Pandemic forced the industry to shut shop; filmmakers like me have lived with this uncertainty all along, writes Devashish Makhija
'For filmmakers driven by an artistic impulse, and not market mechanics, the pandemic changed absolutely nothing.'
2020 has been a watershed year in history, and that has also trickled down to the realm of entertainment. In this series, 2020 Unwind, stakeholders from the Indian entertainment scene weigh in on how they view entertainment now, how their skills had to evolve and adapt to changing patterns and whether the year has altered them as artists.
2020 was arguably my most ironic year. Our film Bhonsle had travelled the festival circuit for a year and a half, picked up a few awards and many favourable reviews. But nobody here in India was interested in distributing it, theatrically or online. Amongst the obvious reasons were its slow-burn pace, its ‘sad’ ending, and its willful nihilism. Less obvious, but as much of a ‘minus’ for those we approached, was the film’s stance on the political conflict of the insider/outsider. They felt it was ‘dated’ and its contexts ‘irrelevant.'
But then, COVID-19 arrived.
A nationwide lockdown ensued.
Thousands of migrant labourers, left stranded far from their homes by an obstinately apathetic central government, began walking thousands of kilometres back to their villages and small towns. The word ‘migrant’ suddenly, and disconcertingly, became a hashtag. And overnight, the insider/outsider debate flooded India’s public consciousness like never before. Questions flew thick and fast.
Why is an Indian citizen treated like an outsider within their own land?
Where does one draw the line between belonging and unbelonging between the states that constitute India?
Who protects the rights of say, a Bihari in Maharashtra? A Tamilian in Delhi? An Assamese in Karnataka? A Kashmiri in Bengal?
If we are second-rate citizens when in another state, then what really is the meaning of 'India?'
These were also the very questions Bhonsle was founded on. Tragically, it was in this heartbreaking scenario that our little film suddenly found large context. Bhonsle not only released to wide acclaim, but also to the kind of online viewership a film like this can only dream of, but never realise. The film cannoned the brand new SonyLIV into being a big OTT player to reckon with. And after being a 'relatively unknown' filmmaker, despite making films for about a decade prior to this, I was flooded with offers, all of which I proceeded to turn down, to stay my course, the one I had set for myself over 10 years ago.
The point I am trying to make here is this –
although it seems to the world that the film industry has undergone a DNA-altering churn this year, and the audiences may never watch films in the same ways again, for a filmmaker like me, this is how my life always had been.
For filmmakers driven by an artistic impulse, and not market mechanics, the pandemic changed absolutely nothing. On the contrary, I feel as if the rest of the ecosystem is finally experiencing the uncertainty and heartburn that filmmakers like myself have lived with each day of our lives ever since we chose to make our cinema in this country.
My films, with the exception of Ajji, never released in theatres. I was told once by someone from the management of a multiplex that watching my films firmly takes away any urge to buy popcorn, and replaces it with a feeling of the guilt of unfair privilege that is hard to shake off. This ensured that Ajji didn’t last even a week in theatres, with not more than 10 people in the few shows that didn’t get cancelled.
But like all my short films before it, Ajji too found its loyal, discerning, championing, effusive audience when it came online. With theatres caring less and less for our films, filmmakers like me have been in a pandemic-like production and distribution scenario for decades before the pandemic even arrived.
- We don’t know how our films will release, or if they ever will
- We don’t know what kind of money our films will recover, or if they ever will
- We don’t know who will produce our next film, or if it ever will get produced at all
- We don’t know who exactly our target audiences are, and how to reach them
- Despite critical acclaim, we often have to make each successive film at lower budgets than the previous one
- And so on some days, we’re not sure if we can even continue to make films anymore
This ^ may sound like a list of insecurities and fears probably ALL filmmakers (if not all artists) have to now confront at the fag end of 2020. But this list has been status quo for me (and those like me) since time immemorial.
I hear the word ‘hope’ being bandied about a lot. I heard it in 2014/15/16 as well when I was making my short films El’ayichi, Agli Baar, Taandav, and others. Everyone wanted to believe the online space was the new messiah for the visual artist. I warned us then, and will warn us again now, that the Artist will never have a messiah. We cannot pin our hopes on forces that are beyond our control. If expressing ourselves artistically is a priority then the medium is immaterial. The online space did not come to the rescue of the short film as hoped in 2015/16. No magical distribution and recovery model ever arrived over that horizon. Instead star-driven short films flooded YouTube, and turned what could have been a small pile of the art into a humongous garbage heap of mediocrity.
The cinema hall was there until yesterday. Its nearly gone now.
The OTT is here today. It will most certainly be gone tomorrow.
In fact the OTTs are already prioritising monster-budget over-inflated star-vehicles over cost-effective artistic films. Will those films make their money back? No one knows. Because the OTT is stubbornly opaque with its economics whereas the cinema hall had to be transparent with the same.
Does that mean we consider NOT making the films we want to make? No.
Does that mean it may be difficult to make the films we want to make? Yes.
Does that mean things will change in every which way from film to film? Perhaps.
This was always where artists like me were at. Being in a minority, most didn’t take our artistic predicament too seriously. But in the post-pandemic world, almost everyone finds themselves where earlier only a few of us resided.
I find that this is not very different from the insider/outsider predicament. Before the pandemic, in many ways, we were different people with different prerogatives. The pandemic has attempted to level that by tossing us onto the same side of the line, in more ways than one. As filmmakers – artistic or commerce-driven; as artists – independent or mainstream; as citizens – on this side of the state border or that; we are being equalised. Perhaps therein lies the ‘hope’ we so desperately seek?
Devashish Makhija is a filmmaker, author, poet, and graphic designer.
Read more articles from this series here.
All images from Instagram
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