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It’s not easy to crowd-fund your first film, a body of work helps: Onir

By Nandita Dutta • Published on March 24, 2012
  • National award precious in a country when all other awards are driven by the media and popularity
  • Historical moment for a film with LGBT content to win national award

[O]nir recently won two national awards for I Am, a film that used ‘crowd-funding’, a lesser-known method of film-financing in India.

Onir

Just a few days before the national awards, he managed to get a U/A certificate for I Am from the Censor Board after a long struggle. He considers it a historical moment for a film which deals with homosexuality, child abuse and single motherhood to win the highest honor in the country. Onir, in a freewheeling chat with Nandita Dutta, talks about I Am, crowd-funding and independent cinema in India…

Did you conceive I Am as a string of four short films?

I Am wasn’t conceived initially as four short films. I wanted to make feature film out of every story that has been used in the film. But at one point I realized that it was very difficult to get funding for any of the stories I was trying to tell and that’s when Sanjay (Suri) came up with the idea that why don’t I write them as four short films and then we try and raise finance for each separately. In India we don’t have a market for short films. So that’s when I started writing them as short films where each one could be seen separately as an individual film but  was also connected to the next so that you can watch them as one film.

But at the same time I was also keeping it loose enough so that at any point when the finance stopped coming, I would stop shooting. I could leave it at just three stories. Whatever. I didn’t know, because it was an experiment I was trying. It’s not that first we got the entire money and then started shooting. We were shooting and editing as and when we were getting the money.

Did you try approaching traditional producers and studios for funds?

I had had this experience before..right from when I was making My Brother Nikhil where every conventional producer or studio wouldn’t be keen on making films which dealt with sexuality, or which didn’t have big stars. I faced similar problems when I tried to pitch the four stories of I Am. So when we started making them as four short films, we knew that the doors were anyway closed. So we said let’s try something different and that’s when we decided that we would try the crowd-funding platform. So the mode of financing the film in a certain way was born out of necessity because the other possibilities were not working out. Even after we finished the film, we tried to see if any studio would pick it up and release the film but they were as closed later as before.

Were there any alternatives you considered at that point, apart from crowd-funding?

Nothing. If crowd-funding would not have resulted in success, then I wouldn’t have been able to make the film.

How helpful is crowd-funding really?

I think crowd-funding is a very important tool for independent filmmakers. The problem in India is lot of filmmakers call themselves independent but are making all studio-backed films. If it is a small-budget film or slightly non-mainstream, they call it an independent film which is a dicey thing. Independent cinema has certain definitions and I feel for content-driven, small budget, non star-driven, non studio films, crowd-funding can become a very important platform.

At the same time, it’s not very easy if you are doing your first film through crowd-funding unless you have a very good network of friends and supporters who would start off the process. Even My Brother Nikhilwas in a way crowd funded. Not through social

Still from My Brother Nikhil

network, but it was friends and family who put in money.

With I Am, it helped me because I already had a small body of work. There were people who identified with my work and wanted to support what I wanted to do. I want to use crowd-funding for my future projects also.

But is there a flipside to it?

I think everything has a flipside. Even if it is a studio film, you have twenty people sitting on your head and telling you what to do, what cast to get, what positioning of songs to do, how to doctor your script for the target audiences and how to edit it a certain way. So there are too many cooks. I feel that though filmmaking is a collective process, it has to be driven by one person at the end of the day. What crowd-funding does is that it gives you that space, that freedom where you are answerable to only yourself in terms of the creative process.

There’s also a lot of pressure because of the expectations but that’s nice because it challenges you and makes you work harder. So I won’t see that as a negative. The negative side is the budget. Crowd-funding can only work with a small budget film. Also, you have to be interacting with a lot of people who have put in money because what they are looking forward to is interaction and involvement. To do that personally, because we don’t have crowd funding platforms in India yet, takes a lot of time. But I think people want that personalized touch. That for me is the biggest challenge.

Apart from it, it has to do with what is the biggest challenge for independent cinema in India today—distribution. You don’t have a distribution channel in place. So unless it’s a studio-backed project, it’s not easy to release and sustain the film in theatres.

What sort of incentives should be given to encourage more content-driven cinema?

I think one is taxation: if a film gets tax free after 5-6 weeks of running, it’s pointless. Your film is not going to sustain till then. Secondly , like Europe and America, we need a chain of theatres all over the country which would only show a certain kind of cinema. I think that will not only help independent cinema to survive but it will do something truly valuable in that films from different states can cross over within the country. Right now we see only Bollywood and Hollywood and a very few regional films get released in other states. Why can’t we as Indians watch good films from across the country? We don’t even get that opportunity. So we need theatres that would cultivate that. And I’m sure that would create so much more audience. Imagine such a huge country we have. If we developed the culture of watching each other’s films, we don’t need anyone else in the world to see our films.

How do you think independent filmmakers can use social media effectively?

I think it can be used in various ways. What social networking does and what is considered very important for the new world cinema is that the filmmaker has to directly interact with the audiences. There is no middle person. Social media enables you to interact, to create and to reach out to your audiences specially when you don’t have that kind of money to pay for media and marketing. Television promotion and all are extremely expensive. More and more people, especially youngsters who go to the movies are now in the social network. Very soon it will become a very important platform to do publicity for your film. So if you start now, you are already in the process.

One can use social networking not just for financing but to raise awareness of the film, to source the crew. You can do exciting things through social networking. You can reach out to more and more people outside your city through this space.

As you said, even studio-backed filmmakers are calling themselves independent. There is mainstream cinema and there is an alternative space within the mainstream. Where do you place yourself in the industry?

I usually like to say that I am a part of the Hindi film industry. Bollywood is the term that is recognized the world over. So I accept that I am a part of Bollywood. And I think I make sensible Bollywood cinema because unfortunately Bollywood comes with so much of baggage—songs, dance and garish stuff which I am not a part of surely. But I think I make meaningful and non-regressive cinema which is mainstream.

What does a National Award mean to you?

It is extremely precious especially in a county where all the other awards are driven by the media, where awards are given because someone is performing, or it is supported by a certain channel or paper. Everything is so driven by popularity that the content becomes secondary. Popular is supposed to be the best and I have a big problem there. If pornography was made legal in India, perhaps that would be the most popular thing that people would watch. A recent survey revealed that sex is the most googled word by Indians.

When you don’t find space in any of the other awards, and a national award comes in, that just gives you that additional strength. At the end of the day, this is the highest honour of the country and it’s something which is going to be preserved in the archives forever.

Also for a crowd-funded film, where everyone feels it’s their film, an award is really nice. The journey and the hardships become worth it because you have got the most precious award of the country. As a filmmaker, it gives you the confidence to still continue with what you are doing because somewhere it has got some validation.

On one hand, the government bestows on you national awards for the film and on the other hand, the censor board refuses you a U/A certificate, which you have been fighting for.

Fortunately I was told that this time the government didn’t interfere at all in the process of selecting the films. I think that shows that there is a changing scenario. My film has finally got a U/A certificate and I know there were a lot of people in the censor board who strongly believed in the film. But a lot of people also come from a very closed setup. So it all depends on who is watching your film. The government taking this stand will also help the censor board in future because it’s sending a clear signal that the government has accepted this film. In a way, it’s a very historical moment that a film that has LGBT content, child abuse and single motherhood is being

Still from I Am

given the biggest honor of the country.

So you have finally got a U/A certificate for I Am?

Yes, just a week before the national awards.

So do you see satellite rights coming through now?

I hope so. Now that the national awards have come, I would be surprised if it didn’t happen right now. Maybe it’s the best possible time to get the U/A certificate. The value of the film surely becomes much more after the national awards.

Apart from that, what do you think the national awards will change for you as a filmmaker?

I honestly don’t know. I don’t see anything changing drastically. All I see is that more people are going to trust me. Also I trust myself more now. You know sometimes you feel bogged down. You start questioning yourself. I am quite stubborn. If I want to do something, I try and find ways. And I think this gives more energy to my stubbornness.

Tell us about your upcoming projects.

This year we plan to produce three films. First is Chauranga to be directed by Bikas Mishra which is set in Jharkhand. I am really looking forward to it. Because as a film production company, it will be our first venture into rural India with a first time director. I feel as a director that’s my weakness, not being able to tell stories of rural India.

The second film that we are planning is called Coach Kameena, which is again to be directed by a newcomer called Ashwini Malik. It’s a sports inspirational film set in Punjab.

After that I will hopefully start my own film. It’s a story about a call-girl. It’s called Shab and is set in Delhi.

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