The Open Letter – The story of the 12th director
[dropcap]A [/dropcap]dream journey began when she was selected out of numerous entries to be part of India’s first collaborative project. A new concept – 12 directors who have never met, work on 12 different parts across 12 different cities and finally put together one feature film. Helming the project were stalwarts like Anurag Kashyap and Sudhir Mishra. What started off as a dream project soon took a turn for the worse, when her part of the film was rejected, her creativity questioned, dues not paid followed by an unpleasant spat of communication which raises a very important question – Is this how Indie cinema works?
Here in conversation with Shilpa Munikempanna, the only female director, chosen from amongst 100’s to be part of ‘The Last Act’. Unfortunately her part did not make it to the final film. Her experience came to light via The Open Letter on her blog which was addressed to Mr.Anurag Kashyap .
Pandolin speaks with Shilpa to understand the finer details of the collaborative project and what went wrong
How did you come to associate with this project? How long has it been?
I applied for the competition and was chosen as being part of the 12 directors on September 12th 2012. It’s been about 3 and ½ months.
At the time of signing the contract, what were the clauses mentioned to you? Did you consent to it all?
The clauses were numerous to begin with. They basically included clauses that made sure I had absolutely no rights. They had the right to reject my film, they owned all rights for perpetuity, had the right to decide on remunerations etc. What was also stated was that once the script was okayed it was not to be changed. Such a contract according to the law of the country is biased and illegal.
No one can take away our moral rights over our creative works, which the contract in question did. I plead lack of knowledge when I signed the contract and also should have gotten the contract checked by a lawyer before I signed it. But the carrot was too tempting and given Anurag Kashyap’s image as the godfather of indie filmmakers, I saw the contract as just a formality and nothing more. In my open letter I also speak about this. The breach in the contract was made by Abhijit Das and Asmit Pathare for asking for changes once the script had been okayed.
At what stage did you realize that your film was not going the way you envisioned it? When was the first time you raised the issue?
After I had submitted my edited film as well as all the raw footage I was sent an sms, two weeks later, saying that my film was rejected by Anurag and Sudhir because I didn’t incorporate changes asked for and that it was too slow. The issue was raised in an email I sent to the company’s representatives.[toggle_box title=”I quote from the email” width=”Width of toggle box”]
“As per my telephonic conversation with Asmit he did mention that not all the scripts had an investigative angle to it. So why am I being asked to shoot certain scenes that do not at all fit into the ethos and the spirit of the film that I have made? There seems to be no effort made to negotiate creatively, especially as this segment will carry my name on it and I have certain obligations to myself and to filmmaking itself that does not allow me to indulge in supporting clichés that the Bollywood industry propagates.
I went into production and made a film and handed the same over to you fulfilling my contractual obligations after the said script was okayed by you. If there was a problem with how it fit into the overall larger film should it not fall into what Asmit’s obligations are as Project Director? It seems terribly unfair that I am being asked to reshoot and incorporate certain scenes into my film spending my own money when it should logically be something that you ought to do as it falls under your contractual obligations. How do you expect one filmmaker to have an overview of how the larger film looks like?
And more importantly why has no one gotten back to me about the status of my participation (which includes whether my film is accepted or not as well as reimbursement for the money spent for which an invoice was sent along with the film) other than an extremely dismissive sms (which does not constitute official correspondence) from Mr.Abhijit Das?
I have spent money on finishing this film and I have bills to pay. I did not come into this project wanting to spend my own money to make a film for ShowHouse and Stag since what was advertised if I remember correctly was that filmmakers would be paid 75,000/- to make a film. I expect official correspondence regarding my payment as well as what will be added on to my film (a detailed email regarding the prelude that you sent from firstname.lastname@example.org) so that I can then decide on the future course of this engagement.” Email sent on November 23rd 2012.[/toggle_box]
Were you informed about the reshoot of your film? At what juncture and what was your response?
The company did not inform me about the reshoot. It was my actor who called me as he felt what they were doing was inappropriate especially since he also believed that the film I made had looked at assisted dying in a very ethical way. They did not seem to share the same ethical concerns.[toggle_box title=”I quote from the email” width=”Width of toggle box”]
Sent to Abhijit Das and Asmit Pathare on November 23rd 2012 at 9.52pm.
“My actor called me today to inform me that you were shooting some scenes that will be added on to my film as a prelude. I have been told that it will be shot most likely at the same hotel by someone flying down from Calcutta. What I have received from your company is an email from Asmit suggesting a script for the beginning and subsequently was told by Asmit that nothing has been decided when in actuality everything seems to have been.
A cursory glance at the script will inform you that the whole story of my film changes. It’s an absolute frivolous response to something that might have been done more creatively in keeping with the ethos of the film. It brings in a temple and turns what I believe in into a joke. Maybe it’s difficult for the company to understand that someone can actually believe in people’s right to die, which my film was exploring. By turning it into a euthanasia racket with a foul smelling room, which is actually a temple, you completely destroy what my film is stating. This script has not been okayed by me and I don’t want my name associated with it. Someone who watches the film will associate my name with the Mysore segment and I will not be called on to be answerable for something that I absolutely do not believe in and abhor. This is supposed to be collaboration and you need to involve me for the sake of the creative integrity of the film and there are ways to work around this instead of treating me as completely dispensable the moment I hand over the film to you.
I would have shot the prelude if I had been reimbursed for what is rightfully supposed to be paid to me. Debarti has not even had the courtesy of responding to my email asking her about the status of my remuneration.
If you want to reject my work please let me know. If you want to shoot and add a prelude to my work please let me know. If you want to not pay me or pay me please let me know. If I don’t receive an official email about the above by tomorrow I will be forced to take action”[/toggle_box]
You have mentioned that your film was being used inspite of you having refused? Could you throw some light on this?
I had told them that I would not want the film used if they were changing it completely, without my consent. I received an email from Abhijit Das who doesn’t even have the courtesy of getting my name right on November 24th 2012.[toggle_box title=”The email is as below” width=”Width of toggle box”]
I will not react to all that you had to say about us. Obviously you know far more about filmmaking, collaborations and promotions than us. I will not try to explain anything to you regarding the collaboration and how we had intended to go ahead with your segment. As per your mail, we are removing your segment and appointing a new 12th director in this film. We will not use your story or your film in this project. It had been made clear in the contract that we have the right to reject the final film, if we don’t like it. We have received all the other 11 segments and have completed our film, except the Mysore segment. We will not be paying the balance production money to you. It’s unfortunate that this collaboration couldn’t work out.
But the still from my film continued to be displayed on their website. Hence in the legal notice I sent them to invoke arbitration proceedings, I reiterated that my film still be brought down from their website. They brought it down only after the ‘Open Letter to Anurag Kashyap’ was published online on my blog.
[pullquote_left]If you want to reject my work please let me know. If you want to shoot and add a prelude to my work please let me know. If you want to not pay me or pay me please let me know. If I don’t receive an official email about the above by tomorrow I will be forced to take action”[/pullquote_left]
Did you personally opt out of the project?
I stated that I didn’t want my name to be used for the film that they were shooting, that the visual grammar and the style with which I had shot the film as well as political and ethical concerns will suffer at the hands of another director especially one with whom I had no contact with. I never even once stated that I wanted to opt out of the project but what I emphasized is that I will not lend my name to anything that did not involve me in the creative process.
You were given an advance at the beginning of the project. What about the rest of your remuneration?
The remuneration did not come through as seen in the last email I was sent by Abhijit Das. Hence, the ‘Open Letter to Anurag Kashyap’. This was the last resort to getting my remuneration back and I had to use it. Especially since I had problems with getting a court date due to a lawyers boycott in Mysore.
In his reply to you Anurag Kashyap has said that though your film was good, it did not fit in with the rest and you were not willing to change it for the same? Do you feel that someone who has invested money in a project has a right to share their inputs?
There needs to be a dialogue. Abhijit never had a dialogue with me. It was more like Anurag wants this and Anurag wants that but never what I wanted for my film. Asmit, the project director, gave me a lot of creative freedom while writing the script and shooting the film but once the film was handed over Abhijit Das stepped in, (I had no conversation with him about the film prior to this) and in a very dismissive high handed manner started demanding things in Anurag’s name. Even the script changes they asked for was at the most juvenile and ridiculous.
My film was exploring the right to die, which I had researched thoroughly with references to Dignitas and these stories of assisted dying were emotional, heart breaking and yet very strong and hopeful. My film explored a father’s and daughter’s relationship and how the father has to come to terms with helping his child die. It is very subtle, slow with extremely long takes, as it should be with such a story. Abhijit Das telling me that they rejected my film because it was slow infringes on my rights as a writer and director of the film. I don’t think he would dare say this to Bela Tarr on ‘Turin Horse’ to may be jazz up the editing because it is so slow. My previous short ‘Kaveri’ also calls for a patient viewing.
If they have chosen me on the basis of this short film then they should also be aware of the techniques I use to tell my story. They cannot ask me to be Bollywood when I am truly sincerely not. Getting twelve directors from across the country means that you should be open to different ways of storytelling in different languages.
What the issue was was that there were no linkages to the main plot, the kind of linkages they desired (cops, investigation etc). This falls under the responsibility of the Project Manager Asmit Pathare who had not informed me when he compiled the script. It was not that I was not willing to provide such a link; the basic fact was that I had no money to shoot that scene. I just could not afford to put in any more money especially as they had not released my funds and why should I put in more money for mistakes that they make. I work extremely extremely hard for my money and I will not spend it for some corporate bigwig who wants to get brand equity out of supporting indie filmmakers.
[pullquote_right]Individualism is itself such a capitalistic word and I definitely do not see true Indie cinema as supporting individualism[/pullquote_right]
The open letter does hint at a gender bias while Anurag Kashyap clearly states otherwise. Your say on this.
What I referred to in terms of gender was the systemic construction of processes that enable only a certain gender to be able to function. If you look at the films made by the other chosen directors the stories all sound very high on testosterone. I bring with my films a different way of looking at the world that stems from my own gendered body and messing with that, the disrespect shown by Abhijit, the comments made by Anurag after the open letter point to a certain way of functioning that celebrates aggression and bullying. How can you even begin to explain how the project with the mentors, the project director, the chosen directors are all male? I don’t ask for a quota system (I don’t need to, I have proven myself as a good award winning filmmaker with my last film) I’m saying look at it, see it and let’s have a discourse around it.
Indie cinema has always been about creativity over money. Would you have felt better if your film was used rather than just being reimbursed for the work?
When a statement is made like this it enables the functioning of a very exploitative system that does not take into account people’s financial contexts within neo-liberalist India. Someone who puts creativity above money can do so only because they can afford to and only because they believe that at the end of the long struggle something good will come out of it (the carrot). Film makers need to wake up to the fact that with this kind of philosophy they are only enabling some big pompous obnoxious studios, distributors, exhibitors get rich. And that such a system will never allow you any rewards and if it does it will compel you to infringe on the rights of others when you make it big. As such systems of production can only exist because they take from the needy and cushion the bodies of the rich, ample visual evidence is available of the same.Someone who puts creativity above money can do so only because they can afford to and only because they believe that at the end of the long struggle something good will come out of it (the carrot).
At the end of the day you want your film to be seen by an audience but if that means ethical compromises then there are other ways of playing this than just merely giving up on remuneration. I am doing that now. The copyright that I fought for will now be turned into a creative commons license and will be available on the internet enabling a variety of audience to view it, circulate it, use it.
Though indie cinema is about individualism, do you in any way feel that voicing your opinion can affect your work?
This is not independent cinema. You have to see the new Romanian wave as they call it to see what indie cinema is all about. Individualism is itself such a capitalistic word and I definitely do not see true Indie cinema as supporting individualism instead what it does is point to what we all share, the commons.
What we have here is capitalistic ventures appropriating the word indie to further their own markets and in such a place dissent is obviously only to be crushed. It will affect my ability to work as a filmmaker but I would rather make films on my own ethical and political terms than prostrate myself to the capitalistic gods of cinema. [pullquote_left]Someone who puts creativity above money can do so only because they can afford to and only because they believe that at the end of the long struggle something good will come out of it (the carrot).[/pullquote_left]
Have you been able to watch the film post completion? If so, could you share your thoughts on it? Also, which part of the story was given to you?
No, I haven’t watched the film. I will do so once it is online. I was given a matchbox (clue) to weave my story around.
Also, Anurag had offered to fly me down to Mumbai for the premier of ‘The Last Act’ and announce to the media that I was the 12th director and that he and the company would produce my short film as a stand alone film, I declined. This I did solely for the reason that I didn’t want Anurag Kashyap, Large Short Films or Showhouse to buy my voice, which I think is more important than all the carrots they dangle.
[toggle_box title=”Other comments:” width=”Width of toggle box”]
I have received such amazing support from people so diverse it is quite overwhelming. People have taken the time to write emails to me, circulate the open letter, comment on it etc. This definitely means a lot. There are also certain things that have come to light, which have been brought up by other filmmakers.
Nitye Sood, the director from Bangalore had never applied for the competition (his name is not in the shortlist) http://largeshortfilms.com/12-12-12/final-shortlists-12-12-12/ yet he is one of the final 12. Hence everyone knows that this completion is rigged. The amazing thing about the ‘letter’ is that other indie filmmakers have started to see behind this farce and have started questioning certain practices by the company. Even the fact that they had a scriptwriting competition but thought no one was good enough to be chosen. Things like that.
I would like to thank Kamayani Bali Mahabal, Artleaks, independent filmmakers, scholars, writers and people who took the time and effort to support me and the concerns I voiced through the letter.[/toggle_box]
Shilpa Munikempanna is a mysore based filmmaker. Kaveri, her debut short film premiered at the 4th International Documentary and Short Film Festival Of Kerala, 2011 and went on to win the Best Short Fiction award. It also won the Best Asian Short at the Aguilar Short Film Festival, Spain. It has been screened at over 20 festivals nationally and internationally and is presently travelling with the IAWRT ‘Our Lives to live’ NO! to gender violence films of courage, protest, hope. It will also be screened at the Clermont Ferrand Festival in February 2013 under the Country Focus: Short Film Retrospective.
The Other Side of the ‘Open Letter’ will be published tomorrow. Keep reading to find out Anurag Kashyap’s response to Shilpa Munikempanna.