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The Short Film Boom

Thanks to streaming, lessened attention spans and a thirst for hard-hitting stories, short films are making themselves popular with cinephiles

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Utsav Kotrial Feb 25, 2019

Oscar-winning short film 'Period. End of Sentence.' is a gentle look at a very serious problem: the menstruation taboo in India and the effect it has on girls’ education, mindset and day-to-day life.

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Short films are, slowly but surely, taking India by storm. Until a few years ago, only film circles were exposed to them, but of late they’ve been racking up hundreds of thousands–sometimes millions–of views online. The times they are a-changing: thanks to the streaming boom, lessened attention spans, and a thirst for hard-hitting stories that Bollywood often ignores. Themes like substance abuse, domestic violence, class divides, and LGBTQ+ representation have found tasteful treatment through this medium. Even for those just looking to be entertained, there’s a sea of options, from psychological thrillers to romantic comedies.

There’s no better time for ShortsTV to catch the nation’s attention. It’s the first 24/7 TV channel broadcasting short films, and has been available around the world for a little over a decade. A couple of months ago it made its Indian debut on Tata Sky and has seen a rapid rise in subscriptions in a very short time. This past weekend, ShortsTV had another treat lined up for cinephiles: screening all the Oscar-nominated short films of 2019 at select PVR Cinemas.

Last week, we caught a glimpse of a few of these films at an exclusive press preview. At Soho House’s 11-storey townhouse in Juhu, the endearing traditional décor enhanced the experience. In the elegant screening room, ShortsTV’s Head of Global Partnerships Tarun Sawhney gave the opening address, discussing the market potential of shorts. He illuminated ShortsTV’s long-term vision in India–to provide a platform for filmmakers from all walks of life, and expand our film festival scene so that artists don’t need to run abroad to flaunt their stories.

We caught four of the nominated flicks, each followed by a brief vignette of the film’s creators talking about their motivations.

Animation

Bao (US, Directed by Domee Shi)

Some of us may remember this as the strange, yet adorable flick that accompanied Incredibles 2 late last year. It’s the story of a Chinese-American woman who’s shocked to find that one of her delicious dumplings has come to life, and she goes on to raise it like her own child. This unexpectedly emotional tale was born from the creator’s love of Chinese food and her attempt to understand her relationship with her own mother. This film won the Oscar for Best Animated Short this year at the 91st Academy Awards.

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One Small Step (US/China, Directed by Bobby Pontillas & Andrew Chesworth)

From TAIKO Studios comes a stirring short that dives into the parental bond: between a humble father and his ambitious young girl. One Small Step introduces us to Luna, a little Chinese-American girl who imagines a life as an astronaut. The unrelenting support of her shoe-maker father is the highlight of the film. It’s a love letter to those who encourage us to dream big, and is sure to bring a tear to your eye.

Live Action

Detainment (Ireland, Directed by Vincent Lambe)

Two ten-year old boys skip school to spread mischief at a local mall. They notice a baby boy walking around, his family nowhere in sight. The kids lure him outside to have some fun, but playful misbehavior soon turns into something much, much darker. Based on a true case that shook Britain’s conscience in 1993, this film recreates the kids’ conversations with the police. A truly harrowing watch.

Documentary

Period. End of Sentence. (US/India, Directed by Rayka Zehtabchi)

This charming documentary is set in a rural village outside Delhi, where a group of women learn to make and market their own sanitary pads. It’s a gentle look at a very serious problem: the menstruation taboo in India and the effect it has on girls’ education, mindset and day-to-day life. It’s a delight to watch the insightful and witty women of Period find their liberation in being able to talk freely about menstrual health and the film went on to win the Best Documentary Short Subject at the 91st Academy Awards this year.

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Over a sumptuous lunch, the good people from Shorts TV discussed the struggles and victories of the initiative with us. Chintan Sarda, VP of Content Acquisition in India, shed light on how partnering with ShortsTV can help budding creators earn money off their work, and reach a global audience. The increased access to filmmaking tools, sometimes just a smartphone, has given a chance even to the most clueless of storytellers to put themselves out there. Mr.Sarda, a short filmmaker himself, worked with veteran Bollywood actor Jackie Shroff on the riveting Shunyata. He explained how shorts have pierced the mainstream, with A-list directors and actors being drawn to the medium. The relatively lower commitment, and lower restrictions on content, gives them a chance to experiment. Global Head of Marketing & Partnerships, Sebastian De Lame, broke down ShortsTV’s broadcast schedule for the coming year, which will feature a whopping 700 hours of content, of which a third will be homegrown.

While this may paint a rosy picture, the obstacles are undeniable: like convincing the public to get a subscription despite having access to hours of free content online. Sourcing high-quality films from within the country, and keeping the broadcast schedule fresh, might prove to be a formidable challenge. Additionally, India’s strict censorship and culturally and politically-motivated restrictions means that provocative stories might not make the cut at all. A lot of films could be relegated to late-night slots, and more extreme content scrapped completely.

However, the session left us hungry for things to come. For the creatives among us, it was a sign of hope: that India might one day have a thriving festival circuit, and a true alternative to our dynastic film industry.

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