With multiple stories in the time frame of a feature-length, anthologies are becoming the Indian film-maker’s favourite format, and the binge watcher’s go-to. Here’s how
I’m commitment-phobic when it comes to committing my time to any content spread over multiple seasons, or episodes longer than 30 minutes in duration. It’s a huge investment, and too much data to process. Recently, when a girl I was trying to impress asked me to watch a K-Drama, Crash Landing On You, I put in genuine effort. It took me more than a week to watch the entire show. Unfortunately, the girl ghosted me, but that is a different story. I digress. Crash Landing on You is a 16-episode series with a run- time of 70 to 120 minutes per episode. By the end, I was convinced that these long-format shows aren’t for me. But, it is not difficult to find your kind of content these days. There is no dearth of content.
Accidentally, I landed on anthologies. An anthology is a movie comprising multiple short films, with a common theme. The biggest names in the film business like Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Alfonso Cuarón, have all created anthologies.
On watching anthologies such as Modern Love, Four Rooms, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Lust Stories, and Paava Kadhaigal, I realised that there’s a steady list of more and more such anthologies being made. Each segment in an anthology is no more than 30-40 minutes in length, and is a complete story. You get to see many stories in the time that it takes to watch one movie. Gautam Vasudev Menon, of Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein fame, reportedly said in a recent interview, “I liked telling a story in a space that lasts 30-40 minutes and still comprises a good part of a two-hour film. It is liberating.”
SOLOS is yet another amazing anthology on Amazon Prime Video, created by David Weil of Hunters fame. It includes performances from some of the best acting talents like Morgan Freeman, Anne Hathaway, Helen Mirren, Uzo Aduba, Anthony Mackie, Constance Wu, Dan Stevens, and Nicole Beharie. The format is becoming so popular here that film-makers like Mani Ratnam are also trying their hand at anthologies as well. Mani Ratnam is making an anthology titled Navarasa, with celebrated directors like Priyadarshan, Arvind Swami, Bejoy Nambiar, and Gautham Vasudev Menon. Navarasa has a stellar star cast, namely Suriya, Vijay Sethupathi, Nithya Menon, Siddharth, Revathi, and Parvathy Thiruvothu.
In Indian cinema, anthologies were not explored as much back in the day, barring a few like Dus Kahaniyaan, Darna Mana Hai, and I Am. The format gained significant recognition with Bombay Talkies, when Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, Zoya Akhtar, and Anurag Kashyap collaborated with Ashi Dua and Viacom 18 to celebrate 100 years of cinema. However, it took another five years for anthologies to become a part of regular people’s everyday lexicon. Lust Stories is one of the widely streamed anthologies, helmed by the same prominent directors, and producers Ashi Dua and Ronnie Screwvala. The anthology was such a success that Netflix greenlit many more anthologies across languages.
In Indian cinema, anthologies weren’t explored as much back in the day, barring a few, but the format gained significant recognition with Bombay Talkies
Former director at Netflix India Original Film, Srishti Arya, says, “We pride ourselves on telling stories in the best format possible. It could be a feature film or a mini-series, or a series spread across seasons. Just because the length is short doesn’t mean the stories are not important. We discovered that we could take the idea of anthologies with one central theme, and have stories depicting different perspectives.”
Rumour has it that Netflix decided to back the anthology Lust Stories because it was an opportunity to work with the same set of established directors as Bombay Talkies. Arya doesn’t deny the claim, and asserts, “It was a privilege to have directors like Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar, and Anurag Kashyap on board. Recently, introducing Kayoze Irani as a director for the short titled Ankahi in Ajeeb Daastaans was a decision that paid off very well. In addition, we worked with Sudha Kongara, Vignesh Shivan, Gautham Vasudev Menon, and Vetrimaaran on Paava Kadhaigal. It was a fantastic confluence of extraordinary minds exploring different stories of a common theme.
When Karan Johar decided to be part of Bombay Talkies, people saw merit in the idea. Working and interacting with these directors was the highlight of his stint as a short film director. Where else would he get the opportunity to work with three different directors on the same project? After directing segments in three anthology films, Johar ventured into producing one, titled Ajeeb Daastaans. He teamed up with directors Shashank Khaitan (Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, Badrinath Ki Dulhania), Raj Mehta (Good Newwz), Neeraj Ghaywan (Masaan, Sacred Games Season 2), and Kayoze Irani. Somen Mishra, Head of Creative Development at Dharma, says, “Johar was part of the project that started the whole anthology madness with Bombay Talkies. Lust stories still remains one of the most popular anthologies on streaming services. With Dharmatic Entertainment, he thought it would be an exciting idea to make an anthology with a roster of directors who have their own language and syntax for the craft of storytelling. Our work began back in 2019, but things played out the way they did because of Covid and other factors. Some of the Tamil and Telugu language anthologies released even before it was time for Ajeeb Daastaans to release.”
It’s an oversimplification if I describe anthologies as short films. But does an independent short film market still exist? Anthologies have a better market around the world. Ashi Dua started the trend of anthologies with Bombay Talkies, and followed up with Lust Stories, Ghost Stories, Pitta Kathalu, and Paava Kadhaigal. She says, “If you independently release a 30-minute short in a theatre or over a streaming service, it could get lost in the sea of content, as opposed to an anthology. The monetisation of an independent short film is challenging, and the market for it still non-existent. People make short films for film festivals, or as proof of concept for a larger project.”
Somen Mishra concurs, “Short films were never explored as commercial prospects. Short film across the globe have usually worked as graduation films to move into features.” Is it presumably that the short length format is one of the aspects that excites film-makers? Arya disagrees. “When people are watching any film or content, it needs to hold the audience’s interest. Time becomes immaterial. People watch every piece of content like it’s one whole story.”
“If you independently release a 30-minute short in a theatre or over a streaming service, it could get lost in the sea of content, as opposed to an anthology” — Ashi Dua, producer
While Mishra believes, “Anthologies are easier to watch and faster to make. Neeraj’s film was shot in seven days post the first wave, with all precautions in place. Raj’s film was shot in seven days in Lucknow, while the post of Good Newwz was going on.” In 2018, Mathew Olson (associate editor at Digg) found a fascinating insight about TV movies and anthologies. I’m paraphrasing, but it also fits perfectly in the context of streaming services making anthologies. “For anthologies, the biggest strength and the Achilles’ heel allows directors to shoot for cinema-quality experiences for a smaller screen that helps bolster the profile of a streaming service. The person would ideally make movies with bigger budgets for the silver screen.”
Anthologies provide not just one, but multiple stories in the time frame of a feature-length. One can pick and choose the segments of their choice. It’s not imperative to watch all the stories. Since the only connection between the shorts is the theme that ties it together, there’s no downside to missing out on any context in the story while watching anthologies. The icing on the cake is if the stories are interlinked, like the anthological series, Modern Love, on Amazon Prime Video. You can either watch the segments/episodes as standalone stories, or as part of a whole.
Ideally, the sole reason for any maker to make short films should be relevant stories that would only be impactful if made as short films. If the makers focus on a quality story with relevance, it will grab attention, and engage a larger audience.