A still from Manto
I am beyond overwhelmed by the response that has been pouring in. It is much more than what I had imagined. From young 18-year olds to those in their 90s. From far off cities like Patna and Kochi to those in Delhi and Mumbai, it is touching people deeply. Mantoiyat is spreading far and…no, not wide enough. Films like Manto are constrained by the presumptions of those who are responsible for marketing and distributing films. There is a clear dissonance between what is seen as ‘creative’ vs. ‘business’ in terms of the spending on publicity and advertising and on the number of screens and the show times. While this tussle between a director’s passion for a film and the reality of business is eternal, it is perhaps worth a debate in today’s world.
Manto, is perhaps a good example of how in-built biases in the distribution system might affect the potential of a film that is not classified as a “Bollywood” film. These are the ones that get labelled as niche films. This has big consequences. This impacts the number of screens – a mid-sized release for ‘Bollywood’ is about 2000 screens while Manto released in less than 500. The basis of this decision is old-style ‘focus group’ analyses that more often than not merely reinforce the bias of the marketing and distribution team. We live in a world that is awash with data, so my assertion is not merely as Manto’s film-maker, but also as a viewer of good cinema.
In fact, I shared the hard-data that was, to me, more relevant as to how widely the film should be distributed. For instance, Google trends that measure millions of searches for each subject clearly showed that because of Manto’s festival run, positive reviews, and scores of articles about the film, the awareness and the positive buzz about it were higher than all the films being released around the same time. Yet, as a result of flawed research with a small sample, the film did not show at all in even capital cities like Srinagar or Amristar, where Manto grew up and has a huge following, or in the cinema-literate Trivandrum. Even in the cities it has released, shows were too few with show times often too early in the morning or too late at night to reach all the potentially interested audiences. Despite social media and word of mouth, if the screenings are not close to your home and at convenient times, audiences, despite their best intent, are unable to watch the film.
The numbers game is of the first weekend. That is what determines how long and wide the film will run thereafter for it to reach the widest audience possible. And this was jeopardized because of a bumpy start. The media informed us that the first day, first shows got cancelled all over the country. I was told that this was due to some “technical glitches” or lack of “adequate paperwork”. The prevailing assumptions about who Manto can reach was bad enough, but not delivering, what should be a routine task of simply getting the film to the theatres, was indeed unexpected. For me having spent six years on the film, I am compelled to discuss these challenges in the public domain.
I have realized how helpless I am as a filmmaker and how one is left with no choice unless you, yourself, have the resources to market and distribute the film, which most of us don’t. Many films have and will continue to suffer because of this gap and perception. And the audiences too have and will continue to suffer as they will not have access to the films they may want to watch. There are too many mediators between the film and its audiences that are deciding how and to whom a film should reach. While I think new digital platforms will fill this gap, it is not in the public interest that independent voices get completely pushed out of the social experience of watching films in theatres. There ought to be space for both.
The heartfelt responses to Manto among those who did manage to see it, despite all the odds, gives me some hope that while we filmmakers battle the ‘system’, maybe the change can start with audiences. And perhaps if they were made aware of how difficult it is for an independent film to even make it to a theatre (not so) near them, they would go the proverbial extra mile to support it. This is important to break the vicious cycle. If filmmakers found ways to tell diverse and authentic stories and audiences thronged to the theatres to make such films successful, the mediators would have to let go off their prejudices and submit to the real ‘demand and supply’ theory that they hold so dear.
We need to cherish our stories, those that mirror the world we live in. Let our films disturb us, inspire us, trigger conversations and challenge our prejudices. Cinema will always remain an art and not a science and therefore let no one claim that they know just too well what will ‘work’ and won’t. The heartfelt responses to Manto have made me realise that we need to have this dialogue or else we will be subjected to only what the market forces want us to consume. This change is up to us.