Blackface

In Blackface, a collection of reminiscences of African Americans in the movies, critic Nelson George writes on how black filmmaking might be sustained or expanded in the future. The book was published in 1994 but it is still interesting to draw parallels with desi independent filmmaking. In the final chapter, he writes:

The cost of making major motion pictures has always daunted anyone challenging Hollywood. It certainly is a big roadblock for the traditionally underfinanced black community. Perhaps the model to look at is the world of bootleg tapes and cassettes. Any major motion picture of interest to the black community is available before release in any swap meet, flea market, or sidewalk vendor in most urban areas...

The development of a direct-to-home-video market for African American films will be crucial in any strategy to build a black film institution. The programming must be made as inexpensive and easily accessible as the bootlegs purchased by blacks. In fact, whoever starts this company might be well-advised to advertise their films as "legal bootlegs."

Fast forward a decade and it's true that there does exist a direct-to-video market for black films. However, the titles I keep hearing about seem to be rapper exploitation flicks like Master P's I Got The Hookup. Desi films have a direct to video market in the USA as well - it's called renting DVDs from your local Indian grocery store. Of course, there are dedicated screens that show only films from the subcontinent but they exist only in major metropolitan areas. Anyway, most of the rental demand is for mainstream Bollywood fare, most of which tends to be, you guessed it, exploitative.

Additionally, rampant piracy continues to be a problem for Indian films too but with an additional twist. File-swapping sites like desitorrents.com have taken the problem online and global. So, why not take the book's suggestion and utilize an existing distribution network, which currently is being used for piracy, for legal distribution purposes? The desi audience is clearly technically savvy - when I was talking to Netflix, I found out that when they first switched to their all-you-can-eat subscription model, they were initially sustained by rentals of Bollywood movies, made presumably by folks who lived too far away from desi grocery stores. P2P network Kazaa tried this with the Bollywood film Supari. The article, dated December 2003, reports 200 download sales but I haven't heard anything since, so I don't know what became of that initiative. Of course, we have to make a distinction before we go any further - in the USA, Bollywood is considered niche and indeed it is. But to Indians, Bollywood is the mainstream. And I'm more interested in brainstorming about distribution for desi independent filmmaking - this in the USA becomes a niche within a niche. Yikes! Later in the chapter, Nelson George offers a way forward:

Similarly, there is an emotionally rich, financially lucrative mother lode in the catalogue of unfilmed women's literature. The Color Purple, which I personally didn't like but which was embraced by women of all colors, didn't inspire a wave of novelistic adaptations but I'm confident that by the end of the century one of the most substantial wings of African-American cinema will be the filmed works of Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, Ntosake Shange, Bebe Moore Campbell ,etc. No question that this is a vital catalogue of great, very human stories waiting to be told.

Moreover, as book sales have testified, a national audience for the voices of black women clearly exists. The audiences have been consistently multiracial, though the works have been seeped in the African-American experience.

Clearly, he was on the money - I don't know about the latter two authors he mentioned but Terry McMillan (Waiting To Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and Toni Morrison (Beloved) have had major films made from their books. Once again, however, you can extend this pattern to Asian American cinema (Amy Tan and Joy Luck Club) and, more recently, to Indian-American literature. I refer to Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake which Mira Nair, a true desi independent filmmaker if there was one, is adapting into a motion picture. Another example is Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni's Mistress of Spices, a recent feature from Paul Mayeda Berges. Of course, the advantage these films have is they have a pre-sold audience that's bought the book. Desi male indie filmmakers without access to such best selling female authors' works might either have to go the M. Night Shyamalan route i.e. tackle high-concept scripts and directly aim for as broad an audience as possible or explore new ways of reaching an audience through other means, such as online, particularly as NRI audiences have not proven to be particularly supportive of non-Bollywood diaspora films in general.

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- October 26, 2005 2:24 PM // Books , Film