When Aligarh released in cinemas in early 2016, we were ecstatic that a film on a taboo subject (being gay was still a criminal offence), was getting a respectable release. The reviews were fantastic, the conversations in the media overwhelming, but saunter into a cinema hall, and you’d see some 12 people watching the film. This was the case with most films that explored darker themes, gender issues, or human rights stories.
Naturally, exhibitors, distributors and most of the trade press treated us like that poor cousin that was overstaying his welcome. Our movies were elbowed out when the next big starrer arrived. This was particularly heartbreaking for films that were just beginning to build on a positive word of mouth. I often hoped that they’d leave the film in just a week longer, so the numbers could multiply. Alas, the silver screen rarely gave small films that opportunity.
The silver lining often came in the form of audience response from the films online viewing (often pirated versions). My message box would be filled with a passionate understanding of the plight of the gay professor in Aligarh, of how they couldn’t watch the film in cinemas because they didn’t want people to think that they were gay, or from women who had dealt with a gay husband. I realised then, that some content demands to be watched in private. Not all are comfortable with a mirror being held to them in a packed hall of people.
For years, serious filmmakers, inspite of making great films, could not stand tall against those flashing 100 crore posters. I know of an auteur who made some of the most defining films of our generation but suffered depression and ill health just trying to get funds to make his next film.
But in 2020, something changed. A locked-down world trained its sights on Over The Top platforms as its only source of entertainment, and discovered a diverse palate of content; well-produced, layered and tackling uncomfortable subjects.
In the ‘safety’ of their homes, audiences are now able to understand; a gangster’s love for a beautiful transperson (Sacred Games), a young gay man escape his emotional demons by having one night stands with random men (Made In Heaven), a middle aged woman turn drug lord to protect her family (Aarya), the psychology of a ruthless killer who loves dogs (Pataal Lok), and a host of diverse women who stand up to domestic abuse (Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors). None of these success stories are headlined by stars who ‘rule’ the marquee, they are mounted with strong actors and a well prepared script.
Viewers are under no pressure to watch this content in its opening weekend, there are no 100 crore numbers to influence their perception. And the very same filmmakers/creators who were ridiculed for daring to dream big, are finally standing tall in their new found digital stardom.
Apurva Asrani has written Aligarh, Shahid & Criminal Justice behind Closed Doors and has edited Satya and Made In Heaven.