All roads lead to India

NSW Minister for the Arts Virginia Judge with lead actress Genelia D'Souza on the Sydney set of OrangeAustralia and India have made news headlines for all the wrong reasons recently, but Miguel Gonzalez found their screen industries are cooperating in new creative ways that present plenty of opportunities for our practitioners.

For years, westerners looked at the prolific Indian screen industry as an almost incomprehensible local box office phenomenon, with its long musical films and over-the-top performances.
Even before India’s Reliance ADA Group bought 50 percent of Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio, it was clear that the Indian industry had reached a peak and was ready to look outside its borders to become an internationally influential film super power, just like its economic development has made it one of the nations to watch this century.
Australia and India are increasingly working together.
But how is this relationship really operating, and what is still needed to utilise the resources that India offers our practitioners? Encore had pepper chicken, daal and roti at the Sydney set of an Indian film to find out.
Indian-born Anupam Sharma moved to Australia two decades ago. With a Bachelors and a Masters degree in film, he was a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney when he was  approached in 1998 by an Indian producer who needed someone to help with his film.
Sharma agreed to work on the project and identified a gap in the market, facilitating Indian-Australian relationships in the screen industry. With the support of Ausfilm, state agencies and companies such as Atlab (now Deluxe), Cutting Edge and The Post Lounge, he started presenting seminars in India, to inform filmmakers about how to use Australian locations and production services in their films.
“India is the most prolific film country, and Australia is one of the most professional in terms of work capacity and education. The marriage between the two has to be a win-win situation,” he explained.
The connections are not always immediately evident, but there are plenty of cases of Australian talent working on Indian projects.
When the science fiction musical Koi… Mil Gaya required aliens, Queensland-based VFX artist James Colmer was in charge of designing the creatures, while one of the action sequence directors in the very successful Om Shanti Om was Australian Angelo Sahin, who also worked as the second unit director in the film.
These are just two examples, in addition to the many screen practitioners – cinematographers, editors, etc. – residing in Mumbai and working across film and TVCs.

According to Sharma, Australian filmmakers are only just ‘discovering India’ because historically, Australia and India have ‘never looked at each other’.

“But when they have, they’ve found profitable ventures,” he said. “There is in excess of $15m worth of projects which are Australian but India-centric, and almost all of them have development funding from the government agencies.”
In Sharma’s opinion, it is easier for foreign filmmakers to open doors than it might be for an unknown local, because people assume they come “with a sense of professionalism from the west”.
“And Indians are hungry to play on the global field.”
While the cost of living in India is considerable lower than Australia, the cost of producing a film might not necessarily be that much lower.
“Locations can be expensive, plus the ‘under the table’ costs. And because labour is cheap you end up hiring more crew,” said Sharma. “The crews that worked on Slumdog Millionaire charge the same as US rates. But overall it still works out economically.”
“It depends on who you’re working with, and how you want to shoot,” said The Waiting City producer Jamie Hilton. “We acted like a local production, but you can spend a lot of money in India. It comes down to your methodologies,” he added.
While Bollywood has gone to exotic locations since the beginning, Indian films are increasingly looking for overseas settings for their storylines. Partly because India wants to feel more cosmopolitan, partly because it offers an attractive backdrop and – for about the equivalent of $0.25 – an escapist fantasy for those Indians who might never get to see the Sydney Opera House or the Empire State Building in real life.
Another important factor is that, with an estimated 30 million Indians residing in other countries, there is an opportunity to tell the stories of their diaspora and incorporate the places where they live into the script.
“Telling their stories is turning out to be a commercial proposition. And when Indians overseas go to an Indian film, or any Indian-themed film, they pay $14 instead of $0.25.”
Equally important has been the opportunity to receive incentives offered by countries like Australia.

Indian films have been shot in Queensland and Victoria, but NSW has been the most aggressive in attracting production. According to Sharma, Heyy Babyy (2007) received benefits “in kind and in cash” from Tourism NSW, in return for positioning the NSW brand in the film and its materials (poster, website).
The state government recently opened a new office in Mumbai to develop business opportunities including screen productions. Working closely with Screen NSW, it has successfully encouraged Indian producers to bring their films and TV shows to Sydney.

According to the director of production attraction at Screen NSW, Paul De Carvalho, the tension between the two countries over attacks to Indian students in Melbourne in the last year has not affected Indian interest to shoot in Australia.
And he’s probably right; last year MTV Roadies was produced in regional NSW and, since November, two films – Love You Maa and Orange – have been shot in Sydney (parts of the latter were also shot in Melbourne). Orange alone will spend $4.25m out of its $9m budget – the average for a large Indian production – in Australia.
Producer Jamie Hilton and director Claire McCarthy made the first Australian film shot entirely on location in India in late 2008, The Waiting City. It stars Joel Edgerton, Radha Mitchell and Isabel Lucas.

McCarthy had previously documented her sister’s volunteer work for Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Sisters, which aired on the ABC’s Compass program. The time she spent in India and the couples she met there, trying to adopt a child, inspired her to write a story set in Calcutta, dealing with the strains that adoption might put on a relationship.
Hilton was interested in the project; when he had a music video commissioned from Sony, he pitched them the idea to shoot it in India. The video project became a way to explore the methodologies they would eventually use for The Waiting City. On that shoot, Hilton, McCarthy and DOP Denson Baker worked with four crew members from Mumbai.
Instead of using the services of Australian facilitators, Hilton decided to do things himself.
“No Australian film had ever been entirely shot in India before, so whatever people were telling us, we appreciated the advice, but we wanted to find out for ourselves,” he said.
Hilton returned to Mumbai to select his key crew. Most of them had already been selected when he was referred to Speaking Tree, an Indian company that has worked on international films such as The Darjeeling Limited and The Namesake.
“Their name kept coming up, so it was a logical choice. We went backwards, rather than starting at the top. We set up the production as if we were doing it ourselves,” explained Hilton.
The process also had financial benefits.

“The budget would have probably gone up had I used an Indian company to take care of the whole facilitation. By managing it ourselves we were able to keep costs to a minimum.”
According to Hilton, the biggest hurdles they faced were Calcutta-specific.
“In West Bengal, the communist party in power and the unions are extremely strong, so we needed to employ a lot of local people to compensate for the Australians and the crew from Mumbai.
“We had to keep people happy and money had to change hands for permits to be given and for us to be able to continue shooting without any interference.”
Difficulties aside, the call of India is strong. Hilton has optioned Sarah McDonald’s successful book Holy Cow! and is currently in discussions with directors and ready to commission a screenplay. While it may still take some time before the project takes shape, he is already thinking of the Indian shoot and considering working with Speaking Tree “in a more meaningful way, as opposed to running the whole show ourselves.
“India is an exciting territory. We’re very sheltered in Australia, and I always sought to base myself here but work on projects with an international flavour. Having done The Waiting City I have a unique skill set, and why not exploit that?”
There is no official co-production treaty or MoU with India, but according to the director of the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) Geoff Brown, it is not because
of a lack of trying.
“It’s very hard to identify the appropriate authority within India with the authority to sign off on a MoU, let alone a full treaty,” he explained.
“SPAA will continue discussions with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about this issue. The government has indicated that it wants a co-production treaty.”
In the meantime, Brown has led a number of delegations to India, and believes there is a real willingness to work with Australia. But without a treaty, putting a deal together and complementing each other while ensuring that the Australian producer can access the Producer Offset (PO) – which an official co-production status would guarantee – can be tricky.
Luckily, the historical cultural and sporting connection between the two countries means that there are genuine stories that can flow naturally, without being forced as is sometimes the case with co-productions, making them likely to pass the PO assessment even without the official status, particularly when they have been originated by Australians.
Not everything is easy in the negotiation process, and one major obstacle is that most Indian producers and financiers want to retain India for themselves.
“They don’t want to share it. For the relationship to be put on a proper level there needs to be some recognition that giving the Australian producer the Australian territory and the rest of the world, with India being retained by the Indians, is not a fair way to proceed. There’s got to be some share in those proceeds,” argued Brown.
One of the advantages of a treaty is that producers can access funding and support from both countries, but the Indian government does not offer any to its commercial-driven, private enterprise screen sector.
Producer John Winter admits that although the standard rationale behind an official co-production –  tapping into offshore government money – does not apply in this case, it would still benefit local filmmakers.
“What India does offer is considerable private investment in film. Without a co-production treaty,  Australian producers are generally restricted in what they can bring to the table. However, for genuine co-productions with appropriately shared creative, production and financial contributions and ownership, a treaty would allow an Australian/Indian partnership to
gain access to both the PO and India’s private investors. It should be a ‘win-win’,” he said.
Anupam Sharma says many Australian projects have received considerable interest from private investors in India, courtesy of the PO, but it is mostly those which have the potential to be a hit in the vein of the UK comedy Bend It Like Beckham. An official arrangement would make it easier to have an Indian star as one of the leads, guaranteeing Indian financing, box office
success and access to the PO.

There would be other benefits. Certain Indian states have imposed quotas on foreign films in their cinemas, and an official co-production status would make any project eligible as Indian for exhibition purposes.
“Outside of that, there’s nothing in the way of hard money backing up the Indian end. There’s a bit of soft money from time to time, but in the end, a co-production agreement has to be regarded as being culturally important,” said Brown.
India is not just one industry, but many. While Hindi-speaking, Mumbai-based Bollywood is the most instantly recognisable, other areas of the country have their own – and very prolific – industries.

Telugu cinema is the largest producer of films in terms of volume, and its home state of Andhra Pradesh has the highest number of cinemas in the country. Orange, currently in production in Sydney and Melbourne, is a Telugu production.
The list of regional industries in long, but they are all best-known for their ‘masala’ films that mix genres and incorporate song and dance into virtually any plot. The majority of the more than 1,000 films made every year in the country fall into that category, which is aesthetically and stylistically different from Australia’s screen output, but that doesn’t mean that there are no art house productions. Known as parallel cinema, it is an overlooked segment that has to look for offshore financing sometimes, with self-financed guerrilla filmmaking. Australian creatives might be able to find artistic soul mates in that sector.
All the filmmakers consulted by Encore agree that developing an ‘artificial’ cross-over film with Bollywood just because it seems like a good market is an inherently bad idea. The story must explore a genuine connection between the two countries, and many people are already working on such projects.
For example, Peter Castaldi is working on a documentary that would take a young Indian-Australian who wants to become a Bollywood star to Mumbai, following her through the process. And a NSW firefighter is developing Bollywood Bushes with Anupam Sharma, a story in which three village Indian firefighters win a scholarship to train in Australia; the cultural differences with their true blue Aussie hosts offer comedic opportunities, and a great bushfire in which they have to save each other and their new community provides the drama.
Projects like Bollywood Bushes have a clear commercial appeal while others, like director Bill Bennett’s planned drama told through the eyes of an Australian aid worker, fall into an independent model.

For the former, finding an investor might be easier than it would be for the latter, because Indians have a well-established business model and it can be hard to convince them of the merits of investing on a non-Bollywood film.
“Once they have their director, cast, script, they can pretty much guarantee how much that film is going to make. It’s a very successful model that they’ve established, and we can’t  compete with that,” admitted
Bennett, who shot the mini-series Bollywood Hero for US Independent Film channel, working with the Indian service company Take One, the same people who worked on Slumdog Millionaire.
Jamie Hilton says that while India is not a closed market, Bollywood does expect an element of control. “It’s a very money-driven business. I’m not sure that there are the typical savvy film investors that we have in the independent sector here or in the US. I don’t know if they exist yet,” he said.
And even if they can get the interest of a partner, Australian producers can still find themselves in a position of financial disadvantage when dealing with cash-rich Indian filmmakers.
“Indian producers of note have, or have access to, film financing – and they expect the same from other parties. Their money is generally ‘fast money’, available immediately. Long delays for Australians to access ‘slow money’ can quickly dampen enthusiasm,” regretted Winter.
But financing ultimately doesn’t stop persistent filmmakers. For example, The Waiting City did not have any Indian investment, and Bennett is planning to finance his project out of Australia and considers any possible Indian money “a bonus”. And while they may not receive Indian funds for production, these Indiancentric stories provide the opportunity for local
filmmakers to access new markets and territories.

“We can’t release our films on more than 8 screens here, but we could possibly release an Indian-Australian co-production on 3000 screens in India,” said Peter Castaldi.

READ MORE: Tips for filmmakers working with India, The Waiting City.


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