India's Oscar Entry: 'Court' Director Talks Challenges of Country's Indie Scene (Q&A)

Courtesy of Mumbai Film Festival
'Court' director Chaitanya Tamhane (right) receiving the best feature film award at the 2014 Mumbai Film Festival.

Debutant director Chaitanya Tamhane's award-winning film has traveled widely on the festival circuit while putting the spotlight on India's emerging indie scene, away from Bollywood.

India's Oscar entry Court revolves around the country's archaic judicial system, a subject that also resonated across audiences worldwide as the film traveled to about 60 festivals. Its haul of 28 international awards included the Venice Film Festival's Lion of the Future award for its debutant director Chaitanya Tamhane. At home, the film won best feature at the National Film Awards.

Court exemplifies India's emerging indie scene that seeks to establish a distinct identity away from formulaic Bollywood fare. While Tamhane tells The Hollywood Reporter that this is a good time for a new wave of filmmakers, he cautions that there are still many challenges for the scene to develop further.

Given Court traveled quite extensively on the festival circuit, what did you make of the way various audiences responded to the film?

It was surprising and at first, I didn't know why international audiences were resonating to the film. But then I realized that the experience of dealing with bureaucracy and institutions is quite similar across the world. It's a social and political concern everywhere, despite cultural differences. Also, Court gave audiences a view of Indian society beyond what they see in Bollywood and they are genuinely curious about that.

Court is part of a new indie sensibility which is trying to carve its identity in a market dominated by formulaic fare. Do you see yourself as being a sort of torchbearer?

I feel very lucky to have made my first film in this time where we have festivals and audiences appreciating these kind of films. I really don't think of myself as a torchbearer. This has been a remarkable year where Indian films have won awards at every major festival: Sundance (Umrika), Cannes (Masaan) and Berlin (Dhanak). It's definitely a much more conducive environment than it was five or 10 years ago. I also think the reach and influence of social media has also played a big part in generating more awareness for such films.

What challenges did you face while making Court?

Even though the film was selected in the co-production market at the Film Bazaar (the annual event in Goa which promotes independent cinema organized by the government-backed National Film Development Corporation) it was still challenging to find partners for the project. But I was actually lucky because my producer Vivek Gomber (who also acts in the film) agreed to put up most of the financing for the $800,000 budget. Internationally, we also received a grant of about $11,200 (10,000 euros) from the Rotterdam festival's Hubert Bals fund.

The truth is that for independent films, raising financing is always going to be a tough challenge because when you are not making a commercial commodity, it's difficult for people to invest. Also, despite the appreciation, most of these kind of films haven't made a major impact at the box office so to break even, you have to be extremely lucky. Other countries have a lot of support for arthouse films. We don't have arthouse screens or well-developed alternative platforms like VOD, so these are major challenges.

Did you explore the international co-production route as has been the case with some Indian films?

I think that happens when you have some experience and network. There was no obvious crossover potential for the film or shooting requirements in another country or hiring foreign talent. Also, I was a first-time director and this was Vivek's first time as a producer.

How was the response in India when you released it theatrically?

We opened in 150 screens, which was not bad for such a film (compared to Bollywood blockbusters which can open on 3,000 screens). We handled distribution ourselves and, while we released in major cities, we primarily focused on Maharashtra state (in western India of which Mumbai is the capital) targeting Marathi language audiences (though the film also incorporates Hindi, Gujarati and English). It was in the cinemas for four weeks which was a good run given we were competing with Hollywood and Bollywood films. Internationally (France-based Memento reps the film for world sales), we have released in the U.S. via Zeitgeist Films and the film will also open in France and the U.K. If by luck the films gets shortlisted at the Oscars, we would consider re-releasing it in India.

This year's Oscar entries from Bangladesh (Jalal's Story), Pakistan (Moor) and Nepal (Talakjung vs Tulke) also reflect an indie spirit. What does that tell you about the Indian sub-continent's current cinema sensibilities?

While I haven't seen films from the other countries, I think as a region we have always had very interesting stories to tell. I would also give credit to the fact that filmmaking is becoming cheaper due to the digital revolution, freeing filmmakers from pursuing big budget productions. Also, festivals are becoming more receptive towards South Asian films. But the truth is that these kind of independent films have to first make an impact overseas and garner acclaim or exposure which helps attract wider attention at home.

What are you working on next?

Well, I was at work on my next project but I have temporarily put that on hold as we get busy with the Oscar campaign. But my next film is going to be very different. I also hope that it's easier to attract financing and other support.

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