It is the stuff corporate fairy tales are made of. Nina Lath Gupta walked into (the then Rs 24 crore) National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) in 2006, two years before it was declared sick by the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR). Gupta, a former Indian Revenue Service officer, was familiar with NFDC because of her years in the Union ministry of information & broadcasting. By 2010-11, she had brought it back from the brink, not by making blockbusters a la Disney or Yashraj Films but by becoming one of the biggest ad film makers in the country. The now Rs 126-crore NFDC produces over 110 ad films a year for almost every major government arm you can think of: from the Guardian of the Skies for Indian Air Force to Mitti for the National Population Register under the ministry of home affairs.
These ad films help fund something that no other body does in India: the development of Indian cinema. NFDC has been the facilitator, progenitor and at times co-producer of some good, unusual and downright brilliant cinema. The Ship of Theseus, Ms Lovely, Mumbaicha Raja, B.A. Pass, Tasher Desh and Gangoobai, are among the 30 to 40 films that NFDC facilitates every year. The Lunchbox, which it co-produced, and The Good Road, which it produced, were bitter rivals in the battle to be India's Oscar entry last year. Many - Qissa, for instance - have been awarded at international festivals.
The state-owned NFDC is more focused than ever on the developmental end of the value chain of the Rs 12,500-crore Indian film industry. It is the place where a script or film project is developed, co-production treaties are signed or where writers and directors find buyers for their films. In the process, it is creating a very 'European' kind of eco-system for new types of cinema, stories and narratives in different languages. Many of these - The Lunchbox or Shanghai, for instance - get marketed and distributed by mainstream studios, creating a public-private partnership that is working wonders at improving the quality of mainstream cinema in India.
NFDC was set up in 1975 and falls under the ministry of information & broadcasting. Till the mid-1990s, it did alright since it was the ad sales agent for Doordarshan which was a monopoly. It used the income from its ad sales business to fund the development of cinema. However, as private broadcasting took off and Doordarshan gave away some of its ad sales work to others, NFDC floundered and became sick. In 2008, BIFR and the ministry agreed that the way to make NFDC financially independent was to enable it to become a full-fledged advertising solutions supplier to departments, ministries and public sector units along with Department of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP).
The results were startling: annually almost 82 per cent of NFDC's revenues come from making ad films.(See Table) A bulk of that revenue is actually money passing through its books since it also buys the media for its government clients. But it spends almost all of its profits and more on Film Bazaar, Cinemas of India and many of its other initiatives that nurture the making and distribution of new and unusual films.
NFDC has a two-step developmental strategy. The first is the nurturing of scripts and projects. Film Bazaar, an event that focuses on co-production and distribution opportunities, was kicked off in 2007. It is held along with the International Film Festival of India in Goa every year and is a key global market for South Asian cinema. It seems like a junket but involves a huge amount of backend effort that the wonderfully resilient but financially precarious private film industry is unable to make.
Last year, Film Bazaar attracted over 830 delegates including festival curators, broadcasters and distributors. About 11 projects got facilitated. For instance, France's ASAP Films picked Rajesh Jala's The Spark (Chingari) which had been a part of the Screenwriters' Lab and co-production market. Film Cafe will produce the film with Germany's Die Gesellschaft DGS and France's 24 Images. In 2008, came the Work-in-Progress Lab, which deals with rough cuts of films, just like the Screenwriters one deals with rough cuts of scripts.
But NFDC has shied away from taking complete charge of any project. In the last six years, it has produced or co-produced only 27 films. Most large studios would have done twice that number in six years. "We are not in the numbers game. We can only do five to seven films a year and if a film can raise money in private, like Shanghai or The Lunchbox, that is better," says Gupta. She reckons that NFDC's ability to cross-subsidise the development of good scripts and projects through advertising is far more important than getting into full-fledged production. Also, "the films we make don't lend themselves to commercial exploitation," says Gupta. True, of the 27 films NFDC produced or co-produced, 18 were from newcomers.
"Different kinds of cinemas and cinematic choices are being explored these days. And to actually get the audience to watch new possibilities in cinema is our audience development focus," says Gupta. That is the second part of NFDC's strategy. It believes that there is an audience for films such as Anhey Ghodein Da Daan or Sulemani Keeda among the 300-odd films that it has been associated with. It may not be the audience that comes to a local multiplex. That is why redone, digital versions of 87 NFDC films such as Om-Dar-B-Dar or Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron are now available on DVD under the Cinemas of India label. They are, says its annual report, a hot selling item on Flipkart. So is its streaming video service which has offered 75 films so far.
There is, however, trouble in this cinephile utopia. There was a sharp fall in revenues last year (see graphic) because of the conflict within the ministry on who should get the ad film work: NFDC or DAVP. The cabinet decision on the 2008 revival plan had been in favour of NFDC. Till a new ministry is constituted, the uncertainty will continue. If NFDC loses more advertising work, the blow to cinema lovers in the country will be severe.