When Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September, few could have predicted the kind of dream run this quietly devastating Indian art film and its director would have. Yet, over the past six months, the film has won a series of awards at international festivals, including two FIPRESCI (International Federation of Critics) awards and two trophies at Venice. Recently, it won the National Film Awards for Best Feature, the highest cinematic honour in India.
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when it seemed like Court might go the way of most regional films in India: a couple of festival screenings, maybe a small theatrical release, a DVD, and oblivion. Yet, at crucial moments, the film has found influential supporters willing to gamble on it—angels, as Tamhane calls them. That the majority of these angels were from outside India has lent a decidedly international flavour to Court’s success. The film may be intensely, specifically Indian, but it was recognized, encouraged and promoted abroad.
Court, which releases on 17 April across Maharashtra and in select metros, is a rigorous, formally inventive film. It chronicles, with exemplary patience and attention to detail, the court trial of a singer-activist accused of abetting the suicide of a sewer worker. Much has been written about the film’s making: how Tamhane spent close to two years on scripting, casting and pre-production; how he auditioned around 1,800 people; how his friend, actor Vivek Gomber (he plays the defence lawyer), put his own money into the film when they couldn’t find any financiers. They had approached the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) for funding in late 2012 but were rejected. “We also went to the (NFDC) Film Bazaar (November 2012), but no producers came on board, seeing our young faces and no other film to show,” said Tamhane, over Skype from New York. “So it was all Vivek—there was no other funding.”
One bit of financial assistance Court did receive was through the Hubert Bals Fund, given out by the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Tamhane found out about the fund when he took his short film, Six Strands, to the festival in 2011. He applied in 2012 and was selected, receiving €10,000 (around Rs.6.7 lakh now) for script and project development. “It helped us, because even though it’s not a lot of money, it’s a prestigious fund,” Gomber says (Court’s budget was Rs.3.5 crore). But the film’s global journey started in earnest when Paolo Bertolin, a programmer at the Venice International Film Festival, heard about it at the 2012 Film Bazaar. As he later told the NFDC, “Right from the start, I thought this is a very interesting project, I should follow up on it.” Luckily for Tamhane and Gomber, follow up is what he did. Bertolin became an early, enthusiastic champion of the film, pushing for its selection at Venice.
Venice’s Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica, in existence since 1932, is the oldest film festival in the world and, along with Cannes, Berlin and Toronto, one of the most prestigious. Tamhane and Gomber had been applying to festivals since March 2014. They were rejected by seven of them—including Cannes, Locarno and San Sebastian—before being accepted by Venice. Getting a debut film screened there would have been achievement enough, but on 6 September, in Tamhane’s words, “the whole equation changed”. Court beat films by arthouse favourites like Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Hong Sang-soo and won the Orizzonti award, given to the best film in the “Horizons” section. It also won the Luigi De Laurentiis award for best first feature.
It was as if some celestial scorekeeper had decided that the uncertainty of the past few years needed to be redressed. In October, Court played at the 16th Mumbai Film Festival. It ended up winning Best Film and Best Director, plus a special jury mention for the cast. At the Viennale the following month, it was awarded a FIPRESCI award. The same month, it picked up awards at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and the 21st Minsk Film Festival “Listapad”. In December, it won the Grand Prix and a second Fipresci prize at the Auteur Film Festival in Belgrade, Serbia, and Best Film and Best Director at the Singapore International Film Festival. It was also selected for the prestigious New Directors/New Films festival in New York. The day before Tamhane and Gomber left for the US, the announcement came that they had won Best Feature Film at India’s National Film Awards, making it the third time in four years that a debut full-length feature had won the top prize.
Another crucial piece fell into place around the time of the Venice film festival. Right up to the time of the festival, Court had no sales agent. Gomber recalled writing to all the big names, and getting rejection after rejection. “They all had automated replies,” he chuckled, “saying, ‘Oh, we’re in Europe, we’re on holiday’.” But then they had another slice of luck. Deepti Da Cunha, who does the programming for the Rome International Film Festival, introduced Tamhane to Alexa Rivero, a producer and production manager. Rivero saw Court, was impressed, and recommended it to her former employers, the French agency Memento Films International, which in the past has acquired films by directors such as Olivier Assayas and Jia Zhangke. At Memento’s Artscope label, it was seen by Sata Cissokho, who had recently joined as festivals manager. “To me what’s really special about it is the rhythm that grows in the course of the trials and stays with you like you were actually witnessing it,” Cissokho wrote over email. “I was still thinking about it days after having seen it.” Court became her first acquisition at Artscope.
There was one more serendipitous surprise in store. On the jury for the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at Venice was Ron Mann, a Canadian documentary film-maker. After seeing the film through to the award (“The deliberation took 6 seconds for a unanimous decision,” he told me), his label FilmsWeLike acquired the Canadian distribution rights for Court. He also made a crucial recommendation. Nancy Gerstman, co-founder of New York-based distribution company Zeitgeist Films, told me how they first learnt about Court through Mann, who kept telling them about this wonderful little Indian film he had seen at Venice.
Zeitgeist—where Cissokho used to work before Memento—is one of the most highly regarded film distribution labels in the world. Started in 1988 by Gerstman and Emily Russo, it’s known for its focus on auteur-driven cinema, distributing films by directors as varied as Abbas Kiarostami and Jan Švankmajer. More than just displaying the kind of taste that earned them a MoMA retrospective of their own, they are tastemakers themselves, consistently backing emerging talent and fresh voices in world cinema. Court wasn’t on their radar, though, until Mann and Memento alerted them to it. “It took a little while for us to get around to seeing it, and seeing the wonderfulness of it,” Gerstman said over Skype.
Over the last five years or so, there have been an increasing number of Indian films finding their way into the line-up of major international festivals. Some have even managed to find sales and distribution partners outside India. Film sales company Fortissimo Films acquired the world sales rights to Anand Gandhi’s Ship Of Theseus in 2011—the company has also acquired other Indian films: Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie (2009), Ribhu Dasgupta’s Michael (2011) and Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely (2012). Last year, Zeitgeist picked up Richie Mehta’s Siddharth for distribution. Sony Pictures Classics put its muscle behind Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which paid off handsomely: At one point, the film was the highest-grossing foreign film of the year in the US, collecting over $4 million (around Rs.24.8 crore) at the box office. More recently, arthouse sales agent Match Factory partnered with Anup Singh’s Qissa, while French sales firm Wide Management acquired the rights to Shonali Bose’s Margarita, With A Straw.
This may look like a gathering storm, but Tamhane and Gomber’s experience suggests that you need to be both lucky and dogged to nab international representation. I asked Bose whether the financial success of The Lunchbox had altered the way global distributors viewed Indian independent films. “I don’t know,” she wrote back. “But I do know that it certainly hasn’t strengthened US distributors! After our world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, we were very surprised not to get picked up by one of the majors for a theatrical in North America” (the film will be released in the US by an arthouse distributor).
It stands to reason that a challenging, complex film like Tamhane’s will take whatever angels it can find, wherever it can find them. But independent cinema in the country would be much better served if we could discover and nurture the next Court ourselves.
This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.