The recent spat over revenue-sharing between producers and distributors on one side and multiplexes on the other is as dramatic as it gets in Bollywood. Producers and distributors got rather emotional at a recent press conference as they announced their startling decision to not release any Hindi movies after 3 April unless multiplexes agreed to changed revenue-sharing terms. The overwhelming feeling was one of betrayal by a family member. After all, said the forum of film-makers in a united but slightly tremulous voice, we changed our language to walk the multiplex talk. We jettisoned a film-making style that was a few decades old to please the new kid on the block. Now see how selfishly that kid is behaving, demanding not just the popcorn and the cola but all the candy too.
So much for believing that Hindie cinema, which is my term for Hindi independent movies, was an idea whose time had come. Had Indians not rejected the single-screen moviegoing experience in the 1980s and retreated indoors to watch television, would we have still been watching masala movies? Would we have still been stuck with dishoom-dishoom slug fests, passionless romances and shrieking family dramas?
The 1980s is generally described as the decade of decline as far as Hindi movies are concerned. That’s not surprising when you recall that Jeetendra was one of the big stars of the 1980s. The cinema produced in the pre-multiplex period has its fans, of course, and several young film-makers get teary-eyed about the so-bad-it-was-actually-good phase. But family audiences were staying away from the violent and misogynistic fare that film-makers were dishing out, and it took a conservative yet visionary banner to bring them back. Rajshri Productions galvanized the industry with Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! in 1994. The banner pumped money into upgrading several single screens that had been falling apart and encouraged audiences to return to movie halls. More superhits followed, including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Karan Arjun in 1995, Border in 1997 and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in 1998.
New wave: The arrival of the multiplex changed the rules.
But not every movie can be a blockbuster. So Bollywood decided that it would adopt the American model and make moviegoing an “experience”. It wasn’t just about the hero or the heroine any more. It was about how caramelized your popcorn was and how deeply you could sink into your seat. PVR opened the country’s first multiplex in New Delhi in 1997. The delivery system had become sophisticated. The product changed its packaging too. The Hindi movie got slicker. Costume designers and poster makers became more important than storytellers. Exotic locations became de rigueur. Naturally, the costs spiralled.
Multiplexes haven’t just altered moviegoing habits, at least in urban centres. The very structure of the multiplex, which has several screens with smaller capacities per screen, is posing a challenge to mainstream film-making. With most single screens in cities converting to multiplexes, producers and distributors have to cater to blocks that may be paying more money per ticket, but are also more fragmented than before.
Hindi cinema thrives on size, but there is no guarantee any more that a movie with big stars is going to make big bucks. The returns on the average star-studded film have to be healthy enough between Kolkata and Kochi to justify its very existence. The average multiplex costs so much that audiences think twice about paying Rs200 a ticket for a movie that isn’t worth it. Most multiplexes have far better projection facilities than single-screen cinemas, but I can safely bet that most viewers aren’t going in to watch the sharpness of the camerawork or the sound design.
At the heart of the spat over revenue-sharing is confusion over what contemporary filmgoers want. Most of the movies I have reviewed in the past few months don’t belong on any kind of screen. The old formula is dead. The new one hasn’t been found yet. Until that happens, producers, distributors and multiplex owners can run around in circles chasing the crores of rupees that are at stake. The only beneficiary is the small-budget film, which had been struggling for a release in previous years. The Hindie has finally got a foot in the door. Some Hindies are as silly as mainstream films, but since expectations are low, the sense of betrayal isn’t that high. You can take a chance on Delhi-6 if the ticket doesn’t pinch you for more than Rs80. You’ll think a few times before swiping your credit card on Bookmyshow.com for a multiplex ticket and instead wait for your neighbourhood pirate to give you the bad news. The pirate costs less than even the single screen, and you don’t pay extra for soggy sandwiches or caffeine-free coffee either.
Nandini Ramnath is the film editor of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net)
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org