Archive Valley, Documentary Film Industry

Interview With Mrinal Kapadia


In this interview, we get the chance to get some inside information from producer Mrinal Kapadia, who lives in India and runs an Indian production company, producing fiction and documentaries for the Indian and international audience. Mrinal, is at the front-row seat of the industry in India and this is an opportunity to hear the voice of someone who knows well the Indian market and for us to have a glimpse at what is happening in the film and especially in the documentary industry, today and where does it head tomorrow.

Thank you, Mrinal for taking the time to share your vision with us. First, can you tells us about you, your background, what brought you to make films and what is it like to work as a producer/filmmaker in India in 2019?

I had studied Industrial Engineering in the US and my goal during college was to pursue a career as a Business Management Consultant. I tried some internships and a job after college doing exactly that, but I soon left the company. When I was in between jobs and thinking of what to do next, through a series of events I ended up joining my father’s production house as a trainee on a regional Indian feature film. One may (or may not) be able to understand what a learning experience that had been!

Beyond my training on that film, our company has gone on to produce multiple feature films and documentaries, initially for the Indian market but now progressively more focussed towards international markets. There is a huge skew between the number of films & documentaries produced in India (over 2000 per year) and the worldwide market share enjoyed, and that’s where I believe a gap lies that can be fulfilled.

Working as a producer in India is very challenging, of course – the main problem I see is the lack of systems; since barriers to entry in the film industry in India are very low (anyone without a resume / requisite skill qualification can “become” a part of the industry if they have the wish), and this could lead to a product, not at par with the rest of the world. Also, on the production side, for smaller feature films and documentaries, there is very little distinction between Executive Producers, Line Producers, Production Controller, etc., so tasks are not clear at each level and it is tougher to point responsibility. On the other hand, this very lack of systems allows for lower production crew costs, so it must be seen from a wholesome point of view.

In the last few years, especially since digital cameras have made the medium less prohibitive in our ultra cost-sensitive country, people are experimenting more and more with the medium. Also, the internet has made the environment a more equal playing field, and systems by default are getting better and better.

Could you explain a bit how (through which channels) content is distributed today in India (mobile phones, cable networks …)?

The distribution channels, like almost anywhere in the world, have traditionally been theatres and television (satellite, cable, and home video). But in the last 3-4 years, due to smartphone penetration across semi-urban and rural areas, along with huge cellular data limits offered by a new entrant, Reliance Jio (of over 1 GB/day) at very low cost (less than € 2 per month), entertainment consumption on mobile phones has shot up.

Theatres are almost exclusively for larger budget feature films (Bollywood, Hollywood, and regional), of which Hollywood now has a healthy share. India has been exposed to

English for centuries, and is not an insurmountable barrier to overcome, but most big-budget Hollywood features come not only subtitled but also dubbed into Hindi and other major regional Indian languages. Satellite/cable television viewership is dropping in urban areas but rising in rural regions, where many households are still getting their first televisions due to the slow but steady economic upturn across India.

There is a particularly interesting and unique traditional concept of showcasing audiovisuals (films or government-sponsored shorts) in rural areas through ‘tambus’ or touring tents, where a truck goes from village-to-village, but even though it still exists, it is fast disappearing due to easy internet access for entertainment.

Who are the major OTT actors today in India? Are Netflix or Amazon present and highly watched in India? Who do you believe will be the main ones tomorrow and why?

As with many countries, Amazon Prime and Netflix are two of the top players in the OTT space in India. But they currently stand second and third (respectively) in terms of a number of subscribers to HotStar, a subsidiary of Star India (owned by Fox and consequently by Disney), which has the highest number of users by a large margin. The main reasons are 1. It showcases a lot of the most popular sports events and leagues, and 2. It follows a model which is a mix of AVOD and SVOD, a sort of “freemium” model.

There are some more prominent local OTT platforms (SonyLiv, Zee5, Eros Now, AltBalaji to name a few) that follow either the “freemium” or SVOD model, but all have a very low subscription cost. The general trend is that if a platform is part of a media conglomerate group, they would offer their TV soaps, music, etc., for free whereas movies, original productions, and live sports with zero delay would be available with a subscription.

There is no doubt that Netflix and Amazon Prime are here to stay in India, even though they have begun with differing strategies (Netflix charges between €6.5 and €10 per month, whereas Amazon Prime has a low fee of €13 per year, obviously targetting a larger section of the population to allow combining of their other mainstay offerings of free Amazon.com delivery, etc., within it). But leaving them aside, and also the fact that other huge international conglomerates like Disney, BBC, etc., shall be launching their own platforms soon, a lot will probably depend on the cellular data packages that are offered here.

As mentioned above, if the offering by Reliance Jio continues in a similar fashion, and other competitors maintain similar pricing to keep pace, data consumption will keep growing significantly and, as a result, so will online viewership across OTT platforms. If not, overall viewership might not grow much, and the market might hit a saturation point or continue with slow growth.

We start to see more and more Indian documentaries at international festivals such IDFA award for best documentary,  “Reason” by Anand Patwardhan’s. Would you say that Indian filmmakers, like you, have a stronger desire to enter the international market and are they looking to work on subjects connected to India with an international appeal?

Apart from big-budget feature films (Bollywood and regional), funding for other features, documentaries, and shorts is very difficult. Hence funding becomes one major reason for Indian filmmakers to look internationally in order to tell their stories.

Additionally, since English is spoken by many Indians, communication with the West is less of a hindrance. With the exposure/influence of international (largely American) media for the past 25-30 years (news, television, films, etc.), connect with the West and western ideas is quite strong.

With the general influence of the internet being the “democratization” of products, suddenly audiences have the world to choose from and want to find good, engaging stories, gain knowledge about places/people quickly, and from my recent interactions at exhibitions it seems the world finds India fascinating/interesting and wants to know more, adding yet another incentive to like-minded filmmakers to look outside for funding and/or showcasing.

And lastly, with politics in the country (just like the world over) getting more polarizing, irrespective of the outcome of our national elections which are currently going on, there will definitely be more and more filmmakers looking to take their projects to international markets.

In the west, for many, the film & documentary industry is going a “golden age”,  within a very competitive landscape in which producers and filmmakers are being asked to produce more and more content: how would you describe the documentary landscape today in India? Is it facing a similar path or are there other challenges at stake?

Going back in time a bit, India was a closed economy pre-1990, and with the economy not being as large (“underdeveloped” from a capitalist point of view) then, the cost of filmmaking was prohibitive to even most feature filmmakers, let alone documentarians. There was even rationing of celluloid print during this time!

In the past 3 decades, the economy has opened up, the glamour quotient associated with this (film) industry has steadily risen, the number of avenues for showcasing (theatres and especially TV channels) have gone up considerably, and post the rampant adoption of digital technologies in the last 5 years, local filmmakers here to are producing more and more content.

In spite of a large number of local productions, a high percentage of the total money is concentrated on the top few feature film projects with the biggest stars; it is, in general, difficult to get funding for films, and even more so for documentaries.

There is the occasional institute (Jamia Millia, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, etc.) or semi-government body (Public Service Broadcasting Trust [PSBT], founded and run by the amazing Rajiv Mehrotra) that tries funding or training for documentaries, but there are limited local avenues.

How do you see the future of documentaries in India? Do you expect more and more international co-productions or is the local market with all its regional languages big enough to feed the industry?

We have succumbed to a Box Office driven mentality, where whatever makes you a quick return on your investment is the way forward. As with many places, what falls into this category (of getting the largest box office returns), is entertaining fiction with stars. We don’t nourish our culture on screen and don’t portray stories in their truest form since they might not be “entertaining” enough to earn big numbers. As a result, making a project deemed ‘risky’ in India is very difficult, which is where the documentary genre falls.

When it comes to the festival circuit, barring some exceptions, Indian documentaries have not been able to yet navigate the marketplace landscape of foundations, pitching forums, sales agents/distributors, buyers, etc. But again, awareness is ever-increasing.

The future does look bright – apart from taking documentaries to international markets/festivals, the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the host of soon-to-launch international platforms will be good potential fits for well-told documentaries on Indian subjects.

This will probably not happen overnight. We are at the very early stages of OTT dominance in audiovisual media, and since the business model is very different than it has been in the past, dominant international platforms will on one hand definitely want a strong Indian subscriber base, but will also have to work around the complexity of India, and will (to some extent, they already have) begin with trusted partners (many from the West). So yes, it does seem that international co-productions will dominate this space in the near future. And since these international platforms will be calling the shots, it’s not necessarily a question of what the local market feeds the industry; it’s what will work worldwide for the platforms that will determine what gets picked up / greenlit.

Is there a higher demand for documentaries today than in the past?

In the past (post independence in 1947), documentaries were an almost-exclusive domain of the Films Division (FD), the Indian government’s filmmaking unit. Independent documentaries were almost non-existent. FD shorts were compulsorily played before feature films in theatres and by mobile projection vans in villages all through the 50s, 60s, and part of the 70s; and so demand had very little role to play.

As the political climate shifted and technology offered the possibility of moving from celluloid to video in the 80s, and analogue to digital in more recent times, the supply has gone up as can be expected, but demand has been low. The average budget allocated to a documentary by the Films Division today, for example, would be in the vicinity of INR 1 million, which is quite low and would result in below average visual quality. This general trend has led to local audiences equating documentaries with being uninteresting, and demand has remained low.

The best way to address the root cause of this low demand is covered in a very informative book, ‘A Fly in the Curry’ by K.P. Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro. The crux of the matter is that documentary filmmakers are very vocal about their fight against power, and as a result have found very little support from either the state or the market to make their films. The visual quality continues to remain low, documentaries have remained a niche in the country, and as a result, we have very few internationally recognized documentarians like Mani Kaul or Anand Patwardhan.

The turning point seems to be near though – it’s only a matter of time before we catch up with the rest of the world, and as the world gets more global, India will continue to remain interesting for a while. We should be seeing a host of international projects of either Indian origin or Indian co-production, with the subject centred on India. The worldwide recognition and appreciation of Netflix’s ‘Wild Wild Country’ (the subject is an Indian spiritual Guru and his cult) and ‘Period: End of Sentence’ (based on the taboo surrounding menstruation in India and winner of 2019’s ‘Best Documentary Short Subject’ Oscar) are just the beginning. Many Original projects on India by international OTT platforms (especially Netflix) are today produced or co-produced internationally, but this should change slowly but steadily.

As we are both passionate for archives, could you tell us a bit about India’s relation with archives? Do Indians have a strong interest in their own history, in their own past?

When we talk about India’s film archives, we must start at the beginning. From pre-independence (pre-1947) times, a majority of all official, educational, and amateur films were taken back to the UK, and the BFI National Archive holds a large collection of this time in the country. How much footage erstwhile royal families, old industrialist families, colonial-era institutes, etc., hold is not known.

When it comes to fiction (features and shorts), from the approximately 1,700 silent films made in India, only 5-6 complete ones remain at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). We don’t even have a complete print of our first ever talkie, Alam Ara, released in 1931. The fact is, it seems we’ve lost 70-80% of all film prints from before 1964, the year that the NFAI was established. A lot of these statistics have been collected by the pioneering Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, a filmmaker who has started his own non-governmental film archive in order to help preserve the medium in India. He has made a lovely tribute documentary on P.K. Nair, the founder-director of the NFAI (regarded as the Henri Langlois of India), and it is because of Mr. Nair that the NFAI at least has a considerable collection to begin with.

Films Division have, as per their website, “8000 titles including priceless Indian News Reels, documentaries, short films, and animation films”. This is a vast majority of all the non-fiction produced from the 50s to the 70s, and it seems they still haven’t got the funding to restore these titles.

The Indian Government is extremely apathetic towards our history and archives. As per a recent report, in the process of digitizing the list of records of the NFAI holdings, almost 31,000 (24%) of all the film cans/reels were found to be lost/damaged. More surprising still, about 5,000 reels which were not listed in the register were found! This indicates major bookkeeping and cataloguing errors, and possibly not an actual loss of stock, but the fact is there is rampant apathy.

When it comes to an individual Indian’s point of view, there is a sense of pride in our history, in our past glories, etc., but those are restricted largely to story form. Restoration, conservation, cataloguing, etc., as processes are just not a part of our training as in the West. Since I am involved in the antique visual art space, I know that many Indian antique booksellers, for example, would not fully understand the difference between selling a good versus poor copy, and their prices would reflect that lack of knowledge. The concept of provenance, which is of prime importance to a rare book, would not be of much importance here. So in conclusion, we appreciate our past, not necessarily our heritage, but this can largely be attributed to our ignorance and lack of awareness, and can definitely be changed with education / knowledge.

Are archives today in India easily accessible? Tells us a bit about the archive project you intend to pursue/build?

Government archives are, as stated in the example above, notoriously difficult to navigate. At the National Archives of India (NAI), according to a 2017 findings, eight in ten requests for access to papers, microfilms, etc., are turned down for ridiculous reasons (‘in search’, ‘tracing’, ‘destroyed’, etc.) On the other hand, the same researcher spoke of damage due to negligence on the part of staff and scholars (dog-earing, annotating, haphazardly filing, etc. of original historic material) The need of the hour is definitely education on preservation for future generations before too much is lost.

Important private archives (high net worth, industrialist, or erstwhile royal families) have been cataloguing and preserving their collections for some years. They are largely professionally run and approachable.

I recently had the privilege of producing a crowdsourced documentary to commemorate the 100thbirth anniversary of the renowned yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar (which we have just licensed to an American OTT platform), and for this project we got to work quite closely with their personal archive; sifting through thousands of images and many videos, matching the material to the specific emotion being conveyed was quite a challenge at times, and overall the outcome was very rewarding.

The project you are referring to is one I’ve been working on for the last three years. I have begun a small but (if I may say so) culturally significant focussed collection of antique Indian visual art, which has been steadily growing, and I have been cataloguing, restoring, digitizing, and preserving it along the way. Our weather makes it difficult for preservation, and digitization must be given utmost importance. My long term goal is to create a digital depository / archive of antique Indian visual art, and an extension of this would be an audiovisual archive (of material that is available, of course.) We shall have to see where life takes us! Thank you for this opportunity to speak on your platform.

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