The year when small was big and big wasn’t big enough

The year when small was big and big wasn’t big enough
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First Published: Sat, Dec 27 2008. 12 30 AM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Mon, Dec 29 2008. 06 21 PM IST
NOTE: All “facts” are alleged. They are primarily set forth by a conscious desire to confabulate and illustrate, and are not intended for the noble purposes of the actuary.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Two classic cuts in films that stand out, probably cited to death in film schools all over the world:
From a burning matchstick to the blazing desert sun in Lawrence of Arabia.
From an animal bone flipping through the prehistoric sky to a spaceship pirouetting through space in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Both cuts dramatically take us through a vast span of space and time in the blink of an eye. From the infinitesimal to the infinite. From small to big.
I am wary of propounding any theory as a practising member of a business where, as William Goldman famously said, “nobody knows anything”. But there does seem to be an opportunity for films to be made with limited financial resources that appeal to a certain kind of audience. Bhojpuri films do this well, as do films driven by a genre or high concept (they are being watched in increasing numbers in our cities).
I was doing some mental calculations about our blockbuster films—since there is a complete lack of comprehensive data on the film industry despite the entry of large corporations (which makes me wonder what they base their investment decisions on!), this is more of an educated guess. The largest amount that a film distributor has made from a film in India (which is what he receives, net of theatre rentals, taxes, etc.) in recent times is said to be about Rs36 crore. Taking an average of Rs40 per ticket buyer (in multiplexes it would range from Rs40-80, single screens from Rs10-50), that comes to about nine million tickets sold. Even if I am off in my calculation by 100%, the number of tickets sold would still be less than 20 million, or just 0.16% of our population. That’s about a third of the total number of people who use the Internet in India. Not a great indicator of success for a business that is supposed to be for the masses. The Dark Knight, which grossed more than $530 million (around Rs2,650 crore), has probably sold close to 45 million tickets in North America, or roughly 20 times more tickets per capita. Or, to put things in perspective, closer home, the figures quoted for the biggest Tamil films are comparable to those of Hindi films.
4 July: Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na releases. The small film becomes one of the year’s biggest hits.
So perhaps what we are looking at is not the fact that small is big now, but that big isn’t really big enough. It’s easy to forget that, on the day it was released, Munnabhai MBBS was a relatively low-profile film, with Sanjay Dutt coming on board after things didn’t work out with the original lead, Shah Rukh Khan. It didn’t open to full houses, but had a sensational word of mouth. Going back further, it seems quaint now that Hum Aapke Hain Kaun opened with just 35 prints all over the country. These are great examples of films with legs, that keep going and going, so the box-office returns dwarf the cost, no matter how much. Which is what runs this business. Ergo, small is big.
We are in an era where most “big” films sell themselves by virtue of the money that they have already made, i.e. a film must be good because so many have already been suckered into seeing it (an interesting strategy, because, as mentioned above, those numbers are impossible to verify!). The difference between the current “successes” and the examples mentioned above is that those films were genuinely loved, and audiences kept coming to see them, week after week. There is also more satisfaction in discovering a film through word of mouth, and sharing your excitement with those around you.
Put another way, the only way to explain huge film budgets that have been greenlit in recent times seems to be that the people with the money take a view of things diametrically opposite to Surma Bhopali’s “do rupaiya mein saara jungle khareedoge?”, i.e. throw vast sums of money at a film with little hope of multiple earnings, while retaining all the risk that is inherent to our valiant enterprise.
Given the fact that it is statistically impossible to sustain the business with those films, we turn back to the first principles—to wit, script is king, etc., etc., (set to a chorus of moaning about the moral weakness of paying stars so much, etc., etc., as if we were forced to pay them; as if they approached us)—and other myths necessary for survival. So we follow the simple principle that an exciting new idea well told may perhaps have a decent chance of convincing enough patrons to part with their money to make the venture viable.
In January, within the span of a week, I have two films at opposite ends of the size spectrum releasing. The President is Coming, all fun and frolic with shining Indians and Dubya; our only regret is that a couple of shoes have outdone us as an appropriate goodbye gift to George Bush.
Then there’s Chandni Chowk to China, the biggest film that I have personally worked on, with a few bells and whistles of a Hollywood studio as add-ons.
I am equally attached to both, and both started with compelling concepts that really excited me. And, when I started work on this essay, it seemed clear to me which film was small and which was big. Until we posted the Chandni Chowk trailer on the Apple site... We’ve literally had several million hits. And, as I opened the Web page and saw us nestled between behemoths like Terminator: Salvation and Star Trek, it struck me—to the vast majority of those who go to the site, we are the small film. Most of those commenting have no idea who the stars of the movie are, but are riveted by the idea of Bollywood Kung Fu! For them, this is the film that affords them the pleasure of discovery, that comes straight out of the blue!
I have no idea at all what the Fridays ahead hold, but a parting cut, this time from big to small:
In Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, a sliver-like cloud drifts towards the moon.
Cut
A woman, who comes out of nowhere, is seized by Buñuel, and her eye forced open.
Cut
The cloud now divides the moon into two.
Cut
A razor slices the woman’s eye open.
So whether small or big, the films we love make us see with a new eye.
Rohan Sippy is a producer and director of Hindi films.
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First Published: Sat, Dec 27 2008. 12 30 AM IST