Wednesday, August 26, 2009

'13th Floor' And The Case Of 'Different' Films In India

Review of first time director Luke Kenny's '13th Floor' and the case for first time filmmakers in the country. Hope production houses and TV channels are listening to the winds of change.

In this age of PR and publicity to arouse public interest, big words are written about the so called 'New Wave' of Indian cinema. And the names that are raised, raise a chuckle among those who know a bit more about cinema than the average John and Jane. The reason is that if the ignoramus media reports are to be believed, copies of European or Hollywood cinema is supposed to herald the new wave of Indian filmmaking. If it is indeed true, the future of cinema in the country is doomed.

Boman Irani in Let's Talk

Thankfully that is not the case. There are filmmakers all over who are riding the digital revolution and making decent films. Ram Madhvani in 2002 made 'Let's Talk' entirely on the digital format in a few days flat, and in one apartment only. Though the camera work and visual quality was not up to the mark (perhaps because of the early days of digital cinema), the story telling was good (though the concept was slightly borrowed from 'Unfaithfully Yours'), and so was the acting, especially of Boman Irani. The film may not have raised enough eyebrows to inspire a wave of digital filmmaking, but at lest it showcased the potential of Boman who has quite easily outshone every star and superstar in the country in the acting department.

Preston Sturges' Delightful Comedy About A Man Who Imagines Confronting His Wife About Her 'Affair'

Though we might be fooled into believing that nothing much has happened, there are many filmmakers who have quietly gone ahead and done their work with experiments worth mentioning. While Gaurav Jani made the much appreciated 'Riding Solo to the Top Of The World' as a one member crew in 2005, Luke Kenny and his partner Devaki Singh, made '13th Floor' which finally finds a TV debut, 5 years after it was made.

Strangers In The Night, Not Exchanging Glances

But before we go further into the film, let's begin with lowering our expectations. '13th Floor' is not masterpiece. Expecting every fist time filmmaker to be a Satyajit Ray and his or her film to be a 'Pather Panchali' is not a healthy attitude for cinema in general. What this is, however, is a delightful piece of filmmaking which despite its many short comings, does manage to hold your attention for the one and a half our duration.

And this is more than you can expect from a first time filmmaking unit, working on a shoestring budget and a script whose universe is confined inside a lift. That they manage to pull it off, deserves the respect of its audience.

There Must Be Some Way Out Of Here, Wonders Purab Kohli

Suraj and Naina are two strangers who are trapped inside a lift in down-town Mumbai for the night due to a power failure across the state. Not having anything better to do, the older woman, a yoga instructor and the young advertising executive, after a hesitant start, open up to each other, and as the weary night progresses, they begin to open up like old friends. But will they reveal all their secrets? And are they truly stranger or merely pawns in the hands of destiny which is bent on playing a cruel joke on both?

Sandhya Mridul and VJ Purab Kohli do a respectable job as the two characters. Though they seem uncomfortable (perhaps due to the small set), but as the film progresses they ease up. The film has enough going on to keep a viewer engaged and the gradual tumbling out of secrets keeps one expecting more. The end, might seem far-fetched to critics, rounds up the film and gives the needed conclusion to the story, and both the characters will never be the same again, as is wont from fiction.

It Turned All Right For Strangers In The Night

The film has some interesting trivia besides being almost entirely set inside a lift. It used a DV camera, was shot in six days flat, and almost all people involved were first timers to filmmaking, like the cameraman (who's actually a still photographer), the director (who's actually a popular VJ), the writer and assistant director (who's a painter and artist). The reasons for this, was not to pull a stunt, but should be obvious for anyone who wants to make a film in Mumbai but does not carry the boarding pass to Bollywood with surnames that end in 'Khan', 'Kapoor' or 'Chopra' and who want to make 'different' film. Bollywood's definition of different, as we all know, is the same old book in a different cover. The problem, was budget. The other option, besides going in for a low cost model of filmmaking, was to make endless rounds of producers offices and wait for that elusive call that usually never comes. Doing this, required little money (10 lakh, self financed by Luke Kenny) and a lot of courage from these first timers. And the result, is definitely not disappointing.

Way back in the 60s, it was the portable 16mm camera that was supposed to herald the filmmaking revolution. It did, in its own way, and died down. Then, in the 90s and now it is digital that is supposed to do the same. And though in western countries it is definitely happening (e.g. in the US digital films made outside the Hollywood system number three times more than those made by Hollywood), the problem lies somewhere else – distribution. You can somehow pull in the money and make a film but how do you distribute. Even Satyajit Ray, who sold off his wife's jewellery and was rescued in the last moment by the misguided Bengal government who directed funds from its road development project believing it to be some film related to roads because the name of the film (Pather Panchali) translates to 'Song Of The Road' had the good fortune of his film being picked up for show in MoMA (Museum of Modern Arts), New York. Favourable reviews from a few critics who were stunned by the Neorealism of the film, opened it up to the festival circuits. But for this streak of good fortune (not to mention hardwork and fortitude from the cast and crew), a great director would not have even made a single ripple in the world of cinema. Perhaps many others like Ray, perhaps even better, never made the cut. Perhaps there are many like him out there RIGHT NOW, who need that little cash and a some encouragement from distributors for their film to be made.

And The Truth Shall Set You Free

Take the case of '13th Floor'. It took five years for it to be picked up for distribution (thanks partly to the director's celebrity status), that too not by a truly mainstream channel, but by Zee Studio, which in the past few years has made a name for itself by showing 'different' films (they were the first in the country to do regular screening of World Cinema in India and the first to have regular festivals of Indian masters like Ray and Ghatak).

The mainstream film industry of India, needs to understand the importance of lending a little helping hand and very little money to these new comers, instead of being scared of them and thinking them as competition. They can never be competition to the deep pockets of Bollywood. Instead, what they can be is a gene pool of creative directors, who can be star filmmakers raking in big money in the future. And if they need proof of this, they need not look any further than where Bollywood takes it name from, Hollywood.

Way back in the 60s, after the studio system had collapsed in Hollywood, and TV had invaded American homes enough for people to no longer desire to venture into theatres to see 'moving images', Hollywood was in a mess. However, an idea came to them from offshore, when the films made by a bunch of new comers (literally kids) like Francois Truffaut (who made his first film aged 27) and Jean-Luc Godard, began doing exceptionally well in America despite their low budget and foreign language. What the audience wanted, they realised (as studios in India are realising today), was newness and variety, something the old guards of Hollywood could not give. Encouraged to experiment and take risk, they allowed some American kids to play with their money. The result, a whole army of directors who are big money spinners today, but were born struggling and screaming with low budgets into Hollywood. Don't believe it? You better do, for Martin Scorscese, Francis Ford Coppolla, George Lucas... these were those 'kids' who needed that little cash and encouragement back then.

So, films like '13th Floor' do three things. First it gives an affirmation to everyone out there with good ideas who want to make films to hold on to their dreams while giving them ideas (go digital if 35mm is too costly) to make their films with low budgets. Next it should inspire film production studios in this country to take up their torches and go hunting for talent in places they never thought talent existed. And third, if the TV channels in the country had any brains, they'd realise that there's a host of other films like this in the country – good, self-financed films – which they can get for cheap and be the harbinger of change and good PR for themselves. In the interest of cinema in this country, one only hopes that all the three parties are listening.

13th Floor is being screened on Zee Studio on 30th August, Sunday.

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