|The faded grandeur of a burned-out neighborhood cinema hall is no match for newer Delhi multiplexes.|
| '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."
'He's a policeman. How can he be homosexual?'