|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.
Telling a different story