ‘recognition’ to their own Tulu, which was one of the five main languages of the Dravidian branch. When his turn came, Srinivas lamented, chided and even scolded his audience for turning up in such a small number. ‘Where is your 'Tulu Pride'?’ he screamed.

Over the years there have been serious attempt into lobbying the language into the 8th schedule of our constitution. But the fact that there is no widespread usage of the Tulu Fonts, has never made that into a reality. Tulu has been recently included as a subject in some schools. A few vocal activists are already baying for a separate Tulu State. And as they say, above all, the Tulu film fraternity has also been day dreaming about having its own Film Development Corporation!

One of the guests spoke about how SUDDHA had contributed immensely to the Tulu cause. He referred the film as ‘our film SUDDHA’, almost claiming its ownership. That was it. Something told me that the film that I had helped create was, now, no longer mine. And I am not even through with my two week commercial release!

My deep felt thanks to Srinivas and for all those who believed in the film.

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