Crowdfunding is the next big thing for indie cinema
Srinivas Sunderrajan’s tryst with filmmaking started as a mere coincidence but the indie filmmaker soon found his calling in films. From Tea Break, his first film to the more known The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project and Greater Elephant, Srinivas has carved a niche for himself that was also recognized by the maestro, Anurag Kashyap, himself.
His films have travelled across film festivals the world over and are now available on Fliqvine, an online community for indie films and filmmakers. The quirky filmmaker, who is also famous as the bassist for Mumbai hardcore band ‘Scribe’, enthralls us with his filmmaking journey and the importance of having his films on Fliqvine.
Becoming a filmmaker, was it a dream decision or a coincidental turn of events?
I’d love to have a bio that started with “…at the tender age of 6, Srinivas used his dad’s 8mm film camera to make films involving his toys…”, but unfortunately, I was one of those who excelled at studies, topped his class types – so it was pure coincidence that I ended up being a filmmaker instead of the next Zuckerberg. Or Jobs – whichever sounds cooler!
With no formal training in the field, how would you describe your journey as a filmmaker?
The journey is filled with suspense and twists. It all started when I dropped out of an IT course because I wanted to do event management. But due to some confusion in choosing the right course, I ended up doing a bachelors degree in mass media (BMM). The course had subjects like Photography and Understanding Cinema – the latter which I enjoyed the most. We used to make our projects using borrowed handycams and try and ‘reinvent’ the art of presentations. These audio-visual projects along with a healthy dose of ‘cinema nights’ at a classmate’s house, where we devoured Kurosawa, Antonioni, Wong Kar Wai etc. – helped me understand cinema better.
Also, in my final year of graduation, I worked with a foreign film crew for a film called The Pool that was shot in Goa and starred Nana Patekar. Working on that film basically was like film school for me. I learnt so much about filmmaking and what NOT TO DO – that when I got back, I put them to use and made a short film called Tea Break. The film won a lot of awards at film festivals etc., and I’ve not stopped making films since then.
The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project (TUKKP) is partly autobiographical. Please tell us about the genesis of the film. Also, is working on an autobiographical subject, easier or more controlled in a way?
The genesis of TUKKP happened in 2007, when I attended the ‘Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles’ with my short film Tea Break. It was also where I met Quentin Tarantino and had a brief conversation with him on how he loved Kaante. Upon my return to India, I was contacted by a certain Kartik Krishnan (then a software engineer and regular blogger on Passion For Cinema) who wanted me to help him make his short film. But we didn’t end up working on it.
Later in 2009, I happened to remember the aforementioned chain of events. I called up Kartik (who had quit his IT job to write for films) and mentioned to him a film whose title was ‘The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project’ and whether he would want to be part of it. He agreed and that’s the start of the film too! I weaved in some fiction elements in the film and hence the ‘based on true events’ disclaimer at the start of the film.
I personally feel an autobiographical work is easier to work with because it’s based on events that happened in reality; though the accuracy can always be doubted – but that’s beside the point. I prefer original stories because you can always have greater control over it rather than something that’s historical or inspired or remakes.
You’ve followed a ‘guerilla style’ of shooting for TUKKP. Please elaborate on your shooting approach and what was it driven by?
In retrospect, I call it the ‘nothing to lose’ style of shooting! I was fascinated by the way independent cinema was exploding in the West. Since I didn’t have the luxury of any production support, location permits or finances, I figured the only approach to shoot would be to go the ‘guerrilla way’. So I had to construct the film’s treatment to complement the shooting style – which is why the handheld, low light, noir approach works best for the kind of story I’m telling in TUKKP. The long takes and the fact that the actors weren’t bound by any focus marks or anything, helped them grow more confident in front of the camera.
Why did you choose to go the ‘black & white’ way for your debut project?
Both my short films were black and white. Somehow, I always connected more to the monotone than color. For TUKKP, it was an obvious choice because I didn’t have money for lights, costumes or art design. With black and white, I just had to play with light and darkness and also didn’t require any grading assistance!
Do you make films keeping festivals/festival audiences in mind? If yes, how does it influence the filmmaking process?
Always. I always feel the West is open to a wide range of storytelling and my thoughts somewhere find more acceptance abroad than here. Also, the non – gloss factor in these films, helps find a place in festivals because they’re on the lookout for films that are unconventional. Having said this, personally for me, it doesn’t influence my filmmaking process because that’s something that is independent of any such external factors. Both my films were well received at all the festivals that they travelled to – so that’s a good thing to keep in mind when writing anything new.
Anurag Kashyap helped promote your debut film. How did that give an impetus to the film? Also while researching about TUKKP, I learnt that it was called India’s first mumble core film. How did this tag help the film?
TUKKP had a small screening in early 2010. At that time, Anurag Kashyap was also on the forefront of bringing out the independent cinema movement to the world. He saw the film at the screening and wrote a Facebook status that said “How can someone make a film for 40,000…and that too so good?” Soon, an interview with Outlook followed and I could say the film had ‘arrived’ in the market! I got a lot of offers to sell the film etc., but somewhere I wasn’t prepared for the commerce aspect of filmmaking. I soon got invited to screen the film at festivals here and abroad and another journey of ‘travelling with the film’ transpired.
I had always emphasized that I was making a ‘guerrilla, low budget, independent film’. But by the time, the film got made and screened in late 2010, films like Dhobighat and The Girl In Yellow Boots already started getting festival recognition as the ‘new wave of independent cinema’. At this point in time, to promote the film as ‘guerrilla or indie’ meant direct comparisons to these ‘more than 40k INR’ budget films. Galen Rosenthal, the festival director at South Asian International Film Festival, New York had heard about TUKKP and asked me to send a screener. He loved the film and wrote back saying “Congratulations for making India’s first mumblecore film!” To be honest, more than being elated, I googled what ‘mumblecore’ meant and to my surprise, TUKKP fit the bill perfectly. Somewhere karma played its part and I started marketing my film as ‘India’s first mumblecore film’ – just so that I could differentiate it from the rest.
TUKKP got a theatrical release when indie films were limited to festival circuits. Was it anticipated? What worked in your favor?
I had never anticipated a theatrical release because I always thought the film would find difficulty in finding an audience, considering it did well in the experimental festival circuit. Shiladitya Bora (ex-PVR Director’s Rare), who was then a programmer with the Ahmedabad Film Festival, had seen TUKKP and wanted to screen the film at the festival. Though that didn’t materialize, he assured me that whenever he has the ability to screen such films, TUKKP would be one of them. When the Director’s Rare initiative took off, Shiladitya remembered his promise and gave me a call asking whether I would be interested in a theatrical release. It was his encouragement to get such films released that made me go ahead with the theatrical.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting your debut film together?
Getting the script okayed by the actors itself was the challenge. I got in touch with friends who I felt fit the part and made them read the script in front of me. I wanted to understand what they were going through while reading it. Once they gave me the go-ahead, I figured I could overcome the impossible – which meant shooting on weekends since all of them had day jobs and shooting without permissions and production support since I had a meager budget to work with. Most important of all was the challenge to get up every day and work towards the completion of the film – whose fate, of whether it would be accepted or thrashed, was still undecided.
Your second film, Greater Elephant was to be a dark film. How did humor become such an integral part of the story?Also while it is entertaining, it also deals with a larger purpose/concept. Was the ‘metaphorical aspect’ always the idea?
The initial idea and draft of Greater Elephant (then titled ‘Haathi ke Daant’) was intended to be a bit dark. I wanted to collaborate with documentary filmmaker, Paromita Vohra on that – but schedules could not be worked out since she was working on her film. Thinking I’ll revisit it later, I got busy with other projects and ended up with TUKKP. Around mid 2011, I felt the time was right to revisit the story and maybe try to see it from a different perspective. That’s when I got in touch with Omkar and we decided to take the satire route because there’s a lot of things that can be conveyed best with humor than with drama.
Also, around this time, I was already a feature film old. Things in the world of Indian independent cinema were changing rapidly and I started questioning my place in it. That’s also part of the reason why I decided to revisit the script because I could see myself in the mahout’s search of his elephant – relating it to my own search for ‘finding my place’.
Is writing funny really as tough as people say it is? How did the collaboration with Omkar Sane come about and add to the project?
Being funny is definitely tougher than writing funny. And I’m the former! (kidding) I had never written comedy before and that’s why I got in touch with Omkar, whose one liners on Facebook sort of touched upon some themes that were later explored in Greater Elephant. I got in touch with him and despite not being familiar with each other’s works (I hadn’t read his two books and he hadn’t seen TUKKP), we were on the same page with regards to the themes and topics in the film. I wasn’t involved in the dialogues, that I trusted Omkar with since he had a flair for humour. A ground rule that we followed was to avoid slapstick humour and try and see if we could use farce and satire as a possible ‘genre’ that the film could immerse itself in.
You went the Crowdfunding way for Greater Elephant. The concept was very new to India then, how & why did you opt for it? According to you, what does one need to get like-minded people to invest in your project?
The concept of crowdfunding existed in the West through sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. But such a system was lacking in India. At the same time, I was looking for funds to release the film since we were having trouble finding a distributor. A chance meeting with Anshulika Dubey (of Wishberry) stirred the idea of maybe crowdfunding to help raise the funds I required to release the film. They had just opened shop in India and were willing to collaborate with people from various fields. I think we were one of the first films to reach the target amount due to aggressive spamming and emotionally blackmailing our social network circles!
Crowdfunding is still gathering momentum in India. People need to be made aware of the difference between crowdfunding and donation based initiatives. If this awareness is spread, more people would be open to crowdfund. Right now, only a few who we can make aware invest in projects. So give it a little time and crowdfunding is the next big thing for indie cinema after Anurag Kashyap!
Why did you choose to independently release the film?
A film like Greater Elephant (or similar genre), which is devoid of stars or item numbers but high on original content, finds difficulty in getting a distributor on board to release the film. This is also the sole reason why we end up sending films to film festivals because we can then ride on the wave of laurels or festival buzz to generate some kind of awareness here. Usually, this takes some amount of time but the end result is always beneficial to all parties. Unfortunately, with Greater Elephant, we decided to appease the cast by releasing the film here instead of the usual festival journey. As a result, we had to bank on our own marketing and social media skills to spread awareness of the film.
My co-producers, Humara Movies were very helpful in trying to get us a release with PVR Director’s Rare (again Shiladitya coming to the rescue).
You are known to give your actors a free hand, creative liberty. How does that work for you & the film?
I’m a firm believer in collaborations – be it with writers, actors, editors etc. By giving actors a free hand, you’re empowering them to put their best foot forward with utmost confidence. Obviously, one has to limit them when it is detrimental to the product, but fortunately for me – I never had to put a leash on anyone! As a director (or helmer of a project) one’s major function is to align these varied experiences and expectations into a streamlined thought for a consistent & effective final product. This kind of free-spirit seeps into the film and that’s helped me shape up my skills as a filmmaker. And the results are crystal clear in the films that you’ve seen!
Being a musician yourself, what role does music play in your films? Have you thought of composing music for your films?
Music has always played a great role in shaping my perspectives when it concerns writing or editing a scene. A mere, single note of music can create a paradigm shift in a scene – taking it to a new level, something that words or the actor’s expression might not be able to convey. It also sets the perfect mood for settings especially in indie productions where you cannot always get the perfect location or setting! So yes, music definitely plays an important role when used well and in context to your story.
I’m blessed to be around great musicians who are million times more talented than me musically. So better to enroll them in my journey than going off-note in it myself!
Your films are available on Fliqvine. How important is such a platform to the indie community?
Platforms like Fliqvine are the need of the hour right now because not all films can be released theatrically. And even if they did, it might not play in all cities around the country. That’s why online platforms are essential as they bridge this gap of filmmakers and their audience and also help give it a global reach. A lot of independent films are being made all across the country and a platform like Fliqvine can be a one stop shop for everything indie – thereby creating a great collective of films, makers and ideas.
How has your presence on Fliqvine helped your films and you as a filmmaker?
Well, it’s not even been a full one month since the films are on Fliqvine and I’ve already gotten some traction in views. I’m guessing with time (our only friend) it might help create more awareness of these films and hopefully, more people would watch the film and share it with their network circles.
This is a great time for indie films – theatrical releases, recognition etc. According to you what is the next step?
I feel the distribution model for theatrical films needs to be overhauled considering we still follow a archaic system founded in the British era. With initiatives like PVR Director’s Rare, theatrical releases are possible but it still lacks the coverage that mainstream cinema gets. This also can be achieved by having a separate ‘independent cinema’ critiquing system where one can help spread the buzz about the film through websites or zines. If the filmmakers are using unconventional methods to make their films, they need to be open to unconventional distribution models as well – like underground screenings or makeshift theater spaces. These all points need to be discussed in detail – and hence will take some amount of time and patience to materialize I guess.
Any upcoming projects that you can talk about?
I’m in the process of writing the third version of an independent sci-fi feature film that I intend to make called Heartless Ramesh (I thrashed the initial two versions). Till that gets made, I’m currently working on an experimental webseries called Taxidermy, which will have a 5 – episode structure. It should be out in the next couple of months.