Indie Filmmakers’ Guide: What Manjeet Singh learnt while making “Mumbai Cha Raja”
Manjeet Singh shot “Mumbai Cha Raja” in guerilla style in the slums of Mumbai and almost got arrested. He had a story but not a bound script, his actors were not tested for acting but were chosen because their real life experiences were closer to that of his characters. With borrowed money from friends and relatives and no bound script; Manjeet took a plunge into filmmaking and it took him places – the film had its world premiere at Toronto Film Festival 2012 and now is headed to Abu Dhabi where it will compete in the New Horizons section.
In this post Manjeet Singh shares what he learnt while making “Mumbai Cha Raja”
Script is an important aspect, but you may not necessarily strictly adhere to it. Film grows and is re-written during the production stage and again in the edit. Even the sound design helps in its growth.
Building your crew:
While selecting the crew, I took along whoever wanted to contribute to the film in his or her way, within the budget I could afford. I believed in their passion. The love the crew members showered shows in the film. People with passion and interest work better than those with proven talent.
Avoid TOO MANY freshers in your crew:
The new-comers without any prior experience of working on a film set are undoubtedly very excited but they do not understand the importance of the privileged time, which has come after years of efforts of the director and the producer. They also have not experienced the extraordinary levels of commitment required, where you have to not only give priority to the work you are doing but also bear physical hardships of few hours of sleep, skip lunch so that an important scene is not missed, get used to the occasional outbursts from senior crew members, understand that this craziness could be the time of their life and would be over soon, etc. As much as I support new talent, key positions should be avoided because it definitely requires a lot of maturity.
Casting for your film:
The casting of the film was another learning experience. In the initial stage I was confused whether to cast kids who have had acting experience or have worked in films as actors or to cast non actors. An actor friend suggested that the actor kids won’t be able to pull it off and it’s better to find kids from the area I am planning to shoot. So I started observing the kids in my neighborhood. I found Arbaaz very charismatic and wrote the story keeping him in mind. The local ‘Vada-Pav’ (a snack) seller introduced me to a group of local boys. During the acting workshop we tried to understand the challenges in their lives. Rahul had a problem of domestic violence in real life, which was very similar to the protagonist’s problems in the script. Since he had the emotional experience required for the character, I decided to cast him. Luckily, he turned out to be an amazing actor, whom I find comparable to the biggest name in business. I feel I have been lucky in casting, perhaps its better to cast a person, who is similar to the character and who can add so much to your story and character, enriching the film further. I can completely understand casting proven actors/ stars as they help in portraying roles in films, which requires proven actors or stars, which will bring the required budget and help reach the film to a wider audience. So you need to figure out, which zone the film lies in and which path to take.
Pitching your ideas:
I tried pitching my stories to producers; script development workshops, co-production markets, global funding program, etc. Tried almost every existing avenue but got rejected. I realized that people can’t figure out words on paper, they need to be shown what you mean. I decided not to waste time anymore and not to miss the third Ganesh festival. I started the shoot with the equipment, cast and crew I could gather at the time of the festival. After the completion of shoot, we had to edit in hurry to be able to apply for the Film Bazaar. We made it to the ‘Work In Progress’ lab. The film was seen by the top festival directors and sales agent. Suddenly, I was familiar with the people who matter in cinema world. The film also won an award in the section competing with Miss Lovely and Ship of Theseus among other quality films. I guess then the industry people became aware of my existence to some extent.
The festival circuit is a difficult proposition if you are a film-maker fromIndia. I was warned of a strong bias against the Indian film-makers by internationally experienced mentors at Film-Bazaar, but did not believe it existed. I thought cinema was a great leveler and would surpass trivial human boundaries. But unfortunately it’s sad that the major festivals have just one slot for films from South Asia. Sometimes the film is from India, sometimes not. I can very well understand their dilemma of representing all the areas of the world; gathering big names; adding glamour quotient; supporting local cinema; supporting local industry; supporting their funders, etc. On top of all this, some festival directors think they know all about Indian Cinema. They have written books on perhaps the most reputed Indian film-maker; have a very superficial feel of Indian Cinema and end up selecting films funded by Bollywood. I have dear friends who are in senior positions in these festivals and have conveyed their helplessness. Our cinema was weak, but this year we had films, which could have competed with the best in the world, but that did not happen. Hopefully the perception will change soon. Luckily the application fee for most of the festivals was waived off for me as I am not in position to pay them. Most of the festivals understand but a few don’t budge.
Thanks to TIFF, the film got a great international platform. The audience reaction was amazing. The shows were full and Q ‘n’ A sessions were engaging.
I am still facing problems in raising funds and getting respect from the Industry. I am still getting rejected by global funding bodies.
Bollywood v/s Independent films:
Thanks to the advancement in digital technology, it has become relatively easier to make a film. The film-makers who believe in themselves and are not insecure about a big name not attached to their project go ahead and make films they believe in without caring about the markets. I see no excuse from film-makers for not being able to make films any more. Unfortunately the media is not able to gauge these films because these films need to be discovered. Also media does not realize the level of skills required to make a film unconventionally. The films made with Bollywood studios, which are little bit different from regular Bollywood films are projected as Independent films by media, because they have not really tried to explore what the real independent cinema from India is. This little bit of difference could be provided by the use of known and proven actors, who are not stars; it could be a film without lip sync songs; a derivative film formed by bits of celebrated world cinema films. I call these films–”Bollywood Indies”: who get all the praise from media; get into festivals; get easily released in India and abroad without really pushing the boundaries of cinema and operating from a very comfortable zone, while more edgier/independent films get ignored. A non-existing Bollywood benchmark is the savior of such films.
The Indian cinema thus has three different zones: Bollywood, Bollywood-Indies and emerging Independent films.
While the Bollywood funded films find traditional distribution, there is no exhibition space for Independent films. That’s something the film-makers are fighting for, as we celebrate 100 years of Indian Cinema.
How does one define Independent cinema?
That’s a tricky question. Perhaps the films made without the studio funds. But the films could still be targetting the multiplex audiences, which matters the most. It also represents the middle class, which is 5 per cent of the country’s population and mostly ignorant of the problems present in the life of rural, poor marginalized class, who are exploited beyond limits by the companies that employ the same middle class. So the other aspect is to highlight the untold stories on this ignored section of society without a market tendency.
A publicist has a very limited role at the film festival. The media will respond generally to films in important sections or red carpet events. If the dailies want to cover you they will, even the publicists won’t be able to help you on this. The most that they can provide is keeping your calender and scheduling your interviews. The film is the driving factor. If you are an independent film maker don’t even bother to have one; enjoy the festival and save money. Be prepared to be ignored and take it in your stride.