The faded grandeur of a burned-out neighborhood cinema hall is no match for newer Delhi multiplexes.

It was the end of March, Delhi was heating up after a brief winter, and revolution was in the air. Even the festival program knew it: There is a revolution in the air,” it said. “A great democratic vista of the people’s work is opening up.” Digital video, that most subversive of tape formats, had finally come to India, heralded by the apostles of independent film. And the 2001 Digital Talkies International Film Festival was to be its showcase, its forum, its Mecca. The assembled moviegoers were critical, but ready to escape the tyranny of Bollywood epics, to see new stories told by new authors, to give up, at least temporarily, the dreamy quality of celluloid for the grainy and gritty drama of digital video.

For Delhi’s up-and-coming generation of filmmakers, digital was more than just another film format. Digital, in a word, meant democracy. Consumer digital video cameras cost tens of thousands of dollars less than 16mm or 35mm film cameras, use cheap tapes as opposed to costly film stock, and create footage that can be edited on a home computer and easily distributed on DVD or over the Internet. Though criticized by some for its granular, unbeautiful look, digital video was clearly a cost-effective way of shooting, ideal for strapped filmmakers breaking away from Bollywood.

And break away they did. By most measures, Asia’s first-ever digital film festival was a huge success. The sponsorship was generous, the jury internationally acclaimed, and the screenings full. Digital Talkies, the festival organizer, saw two of their own features win awards. The company was ready to pursue distribution full tilt: in theaters, on TV, and via broadband Internet. The shackles that kept Indian film from experimentation, from innovation–from anything not involving an extravagant dance number shifting from Egypt to the Alps with every refrain–were finally being unlocked, and it seemed there was no looking back.

Yet something went wrong. Two years later, digital video’s promised democratization of the Indian film industry has yet to happen. Some filmmakers say the blame lies with Digital Talkies. After the smashing success of its 2001 festival, the company lined up even more films for the following year. But the 2002 festival was postponed to March 2003. Then, abruptly, it was canceled. And the new generation that Digital Talkies had helped inspire–filmmakers who truly believed that digital was the “next generation” of entertainment–suddenly discovered their work no longer had a venue.

Indie filmmakers embrace DV, commercial concerns hold back–the tale is a familiar one. In the United States, critically acclaimed films like Dancer in the Dark, last summer’s The Fast Runner, and this winter’s Personal Velocity (awarded best cinematography at Sundance) have racked up decent profits in art-house box offices. But despite the messianic attempts of George Lucas, who shot and distributed his latest Star Wars film digitally, Hollywood has been slow to bank its celluloid infrastructure on the promise of a digital future. Theaters have been reluctant to invest, scared off by the $100,000-plus price tags of digital projectors. And even digital-friendly chains like Madstone, which planned to open digital theaters nationwide, have ended up sticking with more traditional products in order to stay afloat.

Hollywood, of course, is no Bollywood. India is the world’s largest film producer, releasing over 800 features a year. It boasts a strong industry infrastructure, three billion tickets sold annually, and a proliferation of multiplexes in urban centers. India is also diverse, with 70 percent of the population living in rural or remote areas and over 18 recognized languages. There is no end of new stories to be told. Whether these stories make their way to film, however, is a different matter. The struggle over digital video in India has become a struggle over who gets to tell the stories.

So far, the revolution has stalled. While Hollywood looks for ways to cash in on the U.S. indie craze, the appetite for art-house films in India remains restricted to urban areas and a certain cultural elite. Independent film in India has been around since Satyajit Ray made his famous Apu trilogy in the 1950s, and “parallel cinema” is still supported by the government. But filmmakers in India have yet to convince mainstream audiences, especially the majority living outside the big cities, to try something other than masala, the tried-and-true Mumbai mix of action, family tragedy, and song and dance.

Masala is the mush you’ll find in the 200 features that Bollywood puts out every year. Each costs an average of Ru 50,000,000 ($1 million), lasts around three hours, and allows little room for anything that smacks of originality. Those who can afford Ru 150 ($3) see these films in plush multiplexes that rival any suburban movie theater in America. Alongside imported Hollywood hits, films like Kabhi Khusi, Kabhi Gam (Sometimes Happiness, Sometimes Sadness) show the same big stars rearranged in different poses. The stadium seats recline, the surround sound embraces, cell phones interrupt, and at intermission, you can even eat nachos.

Yet all is not well in Bollywood these days. The sure-fire formula has fared poorly in recent years. Last year, 90 percent of big releases were box office flops.

So in the summer of 2000, when two twenty-something scions of commercial empires, Pia Singh and Hari Bhartiya, started chatting during a course at New York University, there seemed at least as many reasons to float a digital production and distribution company in India as in America, where similar startups were magnets for venture capital. The two returned to India, teamed up with director Shekhar Kapur (The Four Feathers), and recruited a luminous board of advisors, including Mira Nair, director of the crossover success Monsoon Wedding. By March 2001, with the backing of the goliath India Tobacco Company, they had organized the first Digital Talkies International Film Festival.

Two girls take time out from begging near a multiplex in South Delhi.

‘He’s a policeman. How can he be homosexual?’

Yamini Tiaari, Digital Talkies’ head of production, is still in her twenties, a hipster who trades the traditional Hindi “accha,” the equivalent of “okay,” for a breezy “coolio, coolio.” Ensconced in her office in the back of a yet-to-be resurrected cinema hall in Old Delhi, Tiaari describes the 2001 festival as history in the making. “It was brilliant, a huge huge success. Even the 10 a.m. screenings were full.”

Tiaari’s exuberance is not unwarranted. Of the roughly 175 films submitted to the 2001 festival, 40 percent were Indian. Before plans for the follow-up 2002 festival were scrapped, organizers had already collected 150 entries from India alone, 75 percent created with the Digital Talkies competition in mind.

Yet as early as that first festival, there were signs that digital video might not fare so well in India. Two features–both produced by Digital Talkies and intended afterward for domestic distribution–did not receive the censor’s sanction to be shown.

India’s Central Board of Film Certification tightly controls which domestic films are distributed for public viewing. The board’s definition of obscenity tends to disallow novel and/or realistic portrayals of romantic relationships, while lascivious dance sequences and even rape are easily approved. The latest round of films to be rejected included Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace, which criticizes India’s nuclear weapons program. Most filmmakers don’t bother fighting the censors; Patwardhan’s willingness to wage a costly court battle against the board is an exception.

When the board nixed their features at the last minute, Digital Talkies was in a bind. Divya Drishti, about a quack fortune teller’s involvement in a suburban community’s sexual intrigues, and Urf Professor, a profane flick about a Mumbai hit man, were quickly moved to the British Council’s auditorium, thus temporarily evading Indian law. Though they saved their star projects from getting no play at all, Digital Talkies had to make do with inferior projection and limited seating of 150. Any hopes of future distribution in India were firmly squashed.

Festival organizer Siddarth Kumar was outraged. In his eyes, Indian films were singled out unfairly for censoring while foreign films escaped. “I showed pornography at 9 a.m. that came from Czechoslovakia,” he says. Then there was the board’s hypersensitivity to the portrayal of a gay police officer in Divya Drishti. Fellow organizer Ankur Tewari describes their objection: “He holds a very responsible position in Indian society. He’s a policeman. How can he be homosexual?”

Digital Talkies’ unforeseen brush with censorship wasn’t the only blow to the fledgling company. Though the 2001 festival created a great deal of enthusiasm, it broke even and didn’t yield the profit-making deals the organizers had hoped for. Still, the second annual festival was planned for March 2002. But by the time that date drew nigh, access to broadband Internet (which would have allowed digital films to be beamed to theaters and even viewers at home) was still spotty throughout the country, and India-Pakistan border tensions were discouraging sponsors. Frustrated entrants were postponed for one month, then two, then an entire year for a festival which has yet to materialize. Essentially, Digital Talkies pulled the plug. Critics accuse them of canceling the entire movement in the process.

“‘Go out there and make your film, we’ll help you in every way we can’–that was the premise that Ankur and I tried to market,” says Kumar, who is now running his own production company with Tewari. In the festival program, Digital Talkies promised as much–to “help independent filmmakers tell their stories, and to ensure a pathway for those stories to an audience.” But, today, the company’s stance has changed. “We are not in a position to aid digital filmmakers at this time,” goes the official line. Digital Talkies says it is focusing on producing ads for television on film and Digibeta (a video format used on television), creating an MTV sitcom, and developing a fleet of traditional cinema halls. From Kumar’s perspective, the move is a betrayal. “Instead of a movement for independent filmmakers, DV has become a cheap way for people to produce the same shit they have been producing all their life,” he says. “There’s very little activity left now because the support that Digital Talkies promised was dropped when they realized that there were no immediate returns to be made.”

“Business is business,” says Vijaya Singh, Pia Singh’s twenty-nine-year-old cousin, a former banker who now oversees Digital Talkies’ production house and festival. “We really believe in the concept [of digital video], but maybe we’re a little too early. We had to get from this idealistic platform onto the reality bandwagon.” Those who “don’t see the virtue of morphing” with the times, Singh says, “exhibit a childlike behavioral pattern.” She offers this advice for future filmmakers: “Do what you want to do but don’t be foolish. There is no point wasting money, effort, and aspirations.”

Kumar describes his old group at Digital Talkies as “dukandars,” Hindi for “someone who keeps a shop.” “That’s anathema for an independent filmmaker, he cannot associate himself with someone who is a shopkeeper,” he says. Yet Kumar is no impractical idealist. He wouldn’t mind being a dukandar himself, so long as he can devote himself to independent rather than mainstream pursuits–sort of like an Indian Harvey Weinstein.

In spite of all that’s happened, Kumar still sees profit in DV. “You could have done the festival a second year with other sponsors for half the cost because now you had expertise. You might have made some money if you took that content and represented it and made deals abroad to sell it, especially in Europe.” He points to the Karachi International Film Festival as an example of what can be accomplished with fewer resources and greater determination. “It’s not that there is less censorship in Pakistan, it’s just that those people have proved themselves to be a more committed bunch than us. They started [their] festival in 2001, nine months after ours, and they managed to do it a second time. That’s key in a festival.”

Other filmmakers have fewer regrets. Sidarth Srinivasnan, director of the banned film Divya Drishti, doesn’t put much stock in digital video changing the playing field. “Whatever revolutionary change is going to happen,” he says, “is going to come from the commercial arena.” Though DV helped him break into the industry with his first feature, Srinivasnan questions the benefit of setting the masses loose with the technology. “If thousands of people who harbored dreams of making movies were able to make them on DV, you’d have loads of shit,” he says. “The thing with 35mm is, it automatically distinguishes the boys from the men.”

Lining up for a Bollywood blockbuster outside a classic cinema hall.

Telling a different story

Though chastened, the prophets of digital video have not yet given up on India. Twenty-seven-year-old grassroots activist Venkatesh Veeraraghavan is one of the true believers. The founder of a cooperative of like-minded digital producers, he is campaigning to expand audio-visual curriculum offerings in schools and is working on an experimental film from footage shot in a North Delhi slum.

Veeraraghavan can often be found in front of his Macintosh computer, “the finest of species,” in an understatedly cool South Delhi studio that doubles as his living quarters. Black-and-white track-lit portraits of Gandhi, Snoop Doggy Dog, and Courtney Love look on as his hands orchestrate the techno score he has created to accompany shots of poor and beautiful children celebrating Diwali, the Indian festival of lights.

The frames are mesmerizing, granting access to domestic scenes that as yet have no place on the screens of Indian theaters: a six-year-old cleaning a spoon with sand, two eight-year-old girls smiling uncertainly at the intrusion of a camera, a bold boy twisting the lens 180 degrees so he can watch himself grimacing into the viewfinder. Veeraraghavan’s children belong to a laboring community from Uttar Pradesh that relocated to Delhi for work. His camera follows them closely, jerking frequently, at one point letting loose in an ebullient spin. Pinks and greens stand out, giving the shots a painted quality. As the sun goes down and the children light candles and sparklers, the limitations of natural light evoke memory, emulating the home footage of a childhood birthday party.

Veeraraghavan doesn’t own the Sony Digital 8 he uses to shoot the children. He borrows a friend’s camera on the weekends, then spends the rest of the week editing the film on his Mac. It took two months for his subjects to get used to a stranger, but it helped that he had no dollies, no lights, no crew to get in the way–just a camera the size of a shoebox.

While Verraraghavan toils away on his experimental film, other digital filmmakers have settled for now on less ambitious uses for their high technology. The more market-minded duo of Kumar and Tewari are using digital video to shoot documentary footage that they hope to sell in Europe. Their production company, Framework, is banking on hopes that Indian culture will become the latest exotic fashion in countries like Sweden, where Tewari believes “Asia is the flavor of the next three seasons.” Even Digital Talkies insists it hasn’t left the digital-video market just yet. Vijaya Singh talks about making space on the schedule for a “Digital Film Month” at one of their local theaters, with donated or sponsored equipment.

The sad truth is, even if there were digital theaters in India, there wouldn’t be enough digital content to show. Yet developing that content seems impossible without access to audiences. Resolving this chicken-and-egg scenario may take several years. But India has several things working in its favor: a growing film audience, a relatively light (and thus easily replaced) investment in standard projectors and other traditional technology, a well-established and skilled filmmaking industry, a large information technology sector, and the potential for establishing broadband networks that could bring digital video into every Indian home.

What happens next may depend on the fate of Let’s Talk. By director Ram Madhvani, it’s the first Indian movie to be shot on DV, transferred to film, and distributed to domestic audiences. The novel story, with only two rooms and two characters, portrays a young woman struggling to inform her husband that he is not the father of her baby. Let’s Talk was released in December to a limited number of cinemas. Will it win over audiences used to panoramic song-and-dance numbers? Bollywood will be watching.

Story Index


The writer
Nicole Leistikow, News Editor


Catalyst Fusion Lab
Delhi-based cooperative of digital filmmakers.

Digital Talkies

Karachi International Film Festival

Madstone Theaters
Site of the upscale, art-house U.S. theater chain.

National Film Development Corporation
The Mumbai-based Indian government agency that subsidizes and supports independent film.


Satyajit Ray biography
A short bio of Ray, arguably India’s best-known independent filmmaker.


Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia


Digital Cinema Magazine
Los Angeles-based magazine of the digital video industry.

A Danish collective of film directors who typically shoot on consumer DV cameras.

“India’s First DV Film Deserves Kudos”
By Deepa Gumaste | Rediff Movies | November 2002

Let’s Talk
Official site of Ram Madhvani’s latest digital film.

“Methods: Film or Video”
Unhollywood Guide to Movie Making

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