“Five minutes, please. We are fixing the sound,” filmmaker Sandeep Mohan calls apologetically to a group of people seated in a Kochi cafe where his film – Shreelancer – is about to be screened shortly. It’s a Sunday; the audience who have (largely) arrived to watch the movie, make no fuss. Some spiritedly help Mohan with the technical glitch; others gather around the filmmaker, full of questions about what they are about to watch.
Kochi has a few of these quirky, well-meaning cafes. Car N Cafe, the one in Kakkanad where I am about to watch Shreelancer, is a two-storeyed building; the ground floor is a car workshop, while the level above houses a cafe. It serves classic cafe fare: Sandwiches, coffee, mojitos.
He has been travelling across the country, projector in tow, screening his films in cafes, private residences, and corporate spaces. Sandeep isn’t too fussed about the venue, nor about the money he makes from these shows. The audience is free to pay what they like. He calls this unique release and distribution model, ‘The Great Indian Travelling Cinema’. “The whole idea is to be independent,” he says. “without relying on a third party to distribute, release, or promote my film. I want to enjoy creative freedom, make the films I like, and take it to people who want to watch it.”
Soon, the chatter in the cafe dies down; everyone settles into their seats. The lights are off, and the show begins.
Last Sunday’s show was the 18th screening of Shreelancer, Sandeep’s third directorial after Love Wrinkle Free and Hola Venky.
A buoyant and witty tale of a young man’s inadvertent journey of self-discovery, the film was made by a small crew on a shoestring budget – in 21 days. The cast comprises of theatre artistes, and also unseasoned first-time actors. It has an uncomplicated plot, characterised by a genuine, irreverent sense of humour. Shreepad, a 28-year-old former engineer, is leading a bland life as a freelance content writer in Bangalore. Often unpaid and underpaid, he is broke and depressed, and has to bear his father’s constant nagging about getting a steady job. The 95-minute-long film revolves around Shreepad’s (mis)adventures and his earnest efforts to find peace and happiness in life.
Many moments in the film are inspired from Sandeep’s life. The resemblance between him and Shreepad is striking. “I have spent many years as a struggling freelancer. I still work out of cafés and co-working spaces where I meet many people who do the same. It helped me portray the life of a freelancer realistically,” he says. The film was shot on a Sony AS7 II camera. “I did a solo recce of the lower Himalayas, met some locals who were willing to let me use their houses for the shoot.”
The idea was to keep the budget minimal, Sandeep declares. They slept in small hotels, and used public transport, but were quite insistent on not compromising on the quality of filmmaking.
Originally from Thiruvananthapuram, Sandeep moved to Mumbai when he was in his twenties.
Finally, in 2012, he made his first feature film, Love Wrinkle Free. “It was funded by my friends and acquaintances. I would say it was my film school. I learned the practicalities of filmmaking when I made the movie. I made many mistakes. Later, I realised I could have made it on a far lesser budget had I been more aware and careful.”
The film was censored with an A certificate, and had a small theatrical release. Set in Goa, Love Wrinkle Free is an adult-comedy about society’s fixation with good looks. “The A certificate, and the mistakes I made as a first-time indie director affected the film’s satellite rights business. That’s when I decided to stay away from all those hassles of mainstream filmmaking, release and distribution,” says Sandeep.
And thus, ‘The Great Indian Travelling Cinema’ was born. For his second feature film, Hola Venky, an adult-comedy set in the United States, Sandeep made use of the online crowdfunding platform Indigogo. His friends chipped in, too. It was made by a three member crew on a Rs 10 lakh budget. “With the help of my friends, I was able to release the film in some screens in San Francisco; I was also able to arrange many screenings in the US and in India. I was able to recover a decent amount of money from those shows. It was a great experience. I stayed in the US for over a month, flying from one city to another, screening my films. I got a sense of the real US during that stint.”
The film’s reception in the US was warm, he recalls. Many people, who hardly knew anything about India, let him screen the film at their place. “Once, an American lady hosted the screening. She had a great place, but the wall she chose was made of bricks. Since it was impossible to project the film on that wall, I went to Walmart, bought a white bed sheet, and taped it to the wall. When the film got over and I stood up for the Q & A session, the bed sheet fell off,” he laughs.
Hola Venky was soon famous in the independent film industry.
The money that he makes from these screenings isn’t great, Sandeep admits. His craft survives on donations. A box kept at the screening venue is where donations happen. “I tell the audience to donate any amount of money – if they want to. This helps me foot my travel expenses, and also sustain [my filmmaking],” he says. “In some cities like Kolkata and Gurgaon, the response is great. A lot of people turn up for the screenings, actively take part in discussions, and often, are ready to pay a decent amount. I am not worried about the money I get from this, though. I am still working on the travelling cinema concept.”
Sandeep, who is also a seasoned badminton player, competing in state-regional level matches, says his aim is to create as many alternate spaces for cinema as possible – all over the country. He was part of a panel discussion on Alternative Indie Film Distribution , held as part of the Film Bazaar at International Film Festival of Goa last year. “As an independent filmmaker, I should be able to release and distribute my film on my own.” Also because, festival circuits in India aren’t fair spaces, he adds. “You need good agents and programmers to get your film noticed and selected. The competition is even higher these days due to the surge of online movie watching spaces.” He has been rejected by several festivals. “Perhaps if my films had darker themes and a darker language, they might have had better chances at the festivals. I know I might be able to pull off darker films, but this is the kind of cinema I want to make. I want to express my ideas with a touch of humour.”
With the advent of online streaming platforms like Amazon and Netflix, independent directors now have more opportunities to create the kind of films they want, Sandeep explains. “Like any artiste, I want my films to be watched by a wider audience. I am trying to collaborate with online platforms and see how far they can help me with that.” Shreelancer will soon be streamed on a website. “The discussions are on. But I cannot reveal more about it as the deal isn’t final,” he says. “The online streaming platforms are getting a lot of applications these days. Everyone wants to be there. The competition is high. So they now have a more rigorous quality filter.”
While the Indian Government censorship hasn’t entered the online space yet, some of the companies still insist on going through a censor procedure to make sure they don’t get into trouble. “I don’t mind adding a few beeps to my film,” Sandeep says, “as long as the concept doesn’t get diluted.”
What’s perhaps of immense help to the filmmaker is that, he loves to travel.
It brings the kind of creative satisfaction that money doesn’t.
He’d screened Shreelancer in Patna recently, – only because Sandeep had never been to the city before. The screenings – both planned and unplanned – were interesting enough.
“While the scheduled screening was in the evening, a person came to my hotel in the morning, and asked me if I had the time to do a screening now. I was astonished. It was for a B.Ed. classroom in the top floor of the building. The teacher had given the students a day off for the film screening. I took my projector and screened the film in the classroom. Just like that,” he says, “They were entirely different from my usual audience. Many of them were from remote parts of the state, and barely knew English. They didn’t know what a freelancer was. After the show, one of the boys asked me if the film was about drug abuse, which made their teacher angry. So he ended up explaining the whole film to them in chaste Hindi. He told them the film is about artistes. ‘They are not like us,’ the teacher said. That was a very different experience.”
Shreelancer will see a boutique theatre release in June.
The Sandeep Mohan interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.