From dancing lights in the depths of a coal mine to flickering images on a big screen – that is the journey of Fireflies in the Abyss– a feature-length documentary film about the dangerous practice of “rat hole” coal mining in Meghalaya.
Fireflies had the unique distinction of being the only feature-length documentary from India to be selected for the prestigious Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto recently. After it’s large-canvas debut, the film is preparing to hit theatres in India in early July. That, in itself, is a rare success for a documentary in the Indian market.
Documentaries are a New Experience for the Indian Audience
The film’s director Chandrasekhar Reddy said he was in the process of finalizing arrangements for its commercial release with Drishyam Films, the Mumbai-based studio that has produced small and independent feature films.
It’s only recently that they have also got into distributing films. So Fireflies is among the first slate of films they are helping release.Chandrasekhar Reddy
In the past couple of years, a handful of documentaries have been screened in the PVR multiplex chain in Indian metros under the Director’s Rare banner. The former head of PVR Director’s Rare, Shiladitya Bora, is now the CEO of Drishyam Films. Despite this prior experience, Reddy says, distributing Fireflies, the first documentary film release for Drishyam, will be a learning experience.
They have good experience with releasing smaller films, independent films, so they are actually the best people who would know, but as far as a documentary is concerned, even for them it’s like reinventing it all over again. We have to find our way as we go.Chandrasekhar Reddy
Reddy expects his film to start with a very limited release in the metros of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad, and expand to other cities depending on its initial performance.
He views the release more as an exercise in making the film more widely accessible than as a revenue earner.
Honestly, I’m hoping that one will be able to at least recover what one spent but given that it is a documentary, and it is new territory for doing this and so on, I think the idea is much more about finding the space for a documentary in theatres, because theatres still have the marquee value. It also has a big fallout in terms of other documentaries being able to get to the theatres.Chandrasekhar Reddy
The filmmaker, who shuttles between India and the UK, shot Fireflies over nearly two years beginning in 2012.
Finding a Market for the Documentary Style Can Be Challenging
The film tells the story of coal miners in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills, focusing on a child miner named Suraj and the 11-year-old’s efforts to escape the harsh world of mining and go to school instead. Reddy spent several months getting to know the miners and living with them, enabling him to also film some riveting footage within the mines.
The miners were mostly immigrants from other parts of India and Nepal, and the mining itself was mostly an illegal activity. But it was carried out brazenly, creating many local coal barons and giving the area a feel of the old Wild West frontier boom towns. The practice of “rat hole mining” in Meghalaya was banned by the National Green Tribunal in 2014, after Reddy had finished filming, although he says mining continued after the ban.
Fireflies played late last month at Toronto’s Hot Docs, the biggest documentary film festival in North America. It premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea last October, and has since featured in the market sections of a few film festivals in India and abroad.
While the commercial market for documentary films is still very limited, the US remains the biggest market for theatrical releases, followed by the UK, while the broadcast market is bigger in Europe.
In recent years, Netflix has emerged as an influential online platform. Filmmakers like Reddy are hoping the latest move by Drishyam Films will expand the market for documentaries in India as well.
(Indira Kannan is a senior journalist currently based in Toronto)