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From scripting to pooling funds, this filmmaker does it all

October 03, 2007 17:40 IST
Full time film critic with The Hindu, when 31 year old Sudhish Kamath isn't raving about Lost, he takes time off work to make movies. His self-financed first feature, That 4 Letter Word, starring Ashil Nair, Cary Edwards and Paloma Rao - plus a certain Southern superstar in a fun surprise cameo - releases in Mumbai's Fun Republic theatre after a few film festivals and a run in Chennai this February. As can be expected, he's nervous as hell.

Sudhish started working on the script with a friend, Murugan Subramanium. "We wrote it over email," he explains, "because he was in the US and I was in Madras. We'd met up one evening after a long time and caught up. Generally in meetings where you catch up with life, you see it from a distance." From this distance resulted Word, but not before quite a struggle.

Starting the script in August 1999, Sudhish joined the The Hindu while "a few thousand drafts" into writing. He met an enthusiastic restaurateur who wanted to produce a film, pitched the idea, and was given a go ahead. Next came casting. "I met Ranvir Shorey who said he wanted to be an actor. I told him every VJ wanted to do that." The two ended up talking and Ranvir was unexpectedly gung-ho for a project written with freshers in mind.

The shooting process took its toll. The producer opted out because his daughter fell critically ill. Tamil actor Abbas, a great help to the production because he organized production facilities, locations and a cinematographer himself, based on his star power, left the project due to creative differences. "In 48 hours, we had to mobilize money and, for various reasons, cast new actors. And I mean 3 of the principal actors!"

They managed, eventually forced to shoot the whole film in 12 days, in 2005. Sudhish takes a while to tot up the costs, coming to Rs 2.5 lakh for the whole film but then factoring in an extra lakh for the sound. "That DTS logo at the start of the film costs a lot of money. And we had decided to play to the multiplexes." So Rs 3.5 lakh overall, with Rs 50,000 coming from Murugan in the US.

What next? "I spoke to a few people about video rights, and they suggested I launch the film at some festivals, get it some mileage. The Chennai International Film Festival had been around for some time, and was convenient for us. So we premiered there (in December 2006) and it was a decent launch."

Then came the hunt for exhibitors. Which theatre owners want to back a banner-less independent film? And when? "There are only two slots available for independent filmmakers in Chennai, when there is a lean period, when big films are not being released, and they are February and September. February (2007) worked for us, with the whole Valentine's Day vibe and everything."

Satyam cinema in Chennai released the film, but they didn't have a digital projector. And a digital print was all Kamat had. "We borrowed a digital projector from Realimage, but they needed it back in three weeks time. So we had to pull it out of theatres after three weeks, even though the screen it was running on had about 80 per cent occupancy."

The festival circuit is good to independent cinema. Word travelled to other Chennai screenings and the Rooftop Film Festival in Bangalore, where it was very well received. Now Sudhish is readying to take the film to the South Asian Film Festival in Bangladesh and the Screeplayer Film Festival in Singapore.

But what of commercial venues? Festivals do not pay independent filmmakers, just offering them a venue and a willing audience. Kamath travelled to distributors, and major players like Shyam Shroff of Shringar Films told him he wasn't interested in digital content devoid of controversial content. Shroff, who brought Hyderabad Blues to Bombay, explained that publicity costs money too. While you can publicise your film – hoardings, ads, get awareness going in a city – for about Rs 44,000 in Pune, a basic Bombay blitz costs at least Rs 7 lakhs.

Mumbai theatre Fun Republic has taken up Word, giving it a single show at 6 in the evening. Kamath isn't paying anything or being paid anything, and profits from the film are likely to be very skewed towards the theatre. Kamath agrees he isn't expecting any money. "I asked them for a slot, and said don't give me anything. That's when they agreed," laughs Kamath. "The multiplex deal is that they get 50 per cent of the full occupancy for the first week, and 55 per cent in the second week."

And the filmmaker's spent more money on publicity. While nowhere near the Rs 7 lakhs Shroff quoted, Kamath's dipped into his wallet for Rs 30,000, flying down VJ Cary Edwards to shoot an episode of Ranvir, Vinay Aur Kaun to be telecast the coming Monday, and printing up Word t-shirts and specially packed rolls of mints.

Kamath's problem is that he doesn't know enough people in Mumbai. "Even if I buy my own tickets, I don't know enough people to give away free tickets to!" he grins, moments after a detailed explanation on rubber printing costs on T-shirts. Word is completely his baby, and he accepts it's very hard to get people into the theatre. "Worse case scenario, it'll run for one week, but at least we tried. This is what is possible."

"The next step would be to try and monetise what we have spent. To get in touch with satellite rights, video on demand," says Kamath. "On small indie films, theatrical revenues are more like an investment." The lowest market price from a TV channel works fine for him, because of the extremely low initial investment.

And there are more possibilities. "South Africa is a big market for Indian films, and they play these only through digital servers. I can play the film from Madras without even. having to make a print. But I need a Bombay release, I need to get some visibility in the media, just so people know the film ran, that people liked it."

Kamath's currently working on his next film, Checkbox Theory. Another self-financed effort? He hopes not, but smiles philosophically about money and Word, his longtime labour of love. "At least I don't owe people any money."

Raja Sen in Mumbai