A secure space for creative people

Michela Strobel and Karan Talwar outside Harkat Studios
Michela Strobel and Karan Talwar outside Harkat Studios | © Natalie Mayroth

Anyone wanting to discover music and film in Mumbai should come to Harkat Studios. For co-workers too, the Studios are worth a visit: Harkat is Mumbai’s first independent art space and is run by an Indo-German couple.

Bungalow #75 lies somewhat hidden in a side street under old mango and walnut trees in Andheri West. In the courtyard, people are sitting with their laptops, under the shelter of an awning with hanging globe lights.  Squirrels rustle and cry out amid the branches above. But they can’t drown out Michaela Strobel. A slim woman with short hair, Strobel is overseeing the rearrangements. A concert is about to take place. As co-founder of Harkat Studios, she otherwise supervises film crews.
Harkat, a five-member video production collective, is managed by the German filmmaker Michaela Strobel and her husband Karan Talwar. They have settled down in a suburb of Mumbai, a city of 21 million people. The home of the Hindi film, the multi-million dollar entertainment industry known as Bollywood.

Backstage at Bollywood

Michaela Strobel is 30 years old. In 2011 she came as a backpacker to India, for the first time. At the time she was still shuttling between Friedrichshain and Stockholm where she studied media and communication. Having taken a liking to India, she looked for a reason to go back and found it in her graduate project. In villages and slums she documented the work of an NGO. She showed residents how to film their own stories. ‘It made me even more enthusiastic about the medium,’ says Strobel.
With the help of her then boyfriend, Karan, Michaela Strobel was given an opportunity to work on her first Bollywood film. ‘It was a time of need and I accepted the contract.’ The result was her first behind-the scenes feature. The genre is Harkat’s speciality today, and is a key component in the marketing of the world’s largest film industry. 
Last year, Bollywood produced 364 films that attracted a total of 3.6 billion viewers. Far more than in Hollywood. ‘People associate song, dance and escapism with Bollywood. Life in India is lived so much on the edge that one wants to escape from one’s worries,’ says Strobel. The spectrum of films has widened in recent years: love films are no longer the only genre, and haven’t been for a while. And, very slowly, there are even more lead roles for women. As a European who speaks Hindi, she believes she is respected for her work in India. More than on productions in Germany that are directed by ‘white men’. But she also knows: ‘It is difficult for women in the film industry, everywhere.’

From film to art

In the midst of the megacity and its glitzy film industry, Strobel, however, missed art. ‘In Berlin it’s so normal, like the baker around the corner. There are a few museums and galleries in the old centre of Mumbai – but the concept of non-commercial art spaces is relatively unknown here.’
That needed to change. ‘We started in 2014 in a small apartment, 15 minutes from here,’ says Karan Talwar.  A co-working space, an agency and project space all emerged simultaneously. Harkat is a port of call for artists from India and abroad. Local residents are also welcome on weekends. From Germany they brought discipline and more responsible use of energy, says Strobel, but also the beer at the end of the day as well as the living-room concert. Sometimes clients were a little apprehensive of the punctiliousness when it came to keeping a deadline or asking for a payment.

Known in Bollywood

Harkat is Mumbai’s first independent art space. It is reminiscent of a self-managed cultural centre: there are programmes in the evenings and on weekends – from performances to entertainment for children. The space is shared with others and synergies are created. ‘Everyone who comes brings something of him or herself,’ says Strobel.
In the meantime, Harkat has developed its expertise as a behind-the-scenes agency for Bollywood productions. It makes web series, short films and commercials. Part of the team works behind the scenes, documenting the shooting of Hindi feature films. Harkat currently has parallel videographers on the ground at five different sets. Aditi Mediratta, the Indian scriptwriter confirms that Harkat is known in Bollywood. ‘Besides UTV Movies, they have also worked for Disney, Fox and Netflix to date.’ These commissions enable Harkat to finance itself as a project space.
1500 euros in rent for 75 square metres of studio space is the price Harkat pays every month to fund its enthusiasm for experiments. It has therefore started to collect money through crowdfunding to be invested in microphones, lights or a projector.

Co-working, concerts and films 

Anyone wishing to make use of the co-working space during the week pays just under four euros a day, which includes tea and coffee. Artists and writers share the desks and low tables. Albus, the yard cat, scurries about. In the Studios one can also find a small treasure of film equipment. Ranging from a portable typewriter from the 1950s to an unused British Airways life jacket. The sofas, books and the yard create an intimate atmosphere. ‘Something I know from Berlin and Leipzig,’ says Ann-Sophie who came to Mumbai as an intern.
Since it opened two years ago, Harkat has curated over 150 events, including the queer series, Me & The Other, where the transgender group Dancing Queens meets poetry and live painting. ‘We try to create a secure space for each and every person,’ says Talwar. ‘We believe it is important, above all, to provide a platform for projects that would normally not be supported.’

Independent group work

Mumbai has a pressing need for spaces that invite creative people to work together on projects.  They are few and far between, and usually unaffordable. Free performances are now being held in schools, universities or at off-site locations. It could simply be a space in an underground parking lot – as is Andheri Base where independent theatre is performed, next to the cars parked by visitors to the Hard Rock Café.
‘Despite all the group work that one is forced into by the German education system, it was only in India that I learned what working together really means,’ says Strobel. Nevertheless, she still tried to establish herself in the creative industry in Berlin. In India, she has already been involved in more than 10 films. Several commissions came via contacts. ‘The industry is not huge, after three years you know each other.’
Yet Michaela Strobel still maintains her ties with Germany: ‘Most of my friends live in Berlin, my brother as well. Berlin remains my home base.’ She never thought she would move to India one day: ‘Even Berlin was too big for me at the time,’ she laughs. Michaela flies to Europe once or twice a year. Recently, she and Karan, now her husband, were at the Cannes Film Festival. From there they went to Berlin, to a workshop with a photo lab, and for a belated wedding celebration.