Indie filmmaker Raj Amit Kumar and acclaimed director Sudhir Mishra join Guardian 20 for a chat about his film Brown, and future of independent movies.
Indie filmmaker Raj Amit Kumar, best known for his film Unfreedom – which was received well by critics but banned by the Censor Board of India – recently brought acclaimed director Sudhir Mishra on board as the executive producer for his second film, Brown. The movie critiques the stereotypes associated with immigrants today by telling the story of an immigrant who is chased by American ICE agents, as he tries to find safety and a place to call home with a young orphan. Kumar and Mishra joined The Daily Guardian for a chat about the film, the future of independent movies and the role of OTT platforms in keeping parallel cinema alive. Excerpts:
Q: What have been the main challenges while working on Brown? Please tell us a bit about how you used ‘guerilla filmmaking’ for this project.
RAK: The biggest challenge for an independent filmmaker is always the limited funds and resources. To make this film, I emptied all I personally had, and some more. There was no other way but to shoot this film in guerrilla style. We convinced like-minded people to be part of the crew, convinced the local community in Butte, Montana to open their houses for the cast and crew, got food sponsored in many cases and locations donated to us.
Q: Between Unfreedom and Brown, how have you grown as a director? Were there lessons you learnt from the previous experience which made things easier with Brown?
RAK: I don’t know how to speak of “growth”. But yes, there are new things that one experiences. And our experiences make our cinema. I have had a rollercoaster life. Post Unfreedom, some crazy life events unfolded, and they shape Brown. They will keep shaping my next works in the time to come, I believe.
Q: After directing stellar actors like Victor Banerjee and Adil Hussain in Unfreedom, you are playing the lead in Brown. How was the experience of getting in front of the camera for your own film?
RAK: Frankly, it was not too difficult. The most important thing is to see yourself as a character and not as the person, and that happened right away. I guess the challenge becomes more logistical when you are acting and directing, as it slows down the shooting process a bit because one has to switch between two roles.
Q: As a filmmaker and storyteller, what draws you particularly to themes of identity and oppression?
RAK: Like I said before, we can only make good cinema out of our life experiences. I think I understand to some extent what it means to struggle, to be on the margins, living life as an outsider, oppression, identity and violence, sexual violence, betrayal, trying to make a space for oneself. That is why these themes speak to me.
Q: Mr Mishra, what drew you to supporting Brown as an executive producer?
SM: This is an era where some people who are independent – in the head, not only in their filmmaking – are making films about our times, life as it unfolds, why we are being short-changed, and are imaginative and respect the craft. And we all need to come together. It’s not because I’m senior. Brown inspires me because it’s about migration, being somewhere else and loneliness. And I like Amit as a filmmaker and he has worked with me on other things and so, in a sense, we decided to hold hands.
Q: As someone who has been in the industry longer, do you think the situation for indie films and filmmakers has improved over time?
SM: Yes, I think so, especially with streaming services and OTT platforms. If you make films which respect the craft of filmmaking, then OTT is a welcome way to finance them. You may say theatrical avenues for indie films have become limited, but how many people saw indie films in theatres anyway? When we started out in parallel cinema, it was a long time ago. Parallel cinema in India began with Shyam Benegal and others and sort of ended with filmmakers like me, when I made the film Dharavi with Om Puri and Shabana Azmi. After that, it has been difficult for independent filmmakers. But I think of late things have improved and a new generation has come. They are more irreverent and willing to take chances. I think there are more filmmakers now who want to express themselves in ways which are not formulaic. Ultimately, you have to make the films and be bold.
Q: OTT platforms have provided a space for indie films and fresh storytelling. But how sustainable is it, since these platforms have a relatively limited audience and are now at risk of being monitored or censored?
SM: You cannot live in an ideal world so don’t worry about it. I think OTT platforms are interesting and provide a revenue model for independent-minded films. There will always be people who want to block your expression, from marketplace-minded ideas to government censorship to your mother asking you why you need to make films like that. You will always face problems. But I think OTT on the whole is welcome and allows for a lot of films to get made, which would have otherwise never gotten made.
RAK: To me it is the other way around. Indie cinema now has lesser financial patrons because of OTT. No one now wants to take a risk unless at least one OTT platform gives the green signal to a film. That was not the case before their advent. And they are here to stay. They are here to bottleneck cinema and turn it into “content”. And it is a shame that OTT platforms today don’t have the backbone to stand up to the government and say that we will not accept censorship. The largest of them are bowing down to the government because of the profit principle.
Q: In the absence of support from government bodies and/or the film industry, how can audiences step up and help indie filmmakers today?
RAK: I guess it is as much the responsibility of the audience to fight against censorship and keep independent cinema alive, as much as it is of a filmmaker, because it is an infringement of everyone’s basic human rights. For indie filmmakers an important task today is to find their niche audience and reach out to them directly with the help of the internet. It’s a big task and needs an undertaking. A filmmaker may have to tap into this audience several times in the process of making a film. For Brown, after shooting, we are running a Kickstarter campaign right now for the completion of funds, and we are halfway there. Independent cinema will only exist in the future if there is more direct contact between filmmakers and their audience.
Q: Do you have a word of advice for young or aspiring directors who wish to make meaningful cinema and experiment with their craft while making a gainful career out of it?
SM: If you are not compelled, you should not come here, because it is a tough place. You should be able to take rejection. Sometimes the blocks might be in your own head. You should be prepared for that. But it is a wonderful place if you want to tell your own stories. I would not exchange it for anything else.