At Dharma Productions, it’s all about loving the audience
New Delhi: The numbers speak for themselves. The six movies made by Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions in the last two years collectively earned at least Rs425 crore. Two of them, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), directed by Johar himself, and Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017), made it to the exclusive club of movies that earned upwards of Rs100 crore.
On top of it was the Rs15-20 crore that a trade expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimates Dharma Productions made from distributing the dubbed Hindi version of S.S. Rajamouli’s war epic Baahubali 2: The Conclusion in northern India and overseas.
Not a bad run at all, given the underperformance of a string of big-ticket movies, the fact that top stars no longer guarantee box-office returns and the challenge Bollywood is confronting from digital streaming platforms.
To Dharma Productions’s credit, it has tried to avoid being stereotyped for the content of its movies. Ae Dil... was a romantic musical, Badrinath... a rom-com, Kapoor & Sons a family drama and Dear Zindagi a slice-of-life film. The upcoming Ittefaq is a thriller.
“The only thing constant in life is change and you have to adapt to it. That holds true not only for films but for any sphere of business,” said Apoorva Mehta, chief executive officer, Dharma Productions. “If you look at the 1980s, we were making three-hour-long films with lots of song and dance and the quintessential hero and heroine. As audiences have been exposed to the internet and different kinds of cultures, they’re all looking for more real and relatable cinema. We’ve been conscious of that change.”
The point, Mehta added, is that audiences have become more discerning and the writing on the wall is clear—it is content that matters over A-list stars.
“Dharma’s is a four-pronged strategy,” said film trade expert Girish Johar to explain the company’s consistent profitability. “It is a combination of Karan Johar’s diasporic and international appeal, launch of credible acting and directorial talent, telling stories that strike a chord and getting love back from audiences.”
It was Karan’s father Yash Johar, who died in 2004, who founded the 37-year-old privately held film company that produced movies such as Dostana (1980) and Agneepath (1990) with Amitabh Bachchan. Dharma found real success only with Karan Johar’s directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). More hits followed in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003).
In the 13 years that Johar has taken his father’s legacy forward, as a company Dharma’s philosophy has been very clear, Mehta said.
“A film never fails, the budget does. There is a viewer for every kind of content. What you need to be clear on is the market segment that is going to accept this content and then work backwards,” he said.
The company has had to let go of some projects where the stakes were too high and box office success seemed unlikely, Mehta said. Dharma not only insists on profit-sharing with its lead stars to cap fixed costs but also works towards the advance sale of film rights to satellite TV and digital streaming platforms, given the unpredictability of the box office.
The company will now endeavour, Mehta said, to do more work in the regional space and also look at co-productions besides just distributing projects like Baahubali.
Spectacles like Baahubali have become even more crucial today when digital platforms are threatening to take over the big-screen experience. While Dharma has partnered with over-the-top video (OTT) streaming platforms like Amazon Prime Video and more recently, Eros Now, for its movie content, Mehta said the company is also looking at producing original web series in due course.
“We’re almost fearful of the OTT wave because we may soon become the stepchild of digital content,” Mehta said. “How do you compete with something that’s offering a lot of films at Rs500 a month when the average ticket price in a theatre is Rs400? We have to design our films to allow for audiences to come and want to see them in the theatre. It’s an exciting phase (for us) but also challenging...”
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