The Big M

Bollywood must learn from Spotlight and the Oscars

Fine filmmaking combined with a strong social message creates winners.

 |  The Big M  |  4-minute read |   01-04-2016
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The highlight of the Academy Awards this year was Leonardo DiCaprio's win and his speech that was more about climate change than movies, about his social commitment rather than the hard-won award. But he wasn't the only one - Academy Awards this year were awash with social causes.

The connection between social causes and films has always been an intimate one. In Hollywood, the past two decades have seen a deepening of this relationship - on the one hand, celebrities are crowding to fundraise and create awareness around issues and on the other, the media is supporting their move with wide coverage of their work.

The unique part of this relationship is that celebrities are not just posterpeople for social causes. They are deeply involved and understand all aspects of the issues they back.

leo-soc_033116081111.jpg DiCaprio's speech at the Oscars was all about climate change.

One of the prominent people to spearhead this synergy between cause and entertainment is eBay owner Jeff Skoll, who started "Participant Media" with the intention of producing films that have a social theme. The production house's films are always accompanied by a campaign that highlights an issue and seeks public involvement.

Hollywood naysayers were hardly convinced about this strategy but in the long run, films from Participant Media have proved winners - a case in point being Spotlight. The film won the Best Picture at the Oscars.

This was a triumph of how fine filmmaking combined with a strong message creates winners.

There are many ways to explain this success. Audiences are increasingly becoming more aware and concerned about the world they live in and they want their entertainment to reflect that.

At a more practical level, as filmmakers, we want to reach out to as many people as possible and when a cause gets attached, the circle is expanded.

Ironically, in India, this co-relation isn't as strong or as robust. One has to only look at the films conferred the National Film Awards this year to know that the social cause is no priority.

The celebrity commitment to causes in India has mostly been limited to paid appearances with minimal involvement. In the cases where celebrities have stepped forward more seriously, the involvement has been a more personal one. However, more often than not, it doesn't translate into their work.

The stance seems to be that cause and commerce cannot meet or co-exist. So social issues end up being just good image builders.

While any involvement at all is good and it is true that drops make up the ocean, it is, perhaps, for more reasons than one, time that people from the world of film and media in India stopped just dipping their toes and jumped right in.

For starters, the audience in India is repeatedly responding to deeper, more personal and authentic stories. To get to the core of a story, one needs to connect with it and there comes a time in a storyteller's life when personal experiences may not be enough. And out there, on the ground are stories waiting to be told. These stories represent many facets of society - many of them gone wrong or being worked on.

By widening one's horizons, the boundaries of storytelling can be hugely extended. The insensitive and sometimes downright degrading portrayal of women and various communities, especially in Bollywood and advertising, has led people to think of these mediums as frivolous and even unprofessional. This is a sad fact because professionals who give their all to their work, need not suffer these labels.

This too can be easily fixed with some introspection. 

A lost audience is waiting to be gained - and it can be done by addressing issues that touch them. This is where storytelling, cause and commerce - all converge. So contrary to the popular belief, involvement and awareness are a direct route to people's hearts, and therefore, box-office numbers. In effect, cause is equal to commerce.

I can only cite the example of my film Kajarya that released on December 4, 2015.

In a scenario where filmmakers spend upwards of Rs 4 crore to promote and release films, we had one-eighth of that amount. Our chances of even registering were low, but not only did we register, we made enough noise to be seen as one of the major films releasing that week. 

This was made possible because Eve Ensler saw the film and loved it. Subsequently, her partners in India - Kamla Bhasin and Abha Bhaiya - saw and backed the film too and we had the One Billion Rising Campaign behind us.

Action Aid and other NGOs joined in to promote both the cause and the film, and a strong momentum was built.

The success of the film rests not just on its filmmaking, but the support it received from the NGOs and other social organisations to take it out there.

As entertainers and storytellers - commitment, faith and belief only enrich our craft. It's time we stepped up and stepped in, we will be doing a big service - mostly to ourselves.


Madhureeta Anand Madhureeta Anand @madhureetaa

Film Director. Director of Kajarya. Founder of the Digital Film Festival - New Delhi, occassional writer, a mom and lover of life.

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