Why short films have begun to make it big

BY MANJULAA| IN Special Reports | 27/07/2017
Short films have taken time to get to centrestage in India but looks like they are here to stay,
finds out MANJULAA

Tisca Chopra and Rasika Duggal in a still from Chutney


Short films are now the happening trend in cinema. There is either a festival or a submission deadline for a festival practically every month of the year. The Expressions Short Film Festival begins in Nagpur tomorrow, two short films by Indian film makers will debut at the Asian American International Film Festival currently on in New York,and submission deadlines for the following festivals of shorts are coming up this month and in August, October, November: Green Era in Kerala, the Rolling Reels Short Film Festival, Manhattan Short India in Mumbai, the Shankar Nag Short Film Festival in Bangalore, and so on.

Everybody is making them – shorts have been directed by accomplished filmmakers such as Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sujoy Ghosh, Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Jaydeep Sarkar and Mira Nair among several others. Mira Nair told Spotboye.com, “I am addicted to the SFF (short film format). My friends make ad films in between features but I make shorts – at least one or two every year. The medium insists that you be rigorous in how much you can speak in the story and in how short a time. It’s a great way to practice your craft. I love how the short film tests the rigour of every medium of cinema.”

Obviously then, the crew who works with these makers are usually the best of their tribe. From cinematographers to editors, sound designers, music directors and more, everyone brings their skills honed in feature films to the SFF.

"I love how the short film tests the rigour of every medium of cinema"
                                             - Mira Nair


And everybody is acting in them – Konkona Sen Sharma has directed a short (Naamkaran)  apart from performing in them; so has Naseeruddin Shah (Interior Café Night); Irrfan (Bypass) and Ek Shaam Ki Mulaaqat ; Nawazuddin Siddique (Bypass); Manoj Bajpayee (Taandav and Ouch the latter directed by Neeraj Pandey) as also veterans such as Farida Jalal and Sushma Seth (Mehram). The last film tackles the issue of Islam disallowing Muslim women to perform Haj unless accompanied by a Mehram or a male relative.


Emerging platforms, new audiences

What is feeding the trend is a combination of the following: emerging platforms, new audiences, and a growing demand for content.

Both small and prestigious film festivals are now regularly setting aside time slots to accommodate shorts since they garner full houses. Multiplex chains such as PVR are picking up short films and screening them in theatres and viewers are lining up to pay and watch. Numerous online platforms - Humara Movie, Pocket Films, YouTube, Terribly Tiny Tales, Large Short Films, Hot Star and several others – are luring more and more visitors to their sites offering great content for free or nominal subscriptions. Cineastes on ground are also into screening selected national and international short films, ticketing informal shows between INR 200-500 / person, with colas, chips and pizzas thrown in for good measure!

"It’s bizarre how Chutney has garnered so many views - maybe a case of being in the right place at the right time "
                             - Jyoti Kapur Das


Speaking of audiences, the Tisca Chopra produced and backed by Royal Stag’s Large Short Films Chutney by Jyoti Kapur Das has been viewed worldwide by over a 113 million plus, possibly making it the most watched film in the history of cinema! “I am aghast at the numbers,” exclaims Das. “It’s bizarre how Chutney has garnered so many views - maybe a case of being in the right place at the right time because I am not arrogant enough to think I made a great film. I attribute its success to the content and word-of-mouth publicity.” Chutney is a dark film with Tisca playing a sly housewife from Ghaziabad who is aware of her husband’s (played by Adil Hussain) extra-marital affair but won’t allow him or his girlfriend (Rasika Duggal) to get away with it. With most characters bordering on grey, Chutney makes for engrossed viewing and has numbers to prove it. Not only that, it also won for Chopra Filmfare’s Best Actor Award, 2017 and the Filmfare Award for Best Short Film in Fiction, 2017.

Chopra, the acclaimed actor who turned producer for the film, shares “Chutney took me as much by surprise as anybody else. There’s something blowing in the wind. There are two types of watching. There’s binge watching where say, people watch the entire season of Game of Thrones (all 10-12 episodes) at one go. That is 8–12 hours of non-stop viewing and then there’s micro content which is short films, which is also being preferred because we have windows of opportunity.

“We get time between meetings, travelling from one place to another in the car, watching on phones and IPads. See, 15-17 minutes is not so much of a commitment. So the zeitgeist of the time is either binge watching or micro content. The times are right for short films. We were on a platform that already had some reach in terms of viewership. They had already done Sujoy Ghosh’s Ahalya (one of the first few shorts to do really well in India). For Chutney, there was a curiosity so the first night had one million, three days we went to seven million and so on and then it kind of snowballed into people wanting to know what was in the film. I had lot of my industry friends watch it and told them, ‘if you like it talk about it, but be under no pressure’. But we had no budget for publicity.”

So why is the short film so attractive? Jalal, for whom Mehram is her first short film, explains, “At the moment, SFF is the place to be. Things change from generation to generation. This generation absorbs things faster so they want to express immediately. You have to say a lot in a very short time. In feature films you start telling the story only in the 3rd or 4th reel - first you build up the plot, time is taken to develop characters, there is song and dance and then you come to the actual story. But in the short you just come straight to the point.”

Says Preety Ali of Humara Movie, an online platform which has produced 500-600 short films till date since its inception in 2012, “For stars it’s all about visibility, for them it’s always an attraction. They want youngsters as captive audience. It is a different format. We tell stories in a different way. When you make feature films, you do so for a target audience; you keep in mind the Censor Board, release date, star presence and so on. All this happens while you are working on a feature. A short film is a maker’s manner of experiment. It can be very challenging to work in a short format. It has to be hard-hitting, concise and good.”


The genre and its craft



With a screen time of half hour or a little more (the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences sets the time duration at 40 minutes or less but elsewhere internationally, it can vary at 30 minutes or less too) the short film packs a punch - with rich content presented concisely, defined by good treatment and sound technical values. The most important criteria in a Short Film Format is the story - it could be humour, drama, emotion, anything which will hold attention. Next is the tight (read small) budget. Third is the ability of the maker to tell his/her story. He can have a great idea but can he translate for the medium? Everybody making short films seems to think so!

Short films are the haiku of cinema, as someone rightly pointed out. What they convey to us within 3-10 minutes, others can take up to three hours. And so like bees to a hive, shorts are attracting amateurs and professionals alike. Take the case of a 20 minute heart-warming and funny Mazhabi Laddoo made by Saurabh Tyagi from Ghaziabad. Typifying the small town India, Tyagi had set out for Mumbai to be an actor but ended up assisting the well-known filmmaker Sudhir Mishra instead.

With seven years of film making under his belt, Tyagi made his first short in 2016. Mazhabi… features Azeem, a 10-year old Muslim boy who yearns to eat a prasad ka laddoo (sweetmeat made at his father’s halwai shop) but dreads it because he has heard his mother mention that an aunt died after consuming one. The boy reluctantly gives the laddoo to his pet goat and waits for him to die! Whether his dilemma will find a resolution or not forms the crux of the film but more importantly Mazhabi… explores the deeper and disturbing issue of growing intolerance in the country today. Says Tyagi, “I spent my childhood with my grandparents in the interiors of UP and I have seen orthodox values all around me. The film reflects that. My father is a liberal man but intolerance was and remains a very big issue for his parents’ generation. These attitudes, which exist in both communities, need to change but I realize this change will happen only over a generation. Mindsets must change or we are headed for big trouble.”

Mazhabi…which was screened as part of Jagran Shorts (at the Jagran Film Festival held in Delhi recently and currently travelling to other Indian cities) saw a full house and a lengthy interaction with the filmmaker post the screening. The questions ranged from the budget of the film to the time taken for its making to finding funds and garnering an audience and awards. 

As yet unhindered by the demands of a feature film the short has to hold your attention for just a few minutes. In other words, you bring out the essence of any issue. Films have been always available to audiences but shorts are finding instant fans and that is a high. It could be just one more reason why short films are being increasingly looked at closely by investors and funding companies.


Financing and budgets

Big players like Jio, Yashraj Films, Balaji and other big names from within and outside the industry are advertising and pushing these films. Catchlines such as ‘Everything is possible so long as you have a story to tell and someone to tell it to’ (this one splashed across Cuts & Camera Productions home page) are tempting everyone to make short films. Like Paakhi Tyrewala, who has made Kajal - another powerful 30 min short on women empowerment says, “You don’t have an excuse to not make short films today. I have friends who make them on cellphones. Kajal was made on a budget of INR 90,000 only.” While she makes it sound easy, there is a method to the craze. There are funding agencies who encourage you to step up and float your idea of a film.  

"there were so many people out there, with ideas, wanting to make short films, and looking for funding. We decided to give them an opportunity "
                                                                                                           - Preety Ali


Says Ali who has earlier produced mainstream films, “I and my partners were familiar with TV, ads, films and were looking out for a different kind of opportunity. And there were so many people out there, with ideas, wanting to make short films, and looking for funding. We decided to give them an opportunity. So Humara Movie was born.” The company restricts its budgets from INR 25,000 – 8 lakhs. What are their funding sources? “We began with a small working capital from our own funds – just a few lakhs and then we found an investor who helped us through.”

“Some like Star and other similar platforms have purchased software from us for minimal amounts. Plus, we have One million viewers / day who are paid subscribers of Humara Movie. We are now looking at generating funds through indirect marketing and indirect advertising. A lot of brands are getting into this field in a big way now. For instance, we made a series of six short films for McDowell’s wherein they give their name at the end – it is not revealed till the last that the film is backed by a brand. Those are customized products."

Humara Movie also did a project called Shor se Shuruaat, an anthology of seven short films centered around the simple theme of shor / noise. Starring actors like Atul Kulkarni, Sakshi Tanwar, Sanjay Mishra and others, the presentation brought together seven budding filmmakers each of whom was mentored by acclaimed directors like Shyam Benegal, Imtiaz Ali, Zoya Akhtar, Nagesh Kukunoor, Sriram Raghavan and Homi Adajania. To generate more funds, “we sold Shor se Shuruaat to Netflix and Amazon,” shares Ali. “These funds have kept us going. So while we don’t have excess funds, we have managed to sail through.” Khamakha which bagged Filmfare’s People’s Choice Award for Best Film is Humara’s movie made on a budget of eight lakhs.

But it’s not just about stocking up and creating content. Ultimately it is a business which has to recover costs. But the picture is not all rosy for some. Says Chopra, “It’s like the Wild, Wild West right now, with web series, short films, Netflix and so on, no one knows what is happening here. How can one monetize this? Should we bring in the brands or should we make it for the corporate or an academy? It’s very difficult to make a short film because there is not much money because even if you fund it from your pocket you can never be sure of its recovery. You Tube India rates are ridiculous. In the US You Tube rates/click are US $1 while You Tube India gives you 10p/click! You have to have a lot of views and even then it’s very little money. It’s difficult to monetize short films at the moment. That’s a fact.”

"Short films can bring in a lot of money provided you make a good product "
                                                 - Manoj Srivastava


But Manoj Srivastava, the well-known film and media professional, whose repertoire includes making films, television software, organizing film festivals and currently advising foreign film companies and makers to shoot films in India and vice versa, disagrees completely. “I made a short film 10 years ago for Rs 15,000. I sold it to Moving Pictures, America for US $12,000. Short films mein paisa jaata nahin, aata hai. (A short film doesn’t lose money, it brings in money). Short films can bring in a lot of money provided you make a good product. Sales agents across the world are looking for good content. There are at least 200-odd in Europe and Latin America alone. There are at least 300 TV channels which are looking for sub-titled content. Language doesn’t matter to them. If they can screen English language they can screen Telugu also. So to survive and sustain they need some software that is fiction - which is where they have created 2-3 hour slots – programmes for short films. They pay anything from US $ 10/minute - 100/minutes and buy three-five years of rights. Which is what earned me US $ 12,000. Then there are TV channels especially in Belgium and France. Local schools and colleges in India are also an option. For shorts, they currently pay Rs 5,000 / screening. In prestigious schools, specially in Maharashtra, its Rs 30,000-50,000 / screening for a feature film. They are willing to pay because they are trying to create appreciation for the cinematic art in senior classes. Sometimes they invite directors also to talk about their films. So the avenues are definitely there. You just have to look.”

Seems like short films have come of age in our film hungry country, and that the genre is here to stay, as Jyoti Kapur Das puts it.



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