(Or, Liberation of Indian film industry)
Because one can’t completely stop seeing films in a cinema house, despite the unendingly hopeless scene these days, the other day I went and saw a fillum. It was Race 2, I think. I saw it in a multiplex screen at Rs.300 a ticket, sitting on a comfortably wide pushback seat, eating a large packet of popcorn @ Rs.75 (without butter).
I went with the normal rock bottom expectations you and I go with to such occasions of entertainment (for life must have some measure of entertainment too) i.e., parking should be hassle-free, paving generally even for a stumble-free stroll, facility for long pending or impulsive shopping to be regretted on returning home, and such film-neutral aspirations endemic in the current post modern times.
Within the first fifteen minutes I caught myself yawning. Now this is a personal little thing, and I don’t know whether many others are like this. I mean, we have all heard and read about people yawning with boredom, but with me this happens to be recent onset. Maybe age is finally catching up with me and pulling me back to the cultural norm, but the thing is I never used to yawn even during films like Ashaad Ka Ek Din, Mayadarpan etc. Bored, yes, but yawning no. I am just finishing my point. The other day I caught myself because I had noticed the same thing a couple of weeks back too – when the film was probably Don 2, or 7 — and again back a further couple of weeks in some other film.
Now this is not about the badness of Race 2. Nor is it about badness of the current-era films. I am writing this because watching this bad and spectacular film, detached, I had an occasion for yet another look at the general Bollywood/Indian film situation – and came up with something relatively new. Yes! Let me explain.
Most of the narrative business of the film (Race 2) is shot in locales in Turkey, Cyprus and, as the screen caption coyly and imitatively put it, “somewhere in Europe”. The narrative business, involving a series of con jobs, sexy dances and expensive car chases/smashes, is irrelevant. What took, and generally takes, my breath away is the large screen of aerial shots over spectacular landscapes, superb camera work with crisp dolby sound. This is what I still go to cinema halls for and this is what TV can never do, although its ever-increasing sizes and pixel density shows that it yearns to be like cinema hall. This is what cinema`s magic is all about, I think– giving you the scale and scope of god’s-eye-view.
Well, mesmerized by old magic and aghast as usual at the tawdry script all this was wasted upon I was wistful about what could-have-been done, if had been done well. Then I rembered the morning’s newspaper which had reported that Race 2 had made over Rs.10 crore on its first day of release. I was watching it on second day, Saturday. These days grossing to reach the Rs.100 Crore Club in the first week is the norm for smash hits. Hm. And the best of hits don’t run much beyond two weeks. Then I remembered that some of the similar spectacular vacuities I had recently seen – I`ve already said why I go at all – like Ek Tha Tiger, Dabang 2, Talaash, Race etc. were all 100 Crore Club stuff.
More Hm. More popcorn. The film was long. My thoughts turned to the “business model” of today`s films.
A new post-capitalist era of the American template (what else?), is here indeed.
In the older, capitalist era when hits were of 25 weeks` Silver Jubilees and 50 weeks` Golden Jubilees of films like Anaari, Mughal-e-azam, Guide, Sholay etc, the main financial investment in a film was its distributors’ and not producers’. Producers’ begged, borrowed, stole money to make the film – paying for the stars, other cast, shooting, editing, music and printing for the master print of 15-20 Reels. The day, usually night, the last reel (physical, made of celluloid, wound on 12”spools) came off the Lab, the lab owner put all the 15 to 20 cans under his bed and slept the night in his special room of the lab itself. So that when the producer came next morning with the money he could hand over the precious, secret masterprint to him, after which the producer kept the cans under his bed at home and was set for business. To get an idea of the scale of money so far: O.P Ralhan’s Talaash (1969) was advertised as having cost Rs.1 crore, while Talaash (2012) would have cost around Rs.25-30 crore.
Then came the real money. The producer sold rights to his film (one set of reels copied from the masterprint) ‘territorially’ to the distributors. India had about 10 geographical( but not along state boundaries) film territories and the distributors’ bid, negotiated, and made deals for each territory based on their estimates of earning potential of the film (in exhibitor’s cinema halls) in each territory. Music, video and overseas rights were separate. The producer got his money, brushed his financial hands off the film, and started dreaming of his next film. The distributors held the baby then on.
Now for each cinema hall of each exhibitor in each territory, the distributor had to make a copy of each reel of a, say, 20 reel film. Depending on the average year of the era we are talking of, copying of one reel cost about Rs.2 lakh (celluloid plus lab charges) – so Rs.40 lakh for the full film for one cinema hall. A small territory, (say Punjab/Haryana), typically had about 100 cinema halls. So for these halls the distributor had to invest Rs.40 crore. An average territory with about 500 cinema halls involved Rs.200 crore investment by the distributor. A big distributor did business of about Rs.1000 crore.
The risk of the film industry was carried by the distributors. They naturally resorted to shady money — Kutchhi moneylenders, underworld, etc. To the exhibitor, the distributor paid either rent per show or a small percentage of the gross. Since this naturally encouraged exhibitors to fudge ticket sales at the box office, big distributors usually owned cinema exhibitors fully or partly. The film industry’s topline came from the pockets of cinema goers, the famous “chavanni” audience. Popularity of each film was what ultimately pulled the money from their small pockets, via their hearts. This was, broadly, the economic side of things. Till about 1990, in India.
All this time profound changes were happening in Hollywood, USA. After the brief efflorescence of independent film making in 1970s spearheaded by the likes of Spielberg, Frankenheimer ,Coppola, Brando etc, the Studios( MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, etc ) reasserted themselves by morphing into totalitarian global media companies via acquisitions and mergers. By the time of Reagan and paradigm was complete and set to define the future in a deep way, not only in film industry but in all economy — but that is not our story today. By then the problem of piracy of films which had been nagging the industry became a monster precisely because of the newly acquired global scale of things. The industry tinkered with several methods of encryption to prevent it but nothing quite stuck.
So a Reaganite solution was found. Instead of piecemeal territorial exhibition of films and leakiness of anti-piracy methods, the studios decided to use mass release of films simultaneously in cinema halls nationwide. Structural and corporate changes were accordingly made, using the Studio’s clout, and by 1980s a film was released nationwide for, say, 500 halls or even 1000 halls on the same day. (USA is smaller than india.) All the money was made in one week. After that, pirates may do whatever they please — not much unmet demand was left after a week anyway.
Hm. More popcorn.
The Reaganite template hit India in 1991, in the name and style of Manmohanism. The story is too complex and boring to be gone into here — it is there in the archives anyway – but the end-result in Bollywood was that the older paradigm of Dilip Kumar/Amitabh Bachchan – rustic/underdog hero –Indian idiom music — chavanni audience — single screen cinema halls has shifted to today’s Shah Rukh Khan – rich hero — global pop idiom music — middle class audience — multiplex cinema halls, and all that is implied by this paradigm shift. The business model has changed too, naturally. Now a film is released on the American model, simultaneously in hundreds of multiplexes on all India basis. Nearly all films make profit. Many become members of 100 Crore Club. It is easier now.
Distribution, financing, content, attitude – all have changed profoundly. But even that is not my story today. Popcorn is about to be over, although Race-2 is still going on. I am coming to my point.
It is this. For old film mureeds like me, the new paradigm is lamentable and we fulsomely lament on it. Rightly so too. At the same time, I see that the new paradigm has opened up, financially speaking, a fantastic new and unforeseen opportunity for real films to be made. The time for Ghataks, Adoors and Benegals has arrived only now. Let me explain a bit.
Today simultaneous all India release means that nearly any film whose narrative has been decently strung up will get an even chance to make money. Forget the 100 Crore Club. Any decent Rs.5 crore film can easily make Rs.15 crore. And that too in a week! What more can any Benegal dream of? For Indian films, the time to take off into maturity – and so enabling whatever its native genius can yield — has arrived at last.
Remember, the previous era was mainly awful. In the feudal stranglehold of a handful of producers, financiers, distributors — mostly financed by shady money — an individual Goldie Anand, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Benegal, Asha bhonsle, etc could survive and flourish (at the cost of a hundred others who perished) only inspite of the business model, not due to it. Today the creative and competitive space the new capitalist paradigm now offers can release the creative and innovative cinema spirits by design. The ancien regime is gone for good.
And it is already happening! The new breed of academy-trained and canny filmmakers like Bhansali, Anurag Basu, Kashyap, Dibakar Banerji, Gowarikar, etc are sprouting up by using this space and taking root. New kind of films are being made — good, bad, wonky, experimental, nautankiish, and unclassifiable. These rely on new kind of scripts, actors, financing, and audience.
The older lot are not fading away either. Riding on Khans, Johars, A.R Rehman’s etc., they too are finding their newer avatar. But the new Benegals, Adooors, Ghataks have yet to shed their fringe vision and garb the new main chance. Where are they?
The next barrier in the business model though is the cartel of multiplex owners — PVR, Cinemax, Satyam, etc. Kamal Haasan tried to circumvent it in Vishwaroopam by releasing all India on TV networks but the multiplex cartel blocked it. The struggle will play itself out, till TV and Multiplexes are merged like it has happened in America. Then the final frontier will be the Internet. No wonder the cartels are trying to destroy that freedom by grabbing it too.
Popcorn is over. So is Race 2. I am in Mumbai. The screen shows the tricolor and people stand for the national anthem. This was done at the beginning of the show too. I have nothing against nationalism but this ostentation left me worrying and depressed. Or, maybe it is just the mindless Race 2 that is depressing.