Ask anyone in the Indian film industry about the one major problem that it faces today and the answer is likely to be: lack of good content. And yet, fresh content or unique storylines (that defy the age-old clichés of formula-driven Hindi cinema) are considered to be a huge risk proposition. Actor-producer Sanjay Suri is among the brave new breed of Indian filmmakers who believe that there is a place for both “picnic cinema” (read: song-and-dance Bollywood films) and “content-driven cinema”. Says Sanjay: “There is diversity in tastes, so there is definitely an audience that likes to watch films that entertain, enrich and engage. There is an audience that makes a conscious effort to seek out such movies.”
Sanjay and his team went out in search of just such an audience for his film I Am. The film deals with four mini-stories, loosely strung together, about four individuals – Afia, Megha, Abhimanyu and Omar – who grapple with issues ranging from sperm donation, dispossession and alienation, child abuse and intolerance faced by the gay community. Says Sanjay: “I Am was born out of the need to tell stories that don’t often get told. And for this we wanted audience participation right from day one till the day of the release. I Am is democratization of filmmaking and I am proud of that. The snowball effect started from the day we received our first cheque of one thousand rupees. It wasn’t a small amount for us because it was our first step towards realizing this dream. Within one and a half months, we were shooting our first story.’’
I Am is the first successful attempt at crowd-funding in the Indian film industry and it offers hope to a lot of indie filmmakers who want to make films that are not typically “Bollywood” in their style or content. Sanjay points out that there are huge challenges to the growth of niche films: “Release costs have gone up tremendously. So even if you make a small budget film, you will go broke releasing your film. European cinema does what it does only because the government supports them. There are no Art House chains in India that play world cinema or support films. Hence the opening-weekend model is all that matters. Exhibitors will not allow a film to grow if it has no footfalls on the opening Friday. Art house chains can help in developing tastes for a certain kind of cinema. Ticket pricing is another key factor that impacts spending. A Rs 1 billion film is priced at Rs 250 and so is a Rs 20 million film …obviously the audience will go for the one that is better advertised. At the end of the day, the passion to make money has surpassed to the passion of making good cinema.”
In such a scenario, I Am has proved that content, cause and crowds can make for a heady cocktail.