Is Mother Earth chastising Man for the harm Man has inflicted upon Her in his short-sighted ungrateful exploitation of Her generous resources?
We were not allowed to go out. From my window, I saw animals, many birds and insects: they had the right to be outside in the open air. It filled me with a strange feeling, as if Mother Earth was repudiating us: “Get inside, you’ve done too much wrong, I don’t want to see you anymore!”
We were being chased from all places, streets, cafés, markets, theatres, and from our cherished Cannes Film Festival, while cats, birds, cows were and still are at home in the streets and free to walk on the carpets of the world, be they red or not.
Is Man no more at home on Earth?
In India’s wonderful Vedic tradition, we learn that at a time the whole world became perturbed due to nefarious activities, the predominating deity of the Earth, known as Bhumi, went to see Lord Brahma to tell of her calamities. Bhumi assumed the shape of a cow and presented herself before Lord Brahma with tears in her eyes. She was bereaved and was weeping, relating the calamitous position of the Earth.
The bull is the emblem of Dharma, the moral principle, and the cow is the representative of the Earth. Nowadays, the cow is being slaughtered and the bull is only standing on one leg as the threefourths of humanity have evacuated the Sacred from their lives.
We are at a time when both thinkers and scientists are questioning our modern materialistic model, at a time when the film industry has to freeze and a Thierry Frémaux, the Big-Screen bard, go digital. Is it not also time for Indian Studios and Independents to clear a corridor to uplifting films? Films that could possibly draw their narrative from India’s invaluable and under-explored homegrown richness, the Mahabharata Franchise, the Bhagavata-purana Franchise, the Ramayana Franchise, all available, all IP free and all courtesy of Vyasadeva and Valmiki.
Inspiration for stories with spiritual content is everywhere, but nowhere more than from within the cradle of spirituality – India, with her rich oral and written tradition. It is time for Indian-crafted films to show the world the beauty of India’s culture, rather than follow Western films down the same old beaten track of portraying an “Indian genre” associated only with misery and social conflict as their main topics.
Unfortunately, those of the new generation filmmakers who are more apt in the handling of a Universal Cinema Language, have been Westernized to think that shabby hardship is the only theme that will take them to international festivals. Historically, great tragedies such as the current pandemic have often brought about significant changes. This crisis offers us the opportunity for a change of consciousness towards what images and narratives we are feeding audiences with.
Audiences must have their say in the kind of films they want the industry to offer. We just have seen how, in a few days, a strong public will is capable of completely changing our way of life. Despite the shortterm economic imperatives”, despite our habits and at the cost of our comfort. Making the collective choice to demand less gratuitous mind-polluting images, less vacuity, more beauty, subtlety and inspiration dressing up our screens would be a much less arduous change than the one we are currently undergoing.
Will we all be, filmmakers and film consumers, up to the challenges?
Bhagavad-Gita tells us the soul can never be cut nor burnt. Have we experienced the soul cannot be locked down either, free to express craving for uplifting content?
Pierre Assouline, a producer in France and India with Selections and Awards including Competition in Venice, Competition and Jury Award in Locarno, Competition in India, Pierre Assouline currently works at establishing “The Uplifting Cinema Project”, a production slate of the world.
Netflix is both a haven and a trap for Indian filmmakers who have always been tempted by Cannes and international exposure. Tempted, and frustrated.
By Pierre Assouline
Indian filmmakers have been totally ignored the past 25 years by Cannes’ Official Competition. Thus, their dilemma of ‘should I go with Netflix and loose out the possible Cannes boost’, is minor compared to filmmakers from countries with cultures better understood by Thierry Frémaux, the Festival General Delegate. His despising sarcastic reply to a Kolkata journalist asking why year after year India was missing from the Competition is hard to forget: “India? What am I supposed to answer? Perhaps that it is a great Cinema country?”.
Evoking the Un Certain Regard section, Frémaux stated: “The eye on India would focus on ‘New Gen’ films rather than offerings from Bollywood or Bengali cinema”. His comment lumping together Bollywood and Bengali films reveals that he is hardly aware of Indian Cinema,what to speak of Indian Culture. Setting ‘New Gen’ against Bengali Cinema shows he is in a time warp, still stuck in the Ray era. Aren’t Rituparno Ghosh, Kaushik Ganguly, or Qaushiq Mukherjee (Q) Bengali? How to categorize their films if not ‘New Gen’? Qaushiq Mukherjee’s (Q) cinema is even ‘New Gen’ within the ‘New Gen’.
Long-gone are the days of the charismatic Gilles Jacob who selected Shaji Karun’s Swaham in Competition and Vanaprastham in Official Selection.
Cannes’ Directors Club only
Although the politically correct 2019 press conference boasts “a balanced selection with the right assortment of stalwarts and newcomers”, the truth is that young directors are mostly considered only after securing all possible seats for “Cannes’ Directors Club members”, or, as Frémaux himself refers to them, the “Subscription Holders”: Ken Loach (returning for the 14th time!), the Dardenne brothers, Jim Jarmush, Marco Bellocchio, Arnaud Desplechin, Pedro Almodóvar, et al.
The danger is a declining Cannes Film Festival every year more detached from contemporary realities.
In 2017, Thierry Frémaux was proudly speaking about his selection of Okja- fully produced by Netflix. At that time, he never expressed the opinion that a film is not a film if not shown on the big screen. Quite the opposite. He stated: “Netflix or not Netflix, Okja is a Cinema film, a Cinema product. Bong Joon-ho is a great contemporary director. He shows us a film, we like the film, we take the film.”
In 2018, Frémaux sang a different tune. He excluded the Netflix film to which it is the hardest to deny the quality and title of Cinema: Roma, by Alfonso Cuaron. Why the one-eighty? The pressure of French film industry heavyweights, the very ones he owes his seat to? Not only.That exclusion reveals a Cannes’ rising awareness that Netflix is a threat to the very sustainability of its conservative model.
Far from being merely technical,the disagreement is not about the sacrosanct chronology of media in France which forbids an OTT platform to stream a film before 17 months following a theatrical release(hence Netflix’s refusal to allow any French theatrical exhibition for its productions). The rivalry is really all about both parties’ stubbornness to stand by their respective vision of what Cinema is.
Held hostage filmmakers
Filmmakers find themselves hostages of this power struggle. The situation of “The other Side of the Wind”,an unfinished film by Orson Welles is a case in point. After decades of knocking at studios’ doors, Welles’ daughter, Beatrice Welles-Smith, could still not complete the film. Finally, Netflix came to the rescue for full financing. But Netflix failed to back her dream of seeing her father being honored at Cannes for the final curtain of his cinematic career. Netflix, and not Cannes which has indeed proposed a special screening Out of Competition in Official Selection. Netflix turned down the offer, thus revealing a higher concern for the enforcement of the Netflix model rather than for any one of the titles it has funded.
Filmmakers never asked for a confrontation between the world’s largest Film Festival and the OTT giant. Their interest is not to have to choose. They want and may deserve both.
Netflix may not bestow Indian filmmakers’ work the glamour and prestige that Cannes has specialized in over the years (when not turned into a pitiless crushing machine), but they and other major OTTs make films available to millions. For the first time in history, Indian Cinema is being watched by a majority of non-diaspora global audience.
To indulge in a ‘The Fox and the Grapes’ attitude of “What cannot be had, you speak of badly” plays into the “us and they” mentality that is stifling the Cannes Festival at present. Cannes still has unique benefits. To belittle it as a relic of a past that is out of sync with the way cinema is watched today cannot be honest. Why then wouldn’t Indian filmmakers consider Netflix as a possible stepping-stone for a future Cannes-eligible feature film?
Even if series like Sacred Games (2 non-Indian viewers out of 3) surpass by far the D2C international capacity of feature films (an evaluation based on acquisitions and not yet on Originals), Indian feature filmmakers should grab the opportunity of content-thirsty Netflix and other competitive global or domestic OTT platforms. While at it, they can incidentally relish the creative freedom of swapping Kafkaesque CBFC whims for non-restrictive OTTs Best Practices code.
Cannes? Worry about it later.
Pierre Assouline,a producer in France and India with Selections and Awards including Competition in Venice, Competition and Jury Award in Locarno, Competition in Toronto, Official Selection in Cannes, National Award in India, Pierre Assouline currently works at establishing “The Uplifting Cinema Project”, a production slate of universal and uplifting films conveying India’s beauty to the world.
The crucial concern for independent films’ access to the big screen – Pierre Assouline
Popcorn, samosas, nachos, Pepsi, chai, Nescafé… Welcome to the ongoing celebration of the first Indian Cinema Century at your neighborhood multiplex! Exhibitors have an increasing tendency to forget all they owe to Cinema. As exhibitors are regarding audiences as mere ad, food and drink consumers, the onscreen ad sessions sneakily increase in length both ahead of the movie and at intermission. As for the food & beverages offer, it has turned so large and overpriced that it now builds up to above a quarter of multiplexes total revenues. Foreign and Indian films under 100 minutes are getting an intermission cut only for the obvious sake of imposing more ads and increasing drinks and snacks sales. To the contrary of mainstream Indian films, which are written and produced integrating the intermission concept, those shorter films are not conceived to be interrupted. The artificial intermission forced on those films is a violation of their integrity.
Exhibitors -the final players in the complex process of bringing an idea to the screen- are also forgetful of the power of Cinema when they only offer a lifeless, frozen digital flag to our eyes as we stand up for the National Anthem. I would like to remind these exhibitors that their business is about Cinema. Cinema is the art of creating chemistry between Image and Sound in such a way as to touch the heart and the intelligence of the audience. Please only offer us a soulful cinematic National Anthem as India is neither a brand nor a logo. India is an amazing 1.3 billion souls longing for genuine emotions.
As the price of admissions increases, so does the amount of advertising imposed upon the Cinema patrons, unlike your smartphone apps which come for free if you accept advertising. Are exhibitors who are responsible for force-feeding their clients with ads ready to offer them free seats?
Exhibitors, especially multiplex chains, have always benefited from the powerful attraction of Cinema to rake in revenue from ad space, overpriced beverages and snack sales. None of those significant profits made possible only by the power of Cinema goes back to Cinema. On April 4th, the Bombay High Court recommended curbing “exorbitant” food and beverages prices in multiplexes. However, that regulation would be unenforceable. Better opt for a salutary levy designed to ease funding for distribution of new and daring productions.
Independent filmmakers have always struggled to find a theatrical release. The number of filmmakers has grown significantly with the decrease of the cost of making films. Competition for getting screen time at the theaters has now turned ruthless.
Astonishingly, the films from all regions holding potential to move Indian Cinema forward and onto the International Scene are the ones lacking aggressive exposure. These films are often overshadowed by the sterile marketing loudness of some Bollywood films. To date, no proper National Cinema Institution is there for giving them a voice.
Mainstream star-driven films are saturating the market with a number of screens per single release now higher than ever. That inflation of screens makes no economic sense because it results in a mediocre ratio of admissions per screen. The only purpose is to crush competition and diversity. Such monopolizing of the market should be regulated.
Though video streaming platforms offer a great opportunity for independent Cinema to be seen (200+ million Indian digital video viewers currently, and growing), it cannot be a satisfying answer to a filmmaker who claims his vision to share his work on the big screen as well. To address the urgent need to fund and promote distribution of independent films in India on a proper scale, a workable strategy can be an Indian version of a French model. In France, each admission to a theater carries a levy on top of government taxes. This levy amount goes to the National Center of Cinema for redistribution to exclusively French film production and distribution.
Today, Hollywood Studios’ strategy of simulating interest in producing Indian films when actually focusing on expanding their US home production market-share on the Indian territory is bearing fruits: American blockbusters are reaching an unprecedented high at the Indian box-office. Indian cinema is not benefitting from that imported growth in what will soon cease to be the least-penetrated market in the world. On the contrary, American films take screens away from an Indian Cinema already suffering from screen-scarcity. A special levy such as the French one, applied to all admissions including Hollywood but exclusively allocated to Indian cinema production and distribution, is a way to reverse or at least to arrest that negative trend.
In order for that special cinema levy to not adversely affect the number of admissions by inflating movie ticket prices, it could be partially or entirely funded from the entertainment tax (now GST), which in Indian states is high. A spin-off from this approach might be to change the way Cinema is considered tax-wise. Marathi films were tax-exempted in a pre-GST Maharashtra. Similarly, independent films in general, because of their Cultural Dimension, should not fully bear the unfair burden of entertainment tax.
Spotlighting the Cultural Dimension is essential in that Culture needs support. Entertainment does not.
Pierre Assouline can be reached in Cannes: +33 (0)613215900 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Kerala-based multi-award winning filmmaker Shaji N. Karun retains the distinction of remaining for the 23rd year the last Indian director having had a film in the world’s most prestigious selection. For his next feature film, OLU, Shaji N. Karun has paired with his Vanaprastham partner-producer and original story writer, the French Pierre Assouline
Will OLU be India’s best chance to make its comeback in the 2018 Cannes Festival Official Competition?. Shaji N.Karun and Pierre Assouline spoke to Pickle about “OLU” and their way of working together to grant the film its optimal potential
Shaji Karun, your first film, Piravi (Cannes Camera d’Or Mention Winner), through the poignant story of an old man in search of his missing son, condemned corruption. Swaham (Cannes Official Competition) evoked exclusion through the sad situation of a widow. Vanaprastham (Cannes Official Selection) spotlighted the identity crisis of a Kathakali master celebrated when incarnating a hero on stage but despised in real life. Can you tell us about your next feature film Olu and the themes you will explore?
SK: Olu means ‘She’ in Malayalam dialectical slang used by the small population residing in the northern part of Kerala. Olu is the tale of a girl who gets gang raped and sunk to the bottom of the backwaters where she can mysteriously survive and live for the next nine months -until she delivers her ‘baby from rape’. Only during full moon nights, can she see the world above water. It is on such a night that she happens to meet through sound only a young villager, an untalented painter, rowing his boat. In due course, she empowers him to create exceptional paintings, but there remains a profound and unbridgeable difference between their inner visions of love. She, Olu, can only conceive love between male and female as pure and transcendent.
The film will attempt to convey her perception of innocent feminine desires – spiritual and transcendental feelings.
Olu is a film around man and water. Water is the perfect media to perceive life’s beliefs and mysteries… It is visible and obvious in any part of the world. All religions, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. have different significances in their approach to the energy of water. Olu is a story on Moksha (liberation from earthly life) where water and its concept of pure love represent the female principle.
Kerala is the perfect set, a land having many beautiful backwater islands where the people live in celebration on their ‘abode of water’ with mysteries, love and ethos.
Tell us about the producer and financier of the film. Now, this will be your second collaboration with Pierre Assouline. What motivated that choice? What are you expecting from this collaboration?
SK: Mr. Anoop ’s (Ava Productions) main business being in Ayurveda pharmaceuticals and healing, he is a strong promoter of Indian traditions. That also reflects in his activities as a stage actor and active supporter of Malayalam and Tamil parallel Theater and Cinema.
In Kerala, we make over 120 films per year and it is increasing every year because of novices’ easy access to Digital cinematography equipment. Most of those films by new filmmakers are cheap influences from Hollywood and Bollywood concept of cinema as entertainment only. The depth and beauty of simple human life are gradually becoming forgotten themes for regional language cinema. My relationship with Pierre Assouline grew strongly with the artistic qualities he demanded for the medium of Cinema. It was very marked while we worked together on my film Vanaprastham. His collaboration in Olu will be extremely important for me because prior to our film shooting, he encourages me to converse, argue, debate, thus benefi ting a lot from him on the aesthetics of the actual media of Cinema. I am aware that with him by my side I will gain in confidence in my artistic choices when facing my shooting in August 2017.
Pierre Assouline, you have produced Shaji’s Vanaprastham, a National Award winner, and ranked one of the ten best Indian films of all times by CNN/IBN. Tell us about your role in the upcoming Shaji Karun film.
PA: Shaji is a uniquely talented director, a finely nuanced artist. With all respect, I personally felt he lacked the proper guidance – or maybe input and support – for his very last films, which did not get released outside of India. Olu already had a producer/ financier on board when I came to know of the project. Yet Shaji and I instinctively felt how the film could be benefitted if his talent and my know-how were to be dovetailed. The fi nancing producer, Mr. Anoop of Ava Productions, understood the potential of such alliance. That is a quality of producers who craft a team to achieve the best results. I was invited on board as Creative Producer. I believe all filmmakers need a creative producer who actually knows Cinema, who knows how to read a script and trace the film’s seed problems within it. A creative producer on the director’s side at all stages of the filmmaking process. A creative producer who protects the director and the integrity of the project from all partisan influences. Most important, a creative producer who protects the director from the director himself. All year I watch Indian films with the potential to be on the Cannes Official Selection list, but which don’t make the cut because the filmmaker is on his own. I have watched the two best placed Indian contenders for this 2017 Cannes edition. I feel strongly that the explanation for them ending nowhere on the list is directors bereft of proper guidance. I believe in the power of the Producer/Director Couple. Such Couple Culture is lacking in India, whereas many examples are there in the world. The best known is probably Lawrence Bender and Quentin Tarantino.
Pierre, we’ve talked of your lively interest for India’s sacred and philosophical texts. You have expressed your fascination for filmmakers who place spirituality at the heart of their films such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence. And others like Terrence Malik, Kim Ki-duk who have dramatized spiritual issues. How do you feel spirituality will resonate in Olu?
PA: Inspiration for stories with spiritual content is everywhere, but nowhere more than from within the cradle of spirituality – India, which has such a rich oral and written tradition. It is time for Indian-crafted films to show the world the beauty of India’s spiritual culture. Shaji’s Olu is a poetic, philosophical and spiritual tale, where the surreal uplifts the mundane. The challenge is to ensure that the film rides on cinematic beauty and emotions which pierce all material layers and touch the hearts of the audience.
In his Sculpting of Time, Andrei Tarkovsky says “My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of himself as a spiritual being and aware that beauty is summoning him.” Shaji, you are an admirer of Tarkovsky, your films have marked audiences with their visual poetry, how do you feel Tarkovsky’s statement will resonate in Olu?
SK: Spirituality cannot remain the privilege of a few. Spiritual awareness among people translates into spiritual human ideas that become powerful themes of visual language for Cinema. Tarkovsky’s films stand for it universally and forever. Spirituality is not an idea or a concept. It is a craving for an everlasting peace, joy and bliss. It has haunted human beings throughout history. Cinema can respond to the hopes and agonies of our suffering world provided it addresses this natural craving.
Only a transformed action-oriented spirituality can enlighten human beings. Cinema can and does do that. Cinema deals with time and space. Use of sound and visuals as spiritual insights is of great strength to highlight the mystical dimension in human beings.
In Olu, I will use the idea of Water as a metaphor for spirituality. The sound and sight of water at different moments of my life always fascinated me. I believe water is an element of unity for mankind. So is Cinema.