Directors of critically acclaimed small scale, indie films speak to TNM about the commercialisation of OTT and the resultant lack of opportunities and impact it has had on the independent film scene.

Screengrabs from Manasanamaha, Koozhangal, and Santhoshathinte Onnam RahasyamPICXY.COM/ANIKETGAIKWAD293, Screengrab/ YouTube
Flix Indie films Wednesday, June 29, 2022 - 15:30

Following the onset of the pandemic, streaming star-studded films at the click of a button from the comforts of our homes has become the new normal. For the better part of two years, over-the-top (OTT) giants witnessed a mammoth increase in their viewership and as a result also tweaked their content strategy to cater to the mainstream film audience. As per global market research firm PwC’s ‘Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2020-2024’ report, India is the world’s fastest growing OTT market at the moment and is projected to emerge as the world’s sixth largest by 2024.

From Mohanlal’s Drishyam 2 (Malayalam), 12th Man, and Nani’s Tuck Jagadish to Dhanush’s Jagame Thandhiram and Vikram’s Mahaan, several commercial flicks starring well-known actors in the lead, premiered on OTT. While movies that were produced on a relatively smaller budget like Sillu Karupatti, Kadaseela Biryani, and Churuli premiered on OTT, they were few and far between.

Some owe this change to the availability of big-budget movies willing to opt for direct OTT release, following the imposition of pandemic induced lockdowns. Whereas some believe that OTT platforms were only testing the waters and experimenting with the market before they started onboarding commercial films to improve their visibility and create a brand image among the masses. Independent filmmakers weigh in on the discussion around commercialisation of OTT and observe what this means for the growth of indie cinema.

Indie films released on OTT during the pandemic

Set in Rayalaseema village, Cinema Bandi is a simple and delightful tale about a bunch of movie buffs who set out to make their own film. Helmed by debutant director Praveen Kandregula, the film premiered on Netflix in May 2021 – at a time when most of the OTT platforms were predominantly focusing on films backed by stars and independent filmmakers were struggling to find a platform for their releases. While this simple indie film managed to woo audiences and critics with its content, director Praveen tells TNM that it would have been difficult to approach Netflix or other OTT platforms, had it not been for its producers Raj and DK, who have also directed popular shows like The Family Man.

Speaking about the movie on social media ahead of its premiere, Raj and DK had noted in one of their social media posts that Cinema Bandi – co-written by Praveen along with Vasanth Maringanti and shot by a small group of friends – is quintessential grassroots filmmaking and a ‘true indie.’

“The initial plan was to opt for theatrical release, but then I showed the same idea as a short film to Raj and DK at Goa Film Bazaar and they liked it a lot and decided to come on board as producers and promote the film. Releasing it on OTT opened a lot of doors and reached audiences from across the globe. Cinema Bandi has a universal theme at its core. OTT did wonders for the film, but it is true that without bigger production banners, it is difficult to pitch the film to popular OTT platforms,” Cinema Bandi director Praveen shares.

Speaking about the perks of releasing it on OTT, he adds that had it been released in theatres, the movie would have taken two or three weeks to grab eyeballs through word of mouth and by then, they might face competition from a mainstream film releasing around the same time.

Read: 'Cinema Bandi' is inspired by my childhood experiences: Director Praveen intv

Another film that benefited from being associated with a well-known production banner was director PS Vinothraj’s Koozhangal which was India’s official selection to Oscars in 2021. Partly inspired from the Madurai-based director’s personal life who dropped out of school in fourth grade and worked in a textile factory till he turned 19 to support his family financially, Koozhangal revolves around the relationship between an alcoholic father and his son. Director Vinothraj tells TNM that the film has received several OTT offers and the producers will be taking a final call in the decision pertaining to its release.

 “Koozhangal had a different producer on board initially who showed the film to director Ram, who in turn connected me to director Vignesh Shivan and actor Nayanthara. Both of them liked the film once they watched it and were keen on sending it to film festivals. Koozhangal shot to fame when it won the Tiger award, the top honour of the International film festival Rotterdam (IFFR),” Vinothraj explains, while adding that Koozhangal is hardly the quintessential example of an indie film since he is aware of other small - scale and indie films that performed well at film festivals, but could not secure an OTT deal with any major platform.

Read: Selling DVDs to directing India's Oscar entry, an interview with filmmaker Vinothraj

Director Deepak Reddy, who helmed the non-linear romantic drama Manasanamaha, points out that apart from the commercialisation of OTT platforms and films with big production banner becoming a prerequisite, there are a gamut of factors including marketing strategies and the genre of the film which influence the decision made by major OTT players. Deepak believes that unlike Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam, Hindi and other film industries where parallel cinema has been around for a long time and has a loyal set of viewers, Tollywood lacks a thriving indie film scene.

“Anuraag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane, Madhu Mantena and Vikas Bahl produce small-scale movies under the banner of Phantom. The existence of a loyal fan base in Tamil for actor Kamal Haasan and the success of many small-scale films in Malayalam show how indie films have run parallel in these industries. Whereas in Telugu, big budget films with stars are still the norm. Apart from production, the film’s success, especially in the case of OTT, has a lot to do with the marketing and PR,” Deepak Reddy quips. He further says, “In Telugu, indie films in all genres might not work. A horror indie film does not have the same kind of scope as a small-scale comedy film like Cinema Bandi.”

Read: Memes, reels and Spaces: How south movies are embracing digital marketing

As OTT giants like Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus Hotstar, Zee 5, Netflix and Sony LIV among others, continued to sign star-studded films following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, smaller OTT players focusing on regional content came into the spotlight. Malayalam OTT platform Neestream, for instance, shot to fame following the release of the critically acclaimed film The Great Indian Kitchen. However, filmmakers point out that regional OTT platforms too have their own set of shortcomings. 

Don Palathara, the director of single-shot film Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam which was released on several regional OTT platforms, tells TNM that the revenue sharing model followed by regional OTT players does not offer promising returns to producers. “They usually have technical issues and many of them are not very professional in dealing with the filmmakers. The positive side of releasing on OTT, is the fact that the film gets a decent reach. Regional platforms, on the other hand, limit the reach. The burden is again on the filmmakers,” Don Palathara remarks. 

Read: Beyond Amazon and Netflix: Tracing the growth of regional OTT players from south

Film Festivals 

All four filmmakers unanimously agree that film festivals have contributed greatly to the success of indie films. Don Palathara, Deepak, and Praveen point out that even film festivals held during the pandemic, albeit virtual, have provided a platform for indie films. 

After the 75th edition of the Cannes film festival concluded in May this year, a section of audiences and independent filmmakers took to social media to express that the focus has been shifted away from celebrating films, the core reason behind these film festivals being held and also criticised the media for letting headlines about fashion get more coverage than details about the films that were officially selected. They also questioned why India, which was selected as the ‘country of honour’ at Marche Du Cinema this year, has not emerged as the winner in the competition section. 

“This is not a recent development. This has been going on for a while now. Cannes is not just a film festival. It is a glamour event too. Film festivals are also striving for popularity, so the focus shifts from the cinematic art to stuff like glamour and world politics,” shares Don Palathara.

Deepak, who is in agreement with Don, says that film festivals too have their own brand and they strive for recognition. Deepak shares, “People think film festivals are solely held to celebrate the art form, but they have their own marketing and PR teams too. As for India not being able to win, we need to understand that unlike western and European countries where indie films are more common, commercial cinema dominates the film landscape in India.” 

Director Praveen on the other hand believes that film bodies representing the country should ensure that they have seen films released in different languages and make the official selection accordingly. The Indian pavilion at the Cannes Film Market presented six films at the 11-day-long festival this year – Rocketry: The Nambi Effect (Hindi, English, Tamil), Godavari (Marathi), Alpha Beta Gamma (Hindi), Boomba Ridea (Mishing), Dhuin (Maithili) and Niraye Thathakalulla Maram (Malayalam).

Read: How single-shot film 'Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam' was shot inside a car

Path ahead

Don Palathara observes that there has been a lack of audiences for certain genres and the solution is to foster a culture of supporting films. He also points out that rather than looking at the state’s contribution towards art and culture as charity, it should be viewed as the right of the artist. “During the release of arthouse films, I’ve seen some people watching it like it is some sort of activism. But that kind of short term enthusiasm cannot sustain independent filmmaking in the longer run. Efforts to create better awareness about such films should start right from school.”

Director Vinothraj cites the model used by Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC), wherein the local film body maintains state-run theatres and has set up studios and made equipment available for aspiring filmmakers. He advocates for a similar model to be adopted in other states too. Notably, Malayalam film Nishiddho (Forbidden), the first movie produced by KSFDC as part of the state government’s pioneering project to support aspiring women directors, bagged the Best Feature Film award at the Ottawa Indian Film Festival Awards (OIFFA) earlier last week.

Read: The Great Indian Kitchen to Sherni: Indian OTT has led to more women-centric films

Meanwhile, Deepak Reddy observes that well-known producers and actors from the film industry backing indie films can go a long way. “Once they are associated with a big production banner or get the right kind of recognition for their first project, filmmakers would enjoy better visibility for their subsequent projects,” says Deepak. 

Read: OTT platforms need to understand India's diversity, go beyond Hindi focus

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