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Suraj Sharma On The Gap Between Commercial And Independent Cinema

As the film industry grows at an unprecedented rate, independent films have found a niche within this development. In a blockbuster world, there is always an audience seeking out intelligent cinema. Somewhere between mainstream and independent, there exists the ‘in between’, creating a space where entertainment meets meaningful content. The Indian film industry has worked its way into the ‘in between’ through various productions. For instance, cinematic realism was seemingly lost in an age of Bollywood masala and there was an increasing gap between a ‘star of a movie’ and the audience in the last few decades. However, movies like Lunchbox brought back the heritage of the realist style — flawed characters, an ordinary Indian life, and addressing social realities like alienation in a city. Through projects like these, the industry has been making its way into an age of tangible, real, and passionate cinema. With the rising number of film festivals and online platforms like Netflix giving space to independent films, documentaries, and narrative films, we are in an age where blockbuster hits aren’t the only means of cultural consumption.

To explore this subject further, DSSC brings to you a conversation with one of the youngest, most talented actors, Suraj Sharma. He started his career with Life Of Pi (2012), an exceptional movie that ventured into spirituality and adventure in the most palatable form. The spectacular film by Ang Lee paved the way for Suraj into the film industry. He has since been a part of films like Million Dollar Arm (2014), Phillauri (2017); television series such as Homeland (2014) and independent films such as Umrika (2015). Umrika was a film that wasn’t your typical Bollywood potboiler. Exploring a bleak story of young people in an Indian family, the film challenges all forms of stereotyping and typical entertaining Bollywood filmmaking.

In dialogue with this brilliant young actor, Sharma discusses his perspective on cinematic realism and where the industry is headed along those lines. Being a part of both, Indian and international cinema, he presents a broad perspective on the subject. “There’s a dual movement taking place around the world where large films and animation are trying relentlessly to move away from realism into fantasy and, or future tech, where humans imbibe powers or abilities beyond normal. At the same time because film and TV technology is progressing rapidly and getting cheaper, and with the growing multiplicity of platforms to show content, there’s a huge rise in indie and low budget filmmaking, which is taking over the space of cinematic realism and trying to portray life as it actually is,” says Sharma. “A huge part of this might also be the growing market for documentaries which has lent insight into how to shoot and display the real world. Narrative filmmaking has harnessed these tools to their advantage as well”, he adds. While acknowledging a segment of cinema that works to provide a surreal, fantasy, entertaining experience, there is an ever-rising number of Indian filmmakers steadily pursuing the art of portraying the real world. Masters like Satyajit Ray had established the importance of content that is relatable and sensitive towards an audience. However, we are often sceptical about the potential for a wide reach of documentaries and narratives, especially amongst the Indian audience. To this, Sharma says, “I think it definitely does have a wide reach. Partly this comes from the large growth in platforms on which these can be watched and also just growing curiosity. There is also a theory in existence wherein a lot of platforms are (especially Netflix and HBO) buying old documentaries, and also producing new ones simply because the demand for content is very high. Audiences are moving towards binge watching cultures these days and hence, quantity has somewhere become more important than quality.”

The actor in Phillauri

It is one thing to watch a film filled with mystique and fantasy but  quite an another experience to watch something that feels like home. It is also an elaborate process for the filmmakers and actors. Suraj explains the approach to both kinds of film production. “Indie films are filled with passion for filmmaking, and are more reliant on the parts that make up the cast and crew. Commercial is more reliant on money. Both get to express freedom in filmmaking in different ways. Commercial films have money, that allows them to do some rather unfathomable things whereas indie films have reduced risk, allowing experimentation with filmmaking in terms of structure and content”, he says.

Another aspect that continues to be a part of our curiosity, is the idea of placing an actor as a ‘star’ and whether this changes with different genres. There is also a certain awareness required by an actor when part of a passion project rather than a commercial production. Through his experience and exemplary work in both kinds of films, Sharma says, “Yes, one places some actors as stars, others place them as actors. The necessity for portraying what is real and honest is important both for the actors’ own artistic gratification and also the audience’s’ ability to relate to the characters’ lives.” He speaks further, “I feel big films, as great as they could be, somewhere fall back on archetypes and tropes in order to build familiarity quickly but do so with broad strokes, whereas indie films bring familiarity via the details in a person’s life and personality. It depends on whether the audience wants to escape its reality or perceive and connect their reality to that of others.”

Realists in cinema have often had a hard time holding up to the glitter and drama of Bollywood, but have nonetheless come to find expression through independent filmmaking. As audience members, we often seek cinema that pays attention to details of human mortality and helps develop a familiarity of sorts. The gap between us and the ‘other’ (here, the star) sometimes needs to be bridged. This niche of independent film is penetrating the cast iron gates of classic movie making in a time it may be needed the most. The ‘in between’ or the alternative is no longer just a screen in an art house but is slowly becoming a screen in every house.


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