It’s the age of the pandemic – and the video streaming service. The novel coronavirus contagion has forced cinemas to shut, forcing film lovers to huddle in front of their television sets, computers and laptops. Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, Zee5, SonyLIV, MX Player and Voot Select are among the Indian platforms delivering more features, series and documentaries than any single person could possibly watch.
The missing element in these platforms – arthouse cinema – has another source. Mubi, set up by Efe Carakel in 2007 and available in close to 190 countries, began streaming in India in November 2019. For devotees of arthouse cinema, Mubi has emerged as a relief and refuge, a reminder that when Muhammad cannot go to the mountain, the mountain will come to Muhammad.
Mubi began its India operations with mostly international titles, but that has been changing in recent months. The streamer has been ramping up its Indian selection from across the decades and genres and languages. The attempt is to strike the balance between the esoteric and the accessible. Here, one can find popular black-and-white classics, such as Anarkali, Pyaasa, Do Bigha Zamin and Madhumati. There are Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen titles, but also popular productions, including the films of Raj Kapoor and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Gumnaam and Don.
One can also discover or rediscover more experimental works, such as by the features and documentaries by the little-seen Amit Dutta.
Across September, Mubi will show Arun Kaul’s caste-themed Diksha (1991), Girish Kasarvalli’s urban drama Ek Ghar (1991), starring Naseeruddin Shah and Deepti Naval, and Kamal KM’s ID (2013), which explores the importance of government identification papers for migrants. The Malayalam films include Venu’s Parinamam (2003), which explores ageism, and CP Padmakumar’s Sammohanam (1994), in which a mysterious woman transfixes a village.
The documentaries in September include Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man (2012), about the pioneering archivist PK Nair, and Abhay Kumar’s Placebo (2014), about exam pressures and suicide among students.
The parallel streaming of local and international fare doesn’t just give Indian cinema a pride of place, but also draws attention to its multi-hued artistry. Mughal-E-Azam stands alongside Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Bacarau rubs shoulders with Om Dar-B-Dar; Duvidha and Ashik Kerib are part of the same club, as it were.
Many of the older films have been floating around on YouTube, often poor in quality and with the wrong aspect ratio. Some of the Indian titles currently on Mubi are on other streamers too. But the advantage with Mubi is that because “it is curated, you don’t have to go through hundreds of films”, said Svetlana Naudiyal, Director of Content, Mubi India. “It has been very gratifying to see the response and how certain films that are probably on other platforms as well are noticed on Mubi,” she added.
The streaming service initially focused on Indian arthouse cinema, such as the films of Mani Kaul, Shyam Benegal and Saeed Mirza. “The newest film we had when we launched was Anhe Ghore Da Daan [by Gurvinder Singh] from 2011,” Naudiyal pointed out.
That approach has now changed, possibly as an attempt to make Mubi more widely acceptable even while holding on its mandate of highlighting risk-taking and aesthetically pleasing cinema. “It was never like, we were going to be only arthouse,” Naudiyal said. “Even with the mainstream, a film can speaks of the world and the country and the society of its time. We want to have a little bit of something for everyone. It has to be a great story, but the typical blockbuster would not be a fit for us.”
The enhanced library is not available all over the world, Naudiyal clarified. Mubi’s display differs from territory to territory, depending on the programmers. What is on offer for an American subscriber and Indian subscriber is quite different.
Programming depends on licensing rights as well as on what is non-exclusive and affordable. Mubi might acquire films for as little as a month or for a maximum period of 18 months. (The streaming service didn’t share viewership data, nor give a broad estimate of what it pays for acquisitions.)
“It depends on the volume of films – if we are taking one or two films from a producer, it is possible to have shorter contracts,” Naudiyal explained. “Or, we may sign up a film now and want to show it only next year. We sign non-exclusive rights. At our end, our focus is on a curated approach and spotlighting each film. It’s absolutely okay with us if a film gets picked up by someone else – it’s amazing for the filmmaker and us.”
Apart from drawing up a list of worthy films, Naudiyal’s responsibilities include contacting distributors, producers, copyright holders and content aggregators. She doesn’t get involved with the legal paperwork or the technical aspects – that is handled by Mubi’s team in the United Kingdom. Mubi also distributes arthouse films in certain territories, such as Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights trilogy and Pablo Larrain’s Ema.
Mubi’s Indian releases include Achal Mishra’s acclaimed debut feature Gamak Ghar (2019), which landed up here after its premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2019. In August, Mubi screened Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s S Durga (2017) and Death of the Insane (2019) and the documentaries One Day Ahead of Democracy (2011) by Amlan Dutta and Bilal and Char by Sourav Sarangi.
Naudiyal marvels at the “sheer volume” of Indian independent cinema. Mubi has been flooded with submissions of films made over the past decade, she said. “When the landscape is uncertain even for mainstream filmmakers, you can’t even begin to explain how uncertain it is for independent films or documentaries,” Naudiyal added.
She joined Mubi India in September 2019, after having worked with the government-run Directorate of Film Festivals, the non-profit Katha Centre for Film Studies, the National Film Development Corporation’s Film Bazaar, and the Mumbai Film Festival. Working for Film Bazaar between 2011 and 2015 and again in 2018 revealed to Naudiyal the variety of Indian arthouse movies waiting to be released.
Film Bazaar “gave you an idea of how many stories and many filmmakers are out there”, the 35-year-old programmer said. “Film Bazaar showed that there is an interested audience but also a gap, a missing bridge in terms of putting these films out there. There are interesting films that people would like to watch, but perhaps a theatrical release is not the best way for them. They might not get spotted by bigger festivals. They will travel well if they came on the right platform.”