DV: Indian Cinema Beyond Bollywood - MUST READ!
- (this is a fascinating article describing the current state of
India's movie industry.)
INDIAN CINEMA BEYOND BOLLYWOOD
By Dave Kapoor
India's Bollywood churns out more movies than anyplace else on Earth.
These 3-hour epics, with predictable storylines and signature song
and dance sequences, are known for soaring budgets (although modest
in Hollywood dollars), long shoots, endless delays, and low profit
returns. Although it produces movies aimed mostly at the local market
and the Indian diaspora, Bollywood suddenly finds itself at the
forefront of international awareness with Lagaan's 2002 Best Foreign
Film Academy Awards nomination, Andrew Lloyd-Webber's London musical
Bombay Dreams, and actress Aishwarya Rai's selection to the 2003
Cannes Film Festival jury.
Independent productions made outside the Bollywood system in India
and by nonresident Indians in the United States and Britain are
making waves of their own. The rising interest in cross-cultural
Indian subject matter by Western audiences and studios alike has
generated films such as Bend It Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, and
The Guru, which pop up in film festivals and cinemas around the
world. These pictures are shot in English, refrain from song and
dance numbers, and focus on cultural identity or social dilemmas set
against a universal theme or backdrop.
Indian filmmakers operating outside Bollywood face challenges common
to independent filmmakers everywhere. I interviewed several Indian
filmmakers to find out more about the benefits and constraints of
working in India. What sort of equipment is available? How much does
a crew cost?
Is there an acceptance of digital technology? How do you market and
distribute a film to both Eastern and Western audiences? Although
some of their answers are idiosyncratic to their world and audience,
others provide insight that will be of interest to filmmakers working
in any country.
Shekhar Kapur (www.shekharkapur.com) started directing films in India
under the Bollywood banner. He achieved critical acclaim in 1998 with
Elizabeth, which garnered seven Academy Awards nominations. Kapur is
currently evaluating several HD packages for his next project, the
$20 million Paani (Water). He's also the founder of Digital Talkies
(www.digitaltalkies.com), a digital film festival held in New Delhi.
Nagesh Kukunoor from Atlanta made his 1998 debut film, Hyderabad
Blues, for $35,000. It ran for 31 weeks in Mumbai (Bombay), making
it, at the time, the highest-grossing, low-budget Indian film in
English. Kukunoor recently wrapped 3 Walls (www.3deewarein.com), his
fourth film shot and produced in India. It's geared for an
international release in late 2003.
Ram Madhvani co-authored and directed Let's Talk
(www.letstalkmovie.com), India's first theatrically released DV-to-35
mm feature, for just over $200,000, including the transfer. A veteran
of over 250 commercials, Madhvani received a Bronze Lion at the 2000
Cannes Advertising Festival.
Rupali Mehta was an executive producer for Mr. and Mrs. Iyer
(www.mrandmrsiyer.com). A former marketing executive at Sony Corp. in
India, the first-time producer brought in the English language film
on a $500,000 budget. With several international festival accolades
and a distribution deal in India, Mehta is in negotiations for a
North American theatrical release.
Jagmohan Mundhra is a former Hollywood B-movie director. After
earning honors at several U.S. festivals in 2002 for Sandstorm
(www.bawandar.com), Mundhra hooked up with Regal Cinemas in 2003 to
self-distribute the $650,000 film in theaters across the United
Subramanian Vinod received his graduate diploma in sound recording,
sound engineering, and film direction at the Film and Television
Institute of India (FTII). He's shot with everything from Betacam SP
to DV to 35 mm, and regularly works in location and post sound, and
sound design for Bollywood and indie productions in India.
Equipment and crew
"When you rent equipment in India, you get people who come along as
part of the package," says Kapur. "The cameras are old and noisy, but
they last a long time because the people take care of them like
they're little babies. They won't let you or the DP touch them."
Besides aged equipment, Kapur says India's weakest point is
postproduction. "The things we can fix in post with Western
technology are hard to do in India. For example, I will not risk an
artistic negative experiment or process in Indian laboratories.
It has to be a straight process and I just hope for the best." He
says many projectors run at low amp wattage and old, unkempt screens
are made of carbon. "People are used to printing much lighter because
the films would otherwise never show up on these screens."
Mundhra agrees that images run darker on older screens found outside
major metropolitan areas, but he says things are getting better with
new multiplexes in cities such as Mumbai. Still, he tells labs if his
prints are meant for international screenings. "Sandstorm was
processed at Prasad Labs in Madras, and I told them my goal, so my
three export prints were printed according to international
But what if you're shooting in remote locations, far from labs with
knowledgeable technicians and on a tight budget? "If I shoot in
Hyderabad, I take it to a lab in Hyderabad," says Kukunoor. "You
can't have exposed film sitting around-there's too much risk
involved." Ideally, Kukunoor would get the cleanest possible print he
could, and then mix the sound in the United States.
Despite improved production facilities like Ramoji Film City
(www.ramojifilmcity.com) outside Hyderabad, Kukunoor was still unable
to find a lab to process black and white, so he couldn't shoot parts
of 3 Walls as he originally envisioned.
"Overall, it's much less expensive to process films in India from a
labor point of view," says Mehta. She had 25 prints of Mr. and Mrs.
Iyer processed at Chennai's Prasad Labs for 50,000 rupees apiece,
which converts to roughly $1000 per print. Vinod echoes Mehta's
sentiments about cheap labor, and says that Adlabs Films Limited in
Mumbai handles nearly 80 percent of Hindi film processing work.
He also says that when it comes to motion pictures, the Arriflex 435
or 535 is the most common film camera, and TV productions utilize
many Ikegami cameras with Sony BVW50 PAL Betacam SP portable
recorders. He adds that almost everything is shot anamorphic, and
wide gate-both 1:1.85 and 1:1.66-is rare.
As for subtitle work, Mundhra oversees every line at Laser Titles in
Los Angeles. He says, "The subtitle contractors in India have poor
English skills, so they write literal translations and the words can
sometimes be unintentionally funny." Vinod recommends the India-based
National Film Development Corporation (www.nfdcindia.com) as his
choice in India for reasonably priced subtitles.
"I used an all-Indian crew for Sandstorm," explains Mundhra. "There
are terrific crews well trained to deal with conditions such as
extreme weather and other location situations. They also know what
equipment is available." North American crews he's taken to India in
the past have usually fallen sick for extended periods. "And then
there's the problem of the Indian crew guy thinking that the American
is getting paid more for the same type of job," he says. "It just
creates hassles." Mundhra adds that he can get a top-notch cameraman
for $2500 a month, compared with a $2500 a week minimum if he hires
one from the United States. "Rates are different for somebody from
India versus somebody who comes from the outside. I've handpicked my
crew for several films now, so I know exactly who I want as my light
people, my grip people, and so on. Having a network helps."
Vinod points out that a skilled technician aware of requirements for
international-quality work will charge internationally acceptable
rates. As in any region, reputable crew members can be found through
online research, via crewing agencies, and by word of mouth.
To put things into perspective, Mehta used a crew of 105 throughout
the shooting of Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, while the crew total was 12 for
the digitally shot Let's Talk.
Crew members sometimes work on projects that nearly overlap one
another. Kukunoor says that his 3 Walls DP didn't arrive until 2:00
A.M. on the first day of the shoot, so he and the DP could only
discuss shots when they were on the set together. "Every day, after
the shoot wrapped," says Kukunoor, "I would go over every scene for
the next day and break it down with my DP and crew. Then on Sundays,
we went on a tech scout of all of the scenes that were going to be
shot the following week."
The majority of films in India are still shot MOS (mit out sound),
with actors looping dialog later. "This may sound funny to those for
whom sync sound is a natural requirement in the filmmaking process,
but in India, most films are looped from start to finish," says
Mehta says sync sound was the original plan for Mr. and Mrs. Iyer,
but it didn't happen. "Our film was shot completely outdoors in
extremely difficult locations. Fifty percent was shot on a bus and
the rest within a forest, so we were not able to control a lot of the
outside sounds and crowd control was difficult." The entire film was
shot silent with actors later performing a complete dub, although
they did record natural sounds in the field for the mixing back in
Mundhra recorded sync sound for Sandstorm and spent extra to get
Dolby licensing for digital sound. "But," he says, "the Indian mixing
is a bit on the loud side. I would love to remix the film here in the
states for the North American release, but that would require another
$30,000 to $40,000 investment that I don't have right now."
Kukunoor, who shot his last two films in sync sound, agrees with
Mundhra's comments about mixing. "They'll mix the film for showing in
an Indian theater, and when you bring the film to the United States,
the sound falls flat. You can have all of these catchphrases like
Surround Sound, and while some of the new Indian multiplexes have
that option, you still need a whole new generation of sound engineers
to be trained to mix a film that way."
Kapur says Bollywood stars are partly at fault in the limited
acceptance of sync sound. "Actors are used to looping and are afraid
that their voices on-location will not be like what they can re-
create on the dubbing stage," Kapur says. New filmmakers have
knowledge of how films are shot elsewhere and work with better mics
and newer cameras, but Kapur says, "It's the actors that have to
Vinod says this mentality is slowly changing. He's had a number of
actors tell him in ADR sessions that they would "love to give it all
they can in one place, at one time, rather than have to rejuvenate
their act much later in a cold and unfriendly dark studio." Still, he
says he doesn't always push for sync sound. "The problem is that if
producers or directors agree, they are doing so superficially,
without acknowledging the true worth of recording sound on-location,
and thereby failing to provide the basic requirements to facilitate
my work," he says. "Once I get on a project with this kind of a
situation, my simple but important requirements are seen as
gargantuan tasks by production." Overall, he is glad that there is
more sync sound recording in India today as compared with a decade
ago. "I am positive and gung ho about it," says Vinod. "I see more
sync sound happening, and more of the related problems getting solved
in the near future."
Vinod says that although gear for sync sound is very expensive for
most sound mixers in India to own, they can find a few reputable
rental facilities with packages composed of timecode DATs, wireless
systems, shotgun mics, and timecode slates. The problem, he says, is
there is little applied preventive maintenance. "They also overlook
simple but highly critical issues," continues Vinod, "like good
connectors, cables, good batteries, etc."
Another constant sound hindrance comes from "singing"
lights. "Although we have HMIs that can run in silent mode," says
Vinod, "gaffers prefer to run them in flicker-free mode because they
would rather their lights sing than flicker." He says preventative
maintenance could solve the problem. "When lights are not used, they
just lie in storage. If they were maintained well enough, I'm sure
this problem would not occur."
As for audio postproduction, Vinod uses a Fairlight MFX3+ DAW and
Digidesign Pro Tools software.
"Everybody asks me about the digital revolution, and I keep
saying, 'Worry about content,'" says Mandhvani. Before he self-
financed Let's Talk, Mandhvani made a one-hour digital scratch
version as research, which took 10 days to shoot and two months to
edit. After feedback and some script rewrites, he decided to stick
with digital for the feature version. He used two Sony PAL DSR-PD100
DVCAM camcorders, lighted with normal household lights and a few
KinoFlo soft lights, and shot handheld a la Lars von Trier and his
Dogme 95 cohorts.
After editing on a Media 100 system, Madhvani sent one 5-minute piece
to four different digital-to-film transfer houses: one in Melbourne,
one in Canada, one in India, and one in Los Angeles. They wound up
transferring at Prime Focus in Mumbai and processing film prints in
Canada. Total film costs eventually reached over $200,000. Even
considering this cost, Mandhvani says he is glad he did not shoot on
film. "Normally with 35 mm, the actor steps aside, gets in the mood,
and then comes in and does his bit. What we did was have the actors
perform the scene prior to and after the scene we were taping. It
helped them get into pace for the scene they were doing, and in that
point in time, we as directors can concentrate on the human beings
and telling the story."
But why transfer to 35 mm in the first place? "Because of the
screenings at the Locarno film festival," confirms Mandhvani. "Indian
distributors saw our film and they were very interested in releasing
it, but there are no digital possibilities in India-none."
Subramanian Vinod is finding more call for his work as a location
mixer in India. But because so many Indian productions are recorded
without location sound, he also works regularly in post and sound
On the subject of digital theatrical distribution, Kapur says India
is "the most broadband-connected country in the world, poised for
controlled theatrical distribution via streaming. We can do it
through cable, right now, as it stands. It's possible to put up
15,000 theaters, all over India, and deliver through fiber-optic
cable, and have cinemas running three shows a day. This is more
likely to happen in places like India, China, Indonesia, Bangladesh,
and Pakistan, where the investment in current theatrical business
isn't as high, and isn't as unwilling to change as I find the North
American theatrical system to be. I say in the next 5 years, in a
place like India, 50 percent of all of the cinema will be coming into
One of Kukunoor's next projects is something he thinks he will have
trouble funding in India, so he's going to shoot it digitally.
Mundhra and Mandhvani are considering HD for their next productions,
as is Kapur. "I've never actually shot HD," Kapur says. "The
determining factor for me is can I get the look I want, as well as
the cost factors involved."
As for HD gear, Vinod says it isn't readily available yet in India.
It's too expensive and beyond the needs of current Indian television
transmission conditions. However, he touts the growing number of DV
and Digital Betacam projects, noting that both are beginning to be
used for TV productions and low-budget ads, although not in the
numbers that analog BetaSP is still being used.
Marketing and distribution
For Let's Talk, Mandhvani drew upon celebrity recommendations to
accumulate interest in India. "We actively pursued some of the best
actors and filmmakers in India and blatantly used their quotations to
promote the film," he says. The PR agency gathered together these
articles and endorsements for press packets, and partnered with one
of India's largest coffeehouse chains for further exposure. "A Post-
It note was put on your coffee cup with sayings like, 'I'm married,
I'm lonely, Let's Talk-Opening This December,'" says Mandhvani. "We
exchanged these notes with everyone we knew, and placed them on cars
in parks and theaters." He also produced a music video and a
soundtrack inspired by the movie. Shringar Films (www.shringar.com)
eventually released the movie in India.
Those same Indian celebrity endorsements wouldn't work in North
America because Mandhvani says they are targeting all art house fans,
and not just an Indian audience. "What will hopefully give us buzz is
editorial coverage. You can spend far too much money on advertising
without really having an effect, and so I feel reviews are critical."
He adds that although reviews won't necessarily make or break a film
in India, "It's completely the other way around in North America,
especially for a film like Let's Talk." U.S. distribution rights were
purchased by Cinebella (www.cinebella.net).
Shringar Films released Mr. and Mrs. Iyer in India back in December
2002. Marketing and advertising reached a sum of $100,000, paid by
the distributor and private investors. Mehta's biggest challenge was
positioning the film. "With Bollywood films, you either play up the
big star actor, director, or musical number. But our film was a
script-based film in English, so it had none of that," she says. "We
wanted to make a statement about overcoming religious differences and
the triumph of humanitarianism. But we had to play that really subtly
Mehta and Shringar's marketing team opted for a positive spin for
Indian audiences, instead of the "love in the time of violence"
approach they developed for the U.S. rollout. Music-based ads ran on
Indian television, while short, quick-paced promos were sent to
targeted U.S. art house buyers. To create further awareness, Mehta
took the film to Los Angeles in February 2003 for screenings at the
American Film Market (www.afma.com). "We spent time learning what
American buyers are looking for, how they structure deals, the
different rights they want, and the type of content they're looking
for." What did she learn? "Format and structure," she says. "Our
movie has an international theme, a strong narrative, it's not longer
than two hours, and there are no songs and dances."
Jagmohan Mundhra's Sandstorm earned honors at several film festivals
in 2002. Mundhra worked with Regal Cinemas in 2003 to self-distribute
the film in the United States.
Originally banned in India, Sandstorm was finally released in
theaters by Zee Network's Ecinema Corporation. Major Western studios
have been wary to release it, despite festival awards and
recognition. "If I had come in the wake of Bandit Queen, then Sand-
storm would have found distribution," says Mundhra. "But I came in
the wake of Monsoon Wedding, and studios are looking for another
Indian comedy." Several smaller Indian art house companies wanted to
charge a 30 percent commission in exchange for distribution, so
Mundhra passed. He eventually opted for self-distribution. Armed with
three subtitled prints created for the festival circuit, Mundhra
landed a percentage deal with the Regal Cinemas chain
(www.regalcinemas.com), and Sandstorm opened in March 2003 at San
Francisco's Galaxy Cinema.
In order to justify advertising and PR expenses, Mundhra struck deals
with two Northern California independent cinemas, Camera 3 in San
Jose and Oak Twin Cinema in Berkeley, giving his film three screening
venues at one time. "I spent between $15,000 and $20,000 of my own
money to open in the Bay Area, and that kind of expenditure would not
be worth it for only one theater." Press shows and positive reviews
were used to further market the movie.
By sharing box office revenues with local businesses in exchange for
advertising, Sandstorm is set to roll out in Phoenix, Los Angeles,
Atlanta, and Washington DC. "I'm not in a hurry to recoup my money
all at once," says Mundhra. "Every city is a separate distribution
deal in the sense that I have a different partner in each city. If
some larger distributor strikes a deal and makes more prints, then
I'll give it to them. But I cannot wait for that to happen."
Despite the pitfalls, setbacks, and frustrations common with
moviemaking in India, Kapur, Kukunoor, Mandhvani, Mehta, Mundhra, and
Vinod are all proud to champion the future of Indian cinema, both on
a technical and creative level. Kapur drops a final thought on Indian
cinema: "I think that while in the short term, it is good for Indian
cinema to go out and become more global, it won't need to reach out
and make films specifically for the North American market. Cinema is
moving toward a people that are used to a culture that is a little
bit skewed, a little more international."
Ram Madhvani's Let's Talk, India's first theatrically released DV-to-
35mm feature, was shot with two Sony PAL DSR-PD100 DVCAM camcorders,
lighted with normal household lights and a few KinoFlo soft lights.
An Actor's Take
Amitabh Bachchan, a veteran of over 100 films spanning four decades,
was voted superstar of the millennium in a 1999 BBC online poll.
Working on Bollywood productions with crews both in India and
Hollywood-based crews in the United States, Bachchan has noticed
several differences between how the two countries go about
Most noticeable is the script, or absence of one. "In India," he
says, "many are used to giving and receiving a verbal synopsis of a
film, rather than a completed script with shot details." Although
working only from a synopsis is still the norm, he says times are
changing and directors are beginning to provide bound scripts to
actors well in advance of productions. He says U.S. productions see
more extensive preplanning and have specialized crews for every
department, which results in smoother production.
Another difference is that Bollywood stars may work on as many as 10
projects at a time, resulting in scheduling conflicts and limiting an
actor's ability to change appearance for a specific role. Rehearsals
are uncommon, but Bachchan doesn't find that to be quite such a
deterrent. "You have sufficient time to go through the scenes with
your director," he says, "and on the sets, you rehearse with the
artists and crew."
Bachchan recently wrapped several projects utilizing sync sound, a
new experience for him. He finds it "very exciting and relieving,"
adding that it's "difficult to dub something emotional six months
later." While he says dubbing has certain advantages such as
providing time to improve on dialog, he prefers the sync sound route.
Dave Kapoor is the community manager at DV. He's currently wrapping
up a script titled Room 207, a cross-cultural film noir about love,
trust, and betrayal with a British, American, and Indian flare.
Copyright 2002, CMP Media LLC