Women in ikat saris, men in kurtas, posing for the cameras. People laughing, greeting each other outside the movie theatre. Amazingly, this was a screening of an Odia film, Phalguna Chaitra, at a theatre in Toronto, Canada, in May. Similar scenes were unfolding in the Netherlands, Australia, England, the US, the UK and Dubai.
The global release of an Odia film was surprising especially because of the two-decade long drought that preceded it. While many critically acclaimed Odia movies were made before 1990s, the Odia film industry has been plagued by numerous issues since then, including the lack of local, original stories, the exodus of technical talent, the stagnant number of screens in the state, a dwindling audience and a deluge of cheap remakes, made on a budget ranging from ₹15-50 lakh. The same characters, item songs, flying bodies—it all seemed hopeless.
Things began changing in 2021, with Amartya Bhattacharya’s Adieu Godard, a black and white film about an old man in rural Odisha who is a porn addict and discovers Jean-Luc Godard’s movies by accident. The movie, which released across India, went to film festivals in the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and Germany. It won the Best Feature Film award at the Cardiff International Film Festival 2022. Since then, the Odia film industry has seen a steady trickle of movies like Daman, Pratikshya and Pushkara that are rooted in Odia stories and society.
Though it might sound strange, the covid-19 pandemic was in some ways responsible for the surge in creative projects and audience interest. The exposure to regional OTT content as well as global cinema changed the Odia viewer. Babushaan, the reigning regional superstar, featured in Vishal Maurya and Lenka Debiprasad’s Daman (2022), about an urban doctor’s struggle to eradicate malaria in tribal areas. It would have been impossible to cast a star in a drama like Daman a few years ago.
Attempts at an evolved cinema were underway for some time. In 2017, there was Hello Arsi, about a sex worker and her social alienation, a road movie with only two characters. It won a National Award for Best Odia Film in 2018. The first film by the producer-director duo of Swastik Choudhury and Amartya Bhattacharyya was an experimental psychodrama, Capital I (2015), which played the festival circuit.
“Odisha needs a cinematic revolution. The audience is there but needs to be cultivated,” says Choudhury. Film critic Surya Deo won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema in 2022 for his book Kali Pain Kalira Cinema. All that is Odia had vanished from Odia films, according to Deo. He believes the success of these new films can start a trend just the way Hara Patnaik’s 2014 I Love You—based on the 1999 Tamil film Thulladha Manamum Thullum—prompted a flood of remakes. The critical challenge, he foresees, is distribution. “There are about 52 cinema halls, including multiplexes in the state,” wrote journalist Diana Sahu in The New Indian Express last month. The number seems to be steadily declining from a high of over 200 in the 1990s.
Actor Partha Sarathi Ray (Hello Arsi) is optimistic. “Within shoestring budgets, people are trying to do creative things. With a little more money, pan-India releases and OTT buys will happen.” Odisha has three OTT platforms currently. AAO NXT has classic films and original programming. Gangs Of Puri, a series produced by and hosted on Kanccha Lannka, is quite popular. Taranga Plus is a platform owned by the group Odisha Television Network; it also owns a TV channel by the same name. In a first, the group has shown jatras (folk theatre) on OTT.
The appetite for Odia content is growing and not just in the entertainment space. Documentary film-maker Snehasish Das could not find a producer and crowdfunded his film on climate change, Kokoli, Fish Out Of Water, that won Best Feature Film at Bacalar International Film Festival, Mexico, in 2019.
The Odia film industry itself is changing too. Actor B.M. Baisali, who debuted with Phalguna Chaitra, believes there is growing professionalism in the industry; she had to audition for her role and that itself is a rarity. Superstar Sabyasachi Mishra’s latest hit, Pushkara, which came out in September, is an offbeat script based on Odia novel Nadabindu by Shankar Tripathy. The re-emergence of Odia literature in cinema is another interesting trend. Phalguna Chaitra is based on a story by Sulanga Mohanty. Pratikshya, the National Award winner in 2022, is based on a story by Gourahari Das. The biggest difference between the earlier adaptations and the new ones is that the latter have seen commercial success.
As Snehasish Das says, Odia cinema is going through a transition phase. Producers are becoming part of the creative process, actors are reading scripts, and the audience wants original content.
Rajesh Sharma, owner of the chain of movie theaters, PSR Cinemas, strikes a contrarian note though. He says the new wave of critically acclaimed movies work only in urban centres. “Big Odia films release only around holidays. They are not enough to sustain small theatres,’’ he says. This probably explains why industry insiders are cautiously optimistic. May the first state formed on linguistic basis get the cinema it deserves.
Om Routray is a Delhi-based writer.