Over the past few weeks, a petition started by some of the biggest names in Indian parallel cinema
(the name given to the cinema that runs parallel to the glitz-and-glamour Bollywood film industry and other major regional film industries) has garnered over 6,000 signatures. Among the petition's backers are Oscar-winning sound engineer Resul Pookuty ("Slumdog Millionaire"), Oscar-nominated directors Ashutosh Gowariker ("Lagaan") and Ashvin Kumar (the short film "Little Terrorist"), and actress Shabana Azmi ("Fire").
These low-budget filmmakers are sending the petition to the President, Vice President and Information and Broadcasting Minister of India as well as to the Director General of Door Darshan, the state television network. Driving the effort is filmmaker Onir, who has directed the indie features "My Brother... Nikhil" (2005) and "I Am" (2010), winner of the Best Hindi Feature Film at the National Awards.
In the last decade or so, India's exhibition world has been rocked by the impact of multiplexes. Large, single-screen theaters showing Hindi films with wide appeal once dominated, but when multiplexes came onto the scene their smaller screens were seen as a place for films from the parallel cinema to have a home. Now the Hindi film industry and imported movies from Hollywood are taking over those spots.
Just a few years ago, Onir's "Nikhil," a feature that tells the story of a man whose gay lover and family remember him after his death, not only had a significant theatrical run, it also was on television.
"When I was growing up," Onir tells Indiewire, "there were films of all languages -- not just Hindi films -- and also adult films. Now there are ratings restrictions on television. The only restriction placed on 'Nikhil' was that I placed a title card in front of the film saying that it was a fictional story (though it was based on a true story). For 'I Am,' an award-winning film, I had to cut over seven minutes. I mutilated the film. And the contract I signed for licensing the film for television was insulting."
The work that Onir and the other authors of the petition are creating deals with more adult themes. Despite oodles of satellite channels and a robust market for films on television, mainstream Hindi films old and new dominate the airwaves and films with adult content have virtually no exposure. Onir's "I Am" deals with adult themes in a more direct way than the guarded "Nikhil" did.
"When I was talking to the film censors to petition their rating," he says, "they were telling me that certain looks between two male characters could not be included because the Indian audience could not handle same-sex attraction."
What makes matters worse for the parallel-cinema movement is that the Indian market does not yet have an infrastructure for subscription streaming services. There are in fact very few places that will pay a parallel cinema filmmaker to distribute his or her film.
Onir acknowledges that there's not just one solution to the problems facing the Indian parallel-cinema industry but that the petition lays out the problems and highlights the most prohibitive industry standards and practices. "As long as people are made aware of the issue, it's my hope we can work together on some solutions," Onir says.