Over the past ten years or so, there has been a surge in the number of short films being made in Kolkata. With the rise in popularity of video-sharing sites and easy availability of digital technology, everybody with a video camera today is a “filmmaker”. The presence of the government-funded Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute along with multiple colleges and universities providing courses in filmmaking and theoretical film studies in the city has, over the years, created an ecosystem that aspiring filmmakers rely on, get inspired by, compete with, and fall back upon each other. And what better way to test the waters than making a short film?
The filmmakers do not belong to any singular demographic. They can be as young as school students or as experienced as feature directors. They come from the city as well as from the small towns and districts of Bengal. While some make films out of love and no clear purpose, others do it to gain a foothold in the commercial film industry, or to achieve festival or global recognition.
Abhiroop Basu, whose short Afternoon with Julia recently got screened at the market section of the Cannes Film Festival, said, “I have no particular interest to be in the commercial film industry. I am aiming for a global audience. That said, my stories will be rooted, set in a milieu I am familiar with.”
Hyash Tanmoy echoes his sentiment. Though he is a Kolkata native, he considers himself an international filmmaker. Having collaborated with international producers and distributors, he wants to carry homegrown stories to a global audience. His latest film, Stark Electric Jesus, is currently doing the rounds of film festivals.
While both Basu’s and Tanmoy’s films are self-produced, sometimes, a young filmmaker manages to get the odd producer. Sayantan Ghosal’s Jaal became part of a larger publicity campaign for a newly launched detergent brand. The same company has also produced his next project.
But not everyone gets a producer or can send his film to Cannes. Submitting a film to reputed national film festivals, let alone international ones, can burn a hole in the pocket. Such films either go to local festivals or do the rounds of YouTube or Vimeo. While there is always the risk of getting buried under a tonne of free internet content, good and deserving films will grab attention. For example, Shayantan Roy's slice-of-life comedy Life is Crabby became so popular in the Kolkata short film circuit that a sizeable number of filmmakers began submitting comedy films to local film festivals as opposed to thrillers and suspense films, which had been the trend until three years ago.
While Roy hopes that his short films will gain him access to funding for full-length feature work, his colleague and fellow filmmaker Jishnu Mukherjee thinks differently. He is critical not only of the abundance of local film festivals but also of video-sharing websites.
“First of all, YouTube is not a viable model for distribution and exhibition because your film will get lost in the chaos,” Mukherjee said. “Secondly, without any recognition, you cannot hope to get an audience if you plan to monetise it. Also, film festivals are growing like mushrooms. These days, films are not being made for festivals but the other way round.”
Mukherjee, who has no grand plans to get a wider audience for his films, finds a kindred spirit in Sounak Kar, a final year student of Direction at SRFTI.
“I have no distribution or marketing plans,” Kar said. “I make films for my own pleasure. Till date, I have made at least 20 films. Sometimes, I delete my work. Every year, I take my work to Bring Your Own Film Festival [in Puri, Orissa]. If someone likes my film there and wants to screen it, they are most welcome.”
Kar, who frequently travels, shoots footage on the way, edits and uploads them on YouTube as travelogues, is not alone. There are many like him and that is what makes the scene incredibly diverse.
“What is interesting is that there are so many different voices in the scene — amateur filmmakers, film school students, even established filmmakers make short films,” said Madhuja Mukherjee, the head of department of Film Studies at Jadavpur University. “There is diversity in direction, genre, style and intent. It is an exciting time.”
But is this multitude of films hinting towards a parallel film movement that can counter the dominance of the mainstream Bengali film industry?
“Not yet – there is an overall lack of imagination in Bengali cinema at large, and I don’t expect short-film makers leaving in a sanctuary,” said Anindya Sengupta, assistant Film Studies professor at JU. “I often feel that the short films are portfolio exercises to gather funds for bigger projects. That’s not bad, but shorter films have their own yardsticks and should not behave like stunted feature-length productions. They have an aesthetic of their own which the makers often don’t get rightly.”
Nonetheless, Pradipta Bhattacharya, director of National Award-winning Bakita Byaktigoto and a seasoned short filmmaker, is hopeful. Bhattacharya frequently conducts short film festivals and competitions, where he gets entries from far-off districts and villages in Bengal, not just from Kolkata, and he is impressed by the statewide talent in display.
“The films from the interiors, in fact, are more grounded and have rich details,” Bhattacharya said. “They are very interesting, be it in terms of content or form, and I think that all of this spirited work from all around will obviously have a favourable impact on local cinema.”
While the present may appear fuzzy to some and satisfactory to others, almost everyone is hopeful that the Kolkata independent scene will thrive and get better with time.
“There are a lot of good things happening due to this sudden explosion of short films,” said Indranil Roychowdhury, director of the 2013 movie Phoring. “As so many people with easy access to technology like DSLR cameras continue to make films, we are witnessing an end to a Brahmanical hegemony in filmmaking. One day, as Samira Makhmalbaf said, making films will become as cheap as doodling with pen and paper. Only then, will we get true artists in cinema and that day is not far.”
Roychowdhury is winding up work on a short film. “Internet-based filmmaking is the future,” he asserted. “We need an alternative space and frankly there is no data on the ground to ensure whether the internet model is financially viable or not. My short film is a test run to figure this out.”
However, many of the short films being made in Kolkata are not of international quality, and seem to be inspired by feature-length films that have done well internationally and are screened at the Kolkata International Film Festival, Madhuja Mukherjee said. “But the language of feature films and short films is different,” she pointed out. “One cannot make shorts by watching feature films. They don’t get access to present-day experiments in form and language in international short films. You cannot download everything from Torrent.” Mukherjee, who has been organising the Little Cinema International Festival at Kolkata since 2014, said the output would improve with greater access to “contemporary experiments in international short films”.
The tools and its practitioners are in place and the possibilities are endless.
“Since bigger production houses will not explore shorter films, the makers are not burdened with commercial considerations,” Sengupta said. “Therefore, one must try to explore possibilities that industrial cinema does not allow. For example, if the film is released in YouTube or Vimeo, one might turn more political. One might explore aesthetic possibilities which a full-fledged narrative might not allow — building a mood, perfecting a style, experimenting with techniques, etc.”
As short films continue to be made by hundreds in the city and its peripheries, the debate of quality versus quantity continues. The best option is to continue making and watching films – and that doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all.