‘Imagine Satyajit Ray walking into an OTT office to pitch Pather Panchali’

Kolkata (Sudipto Mallick) :

Three-time National Award-winning director Sudhir Mishra, during the Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture at the 28th Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) at Shishir Mancha on Sunday, said the “OTT is mostly for thrillers. I think it’s a carpet of ‘tenseness’ to base everything on ”. Wishing the OTT heads to be more encouraging and inclusive,  he cracked a joke, “Imagine Satyajit Ray walking into an OTT office to pitch Pather Panchali….. It’s as if filmmakers are setting out to present problems….”, quickly added, “But then the ideology of films, among other things, provokes the senses”.

Despite being slightly indisposed, Sudhir Mishra, whose iconic film ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’, is taught as a dialogue project in Indian film schools, was his robust self, if a bit meandering, while winging The Satyajit Ray Memorial Lecture at the 28th Kolkata international film festival titled: ‘Understanding Cinema In Changing Times of OTT’.

Sudhir Mishra

Just before the Q&A, he dismissed a coffee request to pick up his energy with a repartee, “People generally don’t complain about my lack of energy.”

To be fair, the maker of 14 films to date, including ‘Dharavi’, Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government and one of 2022’s talked-about OTT drops, ‘Serious Men’, declared at the onset that, he’s “not the lecture sort.

Beginning with assurance, he recalled his period of entry into films as an assistant in the 82, “just before the video came in”, which was alongside Saeed Mirza, Ketan Shah, Vinod Chopra, Ketan Mehta, and Mahesh Bhatt, and despite the pluck to change the world, they were apprehensive about “the death of cinema as a theatrical experience. But cinema survived”.

“Just because it’s Satyajit Ray lecture I don’t necessarily have to talk about him, ” he clarified with impunity, adding, “But it’s interesting to imagine how Ray would have dealt with these times (of OTT), through him. He might have found it difficult (to get a project on OTT)  but he was persuasive as well. So he might have managed”.

Launching into the topic, he observed, “OTT…..you are living in over-the-top times, there are over-the-top responses to everything”. Soon enough though, he lauded it as, “an online library, especially for films that’s not immediately popular.” He even considered it as “a necessary platform to circumvent the vagaries of theatrical release”. Having said that he begs the budding filmmakers to make films “which should be future proof and not just for ephemeral mobile or laptop viewing”.

Carrying forward that vein he continued wistfully that OTT should take freewheeling chances with young talents beyond its current brief, otherwise, “a Tarkovsky would be an impossibility. And Godard…forget about him”. Otherwise, a budding Satyajit Ray would be asked for a biodata, a box office analysis of his pitch, etc.”.

The scene is beneficial in another way. “No Steadicam operator in Mumbai is free”, informed Mishra. Further extolling OTT virtues he exemplified that Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, Shefali Shah (“brought her back to the limelight”), and Ankita Tiwari (which elicited ovation) is as famous as SRK. OTT has given them the just platform to showcase their talents. He put in a check a while further down: “It’s time to make easy money. Any actor with some skill can get work but you can also get lost. A lot can get lost but lots can be found as well.’

In between, he reminded me that formulas don’t always work, mentioning  Paatal Lok, Panchayat, Scam, etc. “They got made. So formulas don’t work, as don’t the stars. In fact stars are a detriment. It demands a certain skill”. He touched upon the potential of OTTs in terms of them being cinematic. “Better Call Saul is where one gets to see all sorts of cinema effects. You can show it in the theatre. Also Irishman”.

Personally, having worked on an OTT project himself, he finds fervor with a series rather than a feature-length project, calling it “a long-form cinema”, where one gets to explore the elements with greater depth”. However one needs to exercise control. “Every story should be as short as possible. Every word should be important. The story should dictate. In OTT the duration is not a contingency”.

The best efficacy of OTT he envisaged is if OTT can successfully replace TV. Then there’ll be a way for films surviving like in Europe where films are mostly made through back-end TV deals. Concerns about film funding paved the way to dwell on government funding. Starting, he did benefit greatly from NFDC, after all. “I always wondered why cinema is not considered a social act. You go to the theatre. It’s a public place. But from the government’s point of view, it’s always considered a sinful act. The government taxes it like it is a bad habit. I think all the tax money that the govt earns from films must go back to cinema”, he opined, threading it with caution, “Government steps in a dangerous way. So, it has to be autonomous”.

During the open house, he acknowledged that OTT has helped blur the boundaries between documentaries and films and that it’s much more inclusive and adaptive media, especially in terms of orientation, than mainstream Indian films can ever be. Inquiries about censorship saw him be equally liberal. “Lack of Censorship in OTT is good. Otherwise. Sacred Games, even Serious Men would not have been possible. If you don’t like something, Saudi it off. But then officially Indian censorship has stabilized”, he started. Talking about censorship saw his harp on the need to have a dialogue for better understanding, instead of blatantly blocking out all parties involved, one of several takeaways from his passionate extempore.

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