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A square without corners: Innovators in media
Hanif Kanji
2 December 2011
  • A handful of Ismaili innovators in the digital media space are applying their creativity to promote change. Using emerging technologies such as smartphone cameras and interactive social media, they are producing compelling visual stories, harnessing new market segments and carefully studying the impact on audiences.

  • When Steve Jobs, the iconic founder of Apple Computers, passed away in October, news reports focussed on the enduring legacy of his influence on contemporary culture and society through a host of technology innovations. Jobs dared to be different and often challenged the norms of technology design. He brought about a sweeping change in the way a whole generation interacts with technology, making it simplified and seamless.

    A handful of Ismaili innovators are daring to reinvent the way stories are produced and messages conveyed by finding new ways to use emerging technologies.

    A smartphone film

    A still from the short feature “Split Screen:  A Love Story”, produced by Kurban Kassam and winner of the 2011 Nokia Shorts Competition. Photo: Kurban Kassam A still from the short feature “Split Screen: A Love Story”, produced by Kurban Kassam and winner of the 2011 Nokia Shorts Competition. Kurban Kassam

    Mobile technology has reshaped the way people communicate with one another, and for a growing number of people, the devices are a natural extension to every day interactions. However, there are those who look to take the technology further, envisioning new ways for the medium to influence the way people think and act.

    Thinking outside of the norm is a skill that has brought several accolades for Kurban Kassam, a film producer who was recently awarded the 2011 Nokia Shorts prize. Beating out hundreds of entries, Kassam and director J.W. Griffiths, captured a short film titled Spilt Screen: A Love Story, using a Nokia smartphone.

    They used a split-screen format to portray the simultaneous journeys of two individuals preparing to meet one another at their intended destination. The novel short film concept was made more impressive by a competition guideline that films be shot entirely on a smartphone camera. As the winning entry, Kassam's short film was showcased at the prestigious Edinburgh International Film Festival, an avenue for professional exposure to leading film makers.

    Social media and theatre

    Predicting and influencing social change has been a cornerstone of Malik Gillani's work. Together with fellow Silk Road Rising co-founder Jamil Khoury, he initiated an interactive, online platform for creating and viewing video-based theatre productions.

    Realising that the online social media movement has changed how viewers interact with media, the organisation is among the first in the field of performing arts to embrace the concept of interactive online theatre production by making it an innovative component of the Silk Road Rising experience.

    A live stage production by Silk Road Rising. Photo: Courtesy of Silk Road Rising A live stage production by Silk Road Rising. Courtesy of Silk Road Rising

    Through the Silk Road Rising portal, users can assist a producer and be part of the creative exercise of creating a story for a theatre production. Alternatively, portal members can be entertained with live and pre-recorded theatre by watching a production online – a fascinating concept that, within a couple months of its release, created a strong buzz and drew tremendous participation.

    “We are actually leading the way in imagining how to create work that is easy to access,” says Gillani, of the ambitious venture. “Our patrons indicated that they'd like to have access to our work so that they can share it with their family and friends.”

    Analysing to engage audience segments

    As Director of Epiphany Productions and with an academic background in anthropology, Asif Noorani knew early on that digital media production will only be impactful when the behaviours and tendencies of the audience are studied. A strong advocate for social change, Epiphany has worked with several social development agencies to bring about shifts in attitudes and perceptions.

    Recently, Playing for Success (PFS), a United Kingdom-based government education initiative, tasked Epiphany to produce compelling films targeted at PFS stakeholders, youth, and parents. Epiphany took a unique anthropological approach, requiring extensive research into the triggers, barriers, and behaviours of various audience segments. This laid the foundation for a meaningful promotional films campaign that contributed to an increased demand for PFS learning centres across the United Kingdom.

    Noorani is captivated by the idea of studying audience segments to ensure a film concept communicates optimally to viewers; He has been invited to consult with corporations about this area of research.

    “Walt Disney's ‘end frame' thinking is a stirring approach to getting the best from segmentation studies,” he says. “Disney wanted to know the emotional pay-off for a ride or any experience a guest had at his theme park. In bringing segmentation to life, we can benefit from the skills of story tellers and screen writers, as well as researchers, to devise stories and agree the best media to lead us to the desired ‘end frame'.”

    An untapped audience niche

    The film “Achchamundu! Achchamundu!” was released to wide aclaim in 2009. Copyright: A Project East West - A LLC The film “Achchamundu! Achchamundu!” was released to wide aclaim in 2009. Copyright: A Project East West - A LLC

    When Ramzan Lakhani, co-founder of Digimax Studio, embarked into digital media production in early 2000, he saw the importance of finding a niche. “Due to the evolution of digital technology, which allows anyone to make a film relatively inexpensively, there is an increasing glut of films made every day,” he says.

    Noting that the volume of output was increasing rapidly, Lakhani decided to focus on cross-cultural story lines often with an Indo-American backdrop, and highlighting social issues that were seen as difficult. With minimal market analysis gauging audience acceptance he was taking a big risk, and it was challenging to get financial backers onboard.

    Therefore, it was a poignant moment for Lakhani and his team when their 2009 co-production, Achchamundu! Achchamundu! (English: There is Fear! There is Fear!) received critical acclaim at film festivals globally. The film garnered a Media Guild Award for its director, Arun Vaidhyanadhan, and was warmly received at festivals promoting independent and global cinema in Chennai, Cairo, Goa, Japan, New Jersey, and Shanghai.

    Kassam, Gillani, Noorani and Lakhani all agree that being an innovator requires courage, conviction, passion and faith. The process can be a bumpy one, but for each of them the joy of the journey was matched by the thrill of success.