First-time director Hemant Gaba gets candid about the struggle of making his first feature film independently.
As a teenager I played badminton with my friends on the streets in our neighbourhood. Little did I know that I would weave this into the narrative of my debut feature film Shuttlecock Boys. Back then I didn't even know that I would ever want to make films.
In my 20s I worked in the software industry as a programmer and analyst. Looking back, those seven years of writing the code were the most monotonous years of my life. I had failed to secure the opportunity to study music in college – while I enjoyed listening to music, my attempts to create any proved futile. That made me wary of engaging in any form of art that attracted me. I often wondered what it was that I really wanted to do in my life. Definitely not coding.
Since I was working in New York, I decided to take small steps towards films by enrolling for filmmaking workshops at the School Of Arts. Day after day we were trained to handle cameras, edit machines and given acting lessons. I enjoyed the process so much so that I would lose the sense of time. I decided I wanted to pursue filmmaking and I was willing to risk all that I had. I decided to test myself.
COULD I MAKE A FEATURE FILM?
The story of 'Shuttlecock Boys' came from such real-life situations. The friendship the four protagonists share came from my years of growing up. In fact, the names and the professional choices of the lead characters in the film are those of my real friends. My experience of having chosen a frustrating and monotonous career was reflected in the career choices the characters make – choices made in a manner that all middle class parents want. My decision of venturing into the unknown territory of filmmaking was not really welcomed by my family, which became synonymous with the characters' situations in the film. The journey of the Shuttlecock Boys of doing something on their own is actually similar to my test. I have been through, in fact am still going through, the same litmus test that these boys face in the film.
After learning some of the ways in which our Hindi film industry works, the only thing that made sense to me was to take the Indie filmmaking route. I returned to India and started a production company called Pennywise Films along with my long time friend Pankaj Johar, who had been working in television for 6 years, after giving up a successful career as a chartered accountant. The money I'd managed to save in US came handy. That along with investment from Pankaj, loans from my family and the same childhood friends – the stories of whose lives I stole for the story – became the seed money to make the film. My parents were initially apprehensive, but eventually they decided to support me in whatever way they could, both during the shoot and during the post-production, especially after they saw my persistence.
My biggest struggle in realizing the film started when a leading post-production lab ruined all the film negatives during handling. One of their heads of management had the audacity to ask if I 'belonged to any film family' which, of course, I didn't. It progressively got worse and I had to deal with late responses to no responses to fighting with the owners of the lab. Having given up a lucrative career and put all the money that I had along with loans into a movie that was now at the risk of not getting finished; I had reached the lowest point in one of the most difficult years of my life. Probably that was the real test by destiny.
After a lot of fighting, the post-production company fixed the film using digital methods without any extra charge. In my heart, I sometimes thank them for at least restoring my film but at times I also detest them for wasting almost one year of my life.
It is a well-understood fact that it's easier to make a film than distribute it. It eventually took me more than two years to complete the film and am not sure how much longer it will take to reach an audience (if that happens at all). So far, it has been extremely tough to even meet distributors, probably because I am an outsider and don't have any industry relationships. After consistent follow ups with a few media corporates that I did manage to meet, I was politely turned down on the grounds that the film didn't have a star and that it doesn't make business sense for them to invest in distributing a film that had been made with a small budget of 35 lakhs. The independent distributors that I approached wanted me to spend on prints and publicity, which I couldn't afford. Unfortunately, we don't have an alternative film distribution system in India. So my battle to get the film even a limited release continues.
For now it's screening at film festivals in India and abroad. The film will next be shown at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival (2nd October), International Film Festival Ahmedabad (6th -9th October), Seattle South Asian Independent Film Festival (8th October) and South Asian Film Festival of Australia (November).