Satyen K Bordoloi finds a metaphor for indie cinema in the children’s film Gattu and wonders if the Children’s Film Society India can become the next NFDC.
In a small town, a monstrous black kite called Kali cuts every other kite that threatens its domination of the skies. Gattu, a kid unmindful of his small size or poverty, dreams of ending Kali’s reign and has to rake up all his resourcefulness, street-smartness and intelligence to reach his objective.
On the face of it, this can be read as the brief synopsis of the film Gattu directed by Rajan Khosa, which has earned the unique distinction of being the first film that the 57 year old Children’s Film Society India (CFSI) is releasing all guns blazing.
On another level, replace ‘Kali’ with ‘commercial cinema’, Gattu with the struggling indie filmmaker and the sky with the Indian cinema space, and you have the perfect metaphor for cinema in India.
Indian cinematic skies are ruled by commercial monstrosities like ‘Kali’. The problem is not their commercial mindset, but that with a clockwork precision, most of them dismantle any semblance of intelligence and logic in their films in their desperate attempt to pander to the lowest common denominator.
What we get in the end are senile films that lack either sensibility, sensitivity or even a tempered down representation of realism to anything existing in the world.
This happens in a country of thousands of directorial aspirants, of small guys with big ideas. These guys, like Gattu, are orphans and illiterate with the ways of the cinematic world and their secrets. No wonder most either lose heart along the way or go away to buy another reality. A handful, succeed.
This was not always the case. Beginning from 1969, NFDC or National Film Development Corporation (which was then FFC – Film Finance Corporation) backed such aspirants with great ideas but no money or stars. They helped them not only to make films, but by hook or crook, also helped find distributors. In the 1970s, FFC was also close to persuading the government to lend them money to start a chain of theatres across the country for alternate cinema.
The result was a cinema movement called the ‘New Indian Cinema’/’Indian New Wave’ and the birth of an entire generation of film directors and actors who would later become stars, ironically, of even commercial cinema space.
Despite many objections of disgruntled ‘official’ quarters seeking reasoning for ‘wasting’ public money for something as trivial as cinema, FFC/NFDC stuck to its guns and reasoned that the moral mandate of the Corporation was not just to earn profit, but the growth of cinematic art form in the country.
If India ever had any semblance of a collective, ingenious filmmaking culture, it was in the 70s and early 80s and was spearheaded by NFDC.
That, however, seems like another lifetime ago.
It isn’t that NFDC has not produced films recently. They have in their kitty some of the most distinct films made in the recent years including White Elephant, Maya Bazaar, Bioscope, Ekhon Nedekha Nodir Xhipare (As the River Flows), Lucky Red Seeds and Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (Alms For A Blind Horse) among many others.
However, besides Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl In Yellow Boots and Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, they have not released any films in many years. And unlike in the 70s, they have not really been pushing for the release of films by these little guys.
One would have thought that NFDC’c recent production Anhey Ghorhey... directed by Gurvinder Singh that created worldwide interest after getting entry in the prestigious Venice International Festival, would be promoted by the organisation in India and given at least a respectable theatrical release.
Similarly Bidyut Kotoky’s As The River Flows and Aijaz Ahmed’s Whit Elephant have also been waiting their turn for years.
Others like Anjali Menon, director of Manjadikuru (Lucky Red Seeds) after waiting two years for her film’s release, finally raked in resources herself to buy it from NFDC and released it on her own earlier this year.
Defenders of NFDC will say that they co-produced and released That Girl In Yellow Boots and Shanghai. That is true. But an Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee, at this stage of their career, don’t need the patronage of an agency like NFDC. They have made it big in the cinema world. Dibakar needed NFDC seven years back while Anurag needed the agency a decade back. Today, they are at a place where anyone will give them money and release their films. Where is the need for NFDC to put in theirs?
Where NFDC can truly service cinema, is in helping the little guys, the budding Anurag’s and Dibakars of the future, find release for their films.
In this space, CFSI’s release of Gattu acquires great significance.
Gattu, like Janhavi Samant wrote in her review for Mid-Day, “…doesn’t have a superstar like in Taare Zameen Par, neither does it have an item number like in Chillar Party. It does not have the preachy tones, the hamming, or the exceptionally mean adults that we are so used to in the so called children’s films in India.”
One has to wonder how such a film got a nationwide release! A film that is indeed extremely ‘different’ even in the children’s film space, where the main villain is the structure of society that has kept Gattu poor and illiterate, that has been made by a director who isn’t famous, which not only does not have any star even in guest appearance but surprisingly lacks any known faces in its cast and which is set in a small town and shot on location on digital… That such a film has been released in 65 theatres in India is a landmark in the history of Indian cinema and a cause for celebration for all.
To its credit, the story is subtle but delectable, the direction has been handled succinctly and in Mohammad Samad, we have one of the best child artists India has ever seen. The ten year old not only carries the film forward on his impish, naughty shoulders but with his performance lifts it to sublime levels. No one was surprised when it found a special mention in the Berlin Film Festival this year and was awarded and praised and loved by audiences and critics alike in other international festivals.
The real heroes who made the film possible, are director Rajan Khosa, Nandita Das and her team at CFSI and Rajshri Pictures who agreed to release the film.
The Barjatyas, known for their ‘clean’ family films, saw Gattu, liked its wholesome family entertainment value and agreed to release it even though ever since Vivah in 2006, they haven’t released another film. A delightful coincidence here is that the 1969 film Bhuvan Shome produced by NFDC’s previous avatar FFC, whose unexpected successes at the box office became the starting point of the New Indian Cinema movement, was also released by Rajshri Pictures.
Rajan Khosa had told me during the world premiere of Gattu at ‘The Golden Elephant’ 17th International Children’s Film Festival organised by CFSI in November in Hyderabad, "Most children's films are didactic and boring. I wanted to make a fun film where the message was not overbearing but more like a natural progression."
Those present at that premiere would never forget the nearly 1000 kids’ reaction that evening, who’d burst out into a spontaneous and uproarious screams of cheer after every few minutes of the film.
Talking about CFSI Nandita Das had told me then, "I am trying to put systems in place so that they go beyond the individual because the chairperson and CEO changes. There has to be systemic changes that last longer.”
At the film’s recent premiere in on 18th July, where ‘celebrities’ turned up to support the film, Nandita stressed about how it has taken 57 years for CFSI to release their first film nationally. CFSI’s mandate dictates that their films are shown free to school children across the country and every year 4 million kids watch them. While growing up, I remember being taken one morning every year by my school, to see a children’s film in the theatre, which I would learn only decades later were from CFSI.
At the film’s premiere Nandita, whose three-year tenure ends on 31st July, had said with her own 2 year old son nestled in her lap, that this was her parting gift to the children of the nation. But for what she has indeed managed to achieve at CFSI in her short tenure, including this first ever theatrical release, this would have sounded vain.
In a short, restored film that was shown at the opening ceremony of the film festival in Hyderabad, Jawaharlal Nehru is seen interacting with kids and telling them why children's cinema needs focus. He is seen saying that children's cinema needs to be ‘good’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘in step with the times’. And this, he tells kids in this film shot in 1956, was why CFSI was set up.
However, since the last many years, CFSI had deviated from this goal.
On joining CFSI, Nandita Das did a very important thing. She infused new blood in CFSI by hiring external people as consultants. For instance, she roped in Monica Wahi who had experience in children’s films as Creative Director at Going to School – a producer of children’s content. As Creative Head at CFSI, she oversaw Gattu from scripting to release.
Two films that are almost ready and Monica adds in the must-watch list from CFSI in the near future are Shilpa Ranade’s animation feature Gopi Gawaiya, Bagha Bajaiya that promises some purely Indian animation spectacle and Batul Mukhtiar’s live action feature Kaphal.
Despite the bureaucratic hurdles, Monica is optimistic about the future of creative cinema in CFSI. “We have been surprised by the truly brilliant scripts we have got lately that go beyond the cliches of children’s cinema,” she says.
One can only hope that some of these will get made and find a release like Gattu. “CFSI’s doors are always open to filmmakers, aspiring or established to submit their scripts anytime. The only two conditions are that they be creative and for children,” says Monica.
The fact that it has to be for children seems like a little bottleneck. However, one only has to look at Iranian cinema to see how it can actually become an opportunity for creativity. Children’s cinema, does not become a constraint for truly creative artists, rather its simplicity might actually be liberating.
Releasing Gattu has been a huge challenge with a marketing budget – a miniscule 97 lakhs – being less than its paltry production budget of 1.5 crores. “What has helped is the goodwill of people; Nandita’s own goodwill in the industry, great reviews by the press and people interested in good, intelligent & sensitive cinema,” Monica Wahi says.
Going by the positive reviews and the word-of-mouth buzz created, the film that cost CFSI less than 2.5 crores in production & P&A spend, will make at least double of that in satellite and home video rights, making it an undoubtable hit!
If one didn’t know this, one could have agreed with NFDC’s decision to not push for the theatrical release of the globally acclaimed films in their kitty. But those low budget films, with the patronage of a positive press, will easily more than recover their money and thus make do for any losses NFDC might face.
Going by these facts and figures, it is clear that NFDC needs to do more than serenade the Anurags and Dibakars of the world. NFDC seems like a mighty giant, which no doubt is working very hard but is absolutely unaware of its own place in global cinema history and its own strength or potential in the domestic market. What it perhaps needs is to go back to its original vision of supporting original creative filmmakers like in the 70s, and to plug into that the modern means of making money from films.
It is interesting that Gattu released alongside Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan, like Gattu in the film, began as a cinematic orphan, making his first film Following for an unbelievable $10,000. Today, he has ‘risen’ and is considered worldwide a shining example of how commercial cinema need not be downright stupid and condescending.
A theatre North of Mumbai, cancelled a Gattu show for alleged ‘technical reasons’ on Sunday and instead played ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. While the early morning show in a South Mumbai theatre ‘Roxy’ on the same day, ran full house.
It has taken CFSI 57 years and over 250 odd films (similar number of films NFDC has also made) to finally realise its true potential. And though it is perhaps a farfetched imagination to believe that CFSI can become another NFDC, what is indisputable is that creative filmmakers have another door to knock on.
Jawaharlal Nehru, would have loved the ‘good’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘in step with the times’ Gattu. He would have been proud of CFSI.
One can only hope that they stick to this path even as those who should have are busy serenading the stars.