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‘Good Road’ Vs. ‘Lunchbox’: India’s Oscar Controversy Underlines NFDC’s Support

The decision to pick “The Good Road” as India’s Oscar contender sparked howls of anguish from a high-profile group of Bollywood insiders who had thrown their weight behind “The Lunchbox,” which had unspooled in Cannes. There it earned acclaim, awards momentum and a North American distributor. But from the mess of regrets and recriminations, one organization emerged with an enhanced reputation.

India’s National Film Development Corp. was a backer of “The Lunchbox” and producer-financier of Gyan Correa’s Gujarati-language “The Good Road.”

That enviable situation arose because the NFDC, which previously backed “Gandhi” and the films of Satyajit Ray, has been rejuvenated under the leadership of Nina Lath Gupta.

The organization is now able to claim real momentum in building up the parts of Indian cinema that are least well known.

“We are a film development organization mandated to promote the cinemas — plural — of India,” said Vikramjit Roy, NFDC general manager and head of film production and marketing. “Our job is to ensure that filmmakers from all over India get an opportunity to tell their stories on the bigscreen.”

To do that, the NFDC’s biggest efforts are about financing a selection of independent productions and helping screenwriters to develop their scripts. “We seek to foster excellence by bring forward more stories, more creative talent and giving them more resources,” Roy said.

The NFDC-backed Film Bazaar, a project market that takes place each November in Goa, has grown beyond its original function of matching projects with possible overseas financiers and distributors.

The event now has a teaching function called the Screenwriters Lab, where selected works in progress are given extensive mentoring by the likes of U.K. critic Derek Malcolm and Rome festival boss Marco Mueller. It is through the Lab that last year’s Toronto hit “Ship of Theseus,” by Anant Gandhi, emerged.

The NFDC uses its Film Bazaar as one of several filters to help it select candidates for production finance. Only first-time directors are eligible to receive full financing from the NFDC, and the investment is capped at 30 million rupees ($490,000).

For filmmakers further along in their career, the NFDC offers co-financing and other forms of collaboration. “The Good Road” was fully NFDC financed, while “The Lunchbox” was presented in 2011 at Film Bazaar, where it attracted a lot of heat and secured Anurag Kashyap’s company as an Indian backer. Later it received NFDC co-production support in the current 2013-14 funding round.

From 2007-12, the NFDC has commissioned 28 productions and introduced 18 filmmakers. “Where else do first-timers get such a chance?” Roy asked.

The NFDC is now turning its hand to developing the marketplace for Indian films. “Ours has not always been a very theatrical-friendly operation. That’s because India’s arthouse exhibition circuit barely exists,” Roy said. “But our films have a long tail, notably on alternative platforms.”

It releases its own films on DVD under the Cinemas of India label and has now expanded into video-on-demand with the cinemasofindia.com portal, a venture that is likely to be hampered by India’s poor broadband Internet capacity.

Most recently it has has struck up a partnership with the country’s largest exhibition chain, PVR, to carve out a space within its multiplexes.

This is how “The Good Road” got a 15-screen release, while the experimental “Tasher desh” by musician-turned-director Q obtained a nine-screen outing.

“Now is the time for us to start helping our films by better, serving the distribution sector,” says Roy. “That means helping our filmmakers to deliver better P&A assets, collaterals and publicity materials and making short films as previews. Next we’ll be looking at P&A funding for non-NFDC films.”

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