Hindi films can fan the ire of the religious right. They can outrage moralists. The Hindi film industry can sometimes pose as a secular collective, consisting of Hindu and Muslim people cozily making movies in a mammoth cocoon—mostly Juhu and Versova in Mumbai. But most of the time, Hindi movies can swallow us and stop us from thinking—we may not like a Khan movie, but willy-nilly we accept that a Khan is what a Khan does. Please don’t expect the Khans to play flesh-and-blood, flawed men.
Even cinema-literate Indians tend to impose different standards on a Hindi film because the overriding purpose of Bollywood has been perceived to be to help us “escape”. That amuses audiences of other movie-making countries because, although one of the universally acknowledged purposes of cinema is to lift us from the dull funk of our lives, it is indeed not its raison d’être.
The past five years have reiterated every stereotype of a hit Hindi film. But some alarm bells rang. A blockbuster can’t run on a big star or spectacle, or giant setups in arid Mexican deserts. Or even underwater treasure hunts. Smaller films with original stories as their centre pleased, if not wowed, movie-goers. Yet the idea of a workable Hindi movie remains unchanged.
Imaging by Manoj Madhavan/Mint
Mix a star or a “semi-star”, a soundtrack overlaid with hip hop or bhangra beats, good choreography, a location where it snows, and a happy ending and you have a Hindi film that makes money. Plagiarism may be a vice and criminal offence but Bollywood still considers it something akin to “creative licence”.
In the past five years, an average of 55 films per year have released in Indian theatres—of them, most made their purpose, to earn money, deafeningly clear. In the past two years, some companies, overestimating talent, lost crores, but according to trade analysts, the industry did not lose. The cumulative net gross collection of the Top 50 Hindi films in 2009 was Rs 1,125 crore.
In 2010, the figure was Rs 1,375 crore.
My favourite film critic Pauline Kael described similar film-making in Hollywood in the 1990s in her famous essay, Trash, Art and the Movies, thus: “Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfil its obvious purpose. This is, indeed, almost a defining characteristic of the hack director, as distinguished from an artist.”
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Here critics often feel it necessary to declare in their reviews that considering the tripe we are used to watching, a movie that gets some of the basics right demands more praise.
What is the future then of our smug, self-sufficient, loud cultural ambassador? The first step, perhaps, is some kind of communication among its generals.
We met nine experts—insiders and analysts—for a comprehensive prescription. They come from different sides of the debate, but the one thing all of them seemed to agree on is: Spend on story. Edited excerpts from the interviews:
‘Companies created a bogus aristocracy’
Mahesh Bhatt, a film-maker known for powerful films such as Arth, Saaransh and Zakhm, is the creative force behind Vishesh Films. He is one of the first Indian directors who made realistic cinema part of the commercial mainstream. With him, his brother, Mukesh Bhatt, has made the banner one of the most successful of the last decade—making mid-budget films commercially viable as well as appealing to urban Indians.
Understand the new audience
The world is changing at a breathtaking pace. The consumer has changed. Post-1992, the digital native is consuming global media. His idea of entertainment is radically different from the idea of entertainment that existed prior to that milestone. I don’t think Bollywood insiders have even begun to notice that. The demographics compel you to make films for the young.
Look at budgets unflinchingly
We ran this (Vishesh Films) as a mom-and-pop shop. We still have a skeleton staff. You can’t be a victim of your own hype, which is what the industry became. Whenever we made films, we unflinchingly looked at the figures. To cover one debacle, the corporate houses signed bigger names for 10 times the price. Insane situation: A Shiney Ahuja who was created for Rs 5 lakh, started asking for Rs 3 crore. They created a star system when there were no stars. John (Abraham) was a discovery of mine who could barely act; he was a piece of flesh. I can understand you give money to a Shah Rukh Khan, or an Aamir or a Salman. Companies created a bogus aristocracy and paid money to actors, which they can’t recover. Bollywood needs austerity. Big budget for the heck of it is the surest sign of an empty mind.
Somebody will have to take the risk of creating stars. I would rather walk on my shaky feet than lean on the golden crutch of a star. Keep your doors open to young people. Like Syed Qadri, a star writer for me. He is a poet from Jodhpur who used to sell insurance policies. I encouraged him to write but not leave his town.
We have 45-plus actors who are doing roles of 20-year-olds! Now Yash Raj (Films) has made Band Baaja Baaraat with Ranveer Singh, a newcomer, and the film has done exceedingly well. We are going to make at least two movies with newcomers this year—that’s a commitment all we top banners need to make.
Have the ability to know there is narrative fatigue and you need new templates to emerge. You can’t make writers on assembly lines. Encourage writers, work with them but give them freedom.
Cut marketing budgets
In the name of marketing, we are creating a noise value that’s suicidal. Producers today are spending Rs 7-8 crore on marketing, which is burning money. Hoardings in Mumbai are put up mostly because they please heroes—a big hoarding costs no less than Rs 40 lakh. It’s a waste of money. In Delhi, hoardings are banned, but collections are fantastic. A rupee saved is not a rupee earned, but a rupee well spent is definitely a rupee earned.
‘Bollywood needs better planning’
Fox Star Studios India has been associated with only three films so far—Quick Gun Murugan, My Name is Khan (MNIK) and Khichdi: The Movie—in the last two years. Vijay Singh, the company’s CEO since 2008, says that despite being a late entrant, his advantage was the international muscle of Fox and the broadcasting reach of Star. Despite last year being a “disaster” for Bollywood, Singh feels “bullish”. “Bollywood continues to reinvent itself, it does a Madonna act every few years. A handful of people in the industry have been able to influence popular culture and remain relevant to every successive generation.”
When studios fund the entire film, they foot the risk. But the reward has been captured by the actor or producer. When the film bombs, the star or producer has made the money whereas the studio or the distributor has taken the hit. If you are working in a co-production with the producer from the beginning, you have already agreed on the budget and there’s transparency.
If a film-maker believes in his product, the kind of revenue streams he can generate are significantly more than any lump sum he can ask for. Pricing was one of last year’s issues. It’s about this hot money—studios and other players were able to raise money cheaply, which in conjunction with the quarterly reporting pressure, I believe, drove the wrong decisions.
When we met Rohan (Sippy), we were excited about the script for upcoming film Dum Maro Dum. We got into the co-production process—fixing the budget, the cast and working in tandem so we are aligned creatively and commercially. Bollywood will benefit from better planning.
Tap new markets
It’s a learning that’s come from MNIK. We were able to demonstrate how big the potential for Indian films can be outside of India. We were able to take it to new markets, do marketing innovations like taking Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol to Nasdaq. There are ways to expand the market for Bollywood.
As told to Arun Janardhan
‘Cinema has to say things differently’
Gyan Prakash is the Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University, and the author of Mumbai Fables (2010), a book that examined the history of Mumbai through its myths and media. He has written the script for film-maker Anurag Kashyap’s forthcoming Bombay Velvet.
When they’re writing a script, writers think in terms of films that may be similar or have been successful; generally they’re Hollywood films. By saying, “I want a character like Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential”, you’ve lost the grounding of the character in your own story in its own location. It becomes derivative. You get a hodgepodge that you don’t understand.
Ditch the kitsch
It works when it’s well-done a few times, as it did for Om Shanti Om. Don’t think you can keep repeating the nostalgia angle. There’s more variety than there used to be. But if you ask me how one dance sequence with 50 dancers in this film is different from the sequence with 50 dancers in that one, I can’t tell you. When spectacle becomes routine, it loses its impact.
Honour the medium
You don’t see too many film-makers thinking in terms of cinema. Why does a director make cinema? What do I want to tell in this story visually that’s different from the way it’s appeared in newspapers or in a magazine? Cinema has to say things differently, otherwise why not just write a book?
Respect original ideas
Tere Bin Laden, a small film telling a political story through humour, worked because there was an idea behind it. Last year’s Natrang (Marathi) had a great idea. Not all small films work, but when they do, you can see why. It doesn’t have to be an intellectual film, but you have to see the passion.
As told to Supriya Nair.
‘Stars sell seats , directors keep people in them ’
Nasreen Munni Kabir produces a season of Indian film-based programming for UK’s Channel 4 every year. Her work includes 2005’s documentary The Inner and Outer World of Shah Rukh Khan and 1989’s In Search of Guru Dutt. Her writing includes a series of books on the dialogues of Mother India, Awara and Mughal-e-Azam. Her next book is The Dialogue of Pyaasa.
Change the formula
The smaller film will gain Hindi cinema’s respect. The big films will keep the industry afloat. The divide between populist entertainment and thoughtful entertainment exists everywhere. It’s healthy because you need both. But big film-makers need a reality check: Their formulas don’t work every time. Films such as Love Sex aur Dhokha can make you believe there are new ways to tell stories.
Give directors credit
Someone has to be there to ask hard questions, someone who knows that you can’t tell a 5-minute story for two-and-a-half hours. Audiences do ask: Is this a new story? That answer is absolutely in the hands of the director. We’re now realizing that directors matter. Stars sell seats, but the directors keep people in them. If 3 Idiots wasn’t a good script, Aamir (Khan) wouldn’t have held the audience. They came for Aamir, they stayed for (director) Raju Hirani.
Care about character
Who tells the story? It’s the characters. They’re the ones who connect to the audience. We’re undergoing a change there that reflects a changing India. Take the sort of hero Salman Khan played in Dabangg. The ambiguity of whether to laugh with him or at him worked beautifully because audiences love to feel that they can decide. The hero isn’t saying “Like me!”, which is narcissistic, which some of Salman’s fellow stars sometimes do with their characters.
Write lived-in language
If you say that you’ll set a film in New York and refuse to include even one person that you can recognize as an American there, it’s not rooted in any culture. I am convinced that today, some younger directors write scripts in English and then get dialogue writers to rewrite in Hindi. The flavour of a film comes from its language, and that has to be authentic, whether it’s a film about New York, or about Gorakhpur.
As told to Supriya Nair.
‘The concept of story isn’t alive’
Dibakar Banerjee’s debut film, Khosla ka Ghosla!, made waves for its honest, hilarious portrait of middle-class Delhi. He followed it up with 2008’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! and last year’s Love Sex aur Dhokha, both acclaimed for their insight into an Indian milieu that is changing rapidly.
Over the last 20 years, we have spawned a generation of non-readers. So people don’t learn, subliminally, the basic craft of storytelling. We’ve had writers such as Gulzar, K.A. Abbas, Javed Akhtar—they know what story is. The mainstream popular cinema of the 1970s and 1980s mirrors the populist Hindi pulp writing of the time. You can imagine a Yash Chopra reading Kanhaiyalal Nandan or Sumitranandan Pant. When you have a generation of semi-literates who don’t read, the concept of story is not alive in them. They churn out half-baked collections of gags.
Look to tradition
The best scripts in the West came out of 20th century’s traditions of novel and short-story writing, and the theatre. But today’s Hindi theatre writers just won’t enter Bollywood: They know there’s no value for them. Why aren’t we seeing a remake of Ghashiram Kotwal or Charandas Chor? It’s a fantastic funny story. A story which has gone around Madhya Pradesh villages and become a hard-core hit, will be a hit everywhere.
Today, an editor does damage control, or comes in to put five songs together. The problem of editing is intimately connected to scripting, because if stories aren’t well-written, editing has to be about damage containment. When you have a scene which has no conflict, you fall back on repeated cuts and dramatic music.
Give writers time—and education
A good script takes six months to a year to write. Nobody values a scriptwriter’s need to survive while he or she sits on a story for that time. All good scripts are currently written because there’s one enlightened producer or director saying, I am not taking this on the floor until the script is done. We have credible schools for cinematography, acting, design; we need dedicated courses and schools for scriptwriting.
Give Boll ywood time
One impediment is that what you call bad films—unstructured, stupid films that take the audience’s intelligence for granted—once in a while do well. The three-four films that follow trying to ape the first, tank. This problem will solve itself out of cultural change, when people start giving their own intelligence more credit than what an opinion maker is telling them.
There’s more money chasing films today than there are films to be made. There’s urgency because there’s a certain economic logic for announcing and starting a film, even if there aren’t enough skilled projects to use that money.
It’s too early to tell in what direction we’re going. We have good stories to tell, because we’re in a great moment. A hundred years from now, people will say that India transformed between 1990 and 2020. It’s just that we don’t know what sort of transformation that will be.
As told to Supriya Nair.
‘Think digital or you’re out of business’
Timmy Khandari has worked in mergers and acquisitions and market entry strategies for more than 20 years. He works with analysts to bring out a yearly report on the Indian entertainment and media sector. The last report outlines strategies for the film industry to recover from the post-2008 economic downturn.
Invest more on the scriptwriter. Star salaries form the largest chunk of the film’s budget here. In most countries, writers are protected and paid more. Make star fees variable—if the film is a hit, the star should get a percentage. That will leave money for the talent who create the content.
In terms of exhibition theatres, we are the most unpenetrated country in the world. We only have about 13,000-14,000 screens. We need more multiplexes, especially in tier II cities. We also need “digiplexes” and a satellite distribution system, which some organizations like UFO and Real Images are doing. Satellite distribution transports the film directly to a theatre and reduces piracy.
The world is transforming; TV screens are going to be your iPads. The sooner the film industry realizes this, the better. Once broadband improves, downloadable movies will become easy. Create more digital content and strategies.
Diversify revenue streams
Around 75% of revenue comes from theatrical rights, the rest from satellite and overseas rights. If you can get that percentage to 40-50%, the element of risk comes down. Merchandising is one way of doing it; it is a successful model in the US.
As told to Sanjukta Sharma.
‘Real doesn’t mean boring’
The creative czar of Ogilvy and Mather (O&M) India is one of the most recognizable faces of Indian advertising. His handlebar moustache is a brand in itself. Piyush Pandey joined O&M in 1982 and has since worked on numerous brands and campaigns.
Original is cool
We are a talented country, known for storytelling for thousands of years. We have a lot in our art and music to support it. But we are lazy because we pick up successful and, in some instances, not-so-successful movies from abroad and try and pass them off as adaptations or “inspirations”. Let’s get back to basics. Rabindranath Tagore wrote in English, but that is the only thing he borrowed—the language, not his thoughts. What people in the south, Bengal, Maharashtrian theatre and folk singers of Rajasthan have done—that should be the real inspiration.
Real doesn’t mean boring. It doesn’t mean cinema which depicts how screwed up we are. There is so much of India which we need to be inspired by, rather than be obsessed with a world of fantasy. We have to look at Indians’ below-thesurface needs, which may not come up in research, but something that is almost obvious. But how do you help them actualize it? It’s not like you created it (emotion or insight), but you did create an emotion. So when people see it, they identify with it.
As told to Gouri Shah.
‘Be original, aim for the young ’
Rachel Dwyer, who has a bachelor’s degree in Sanskrit and teaches Indian cinema, Gujarati and Sanskrit at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, has written nine books, most of which are on Indian cinema. Her new book, Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema, co-edited with Jerry Pinto, is published by Oxford University Press.
India is now confident about its role in the world but sometimes the film industry seems culturally enslaved. Know what you want to make a film about. Don’t copy—especially if it’s something made with a budget and level of professionalism you can’t have—but trust your own vision. Don’t aim for the Oscars, or an international audience. Make good Hindi films.
Engage with writers
I get exasperated when told by industry insiders that “there are no good stories for films today”. India has produced many of the world’s greatest stories and its literature suggests it is still doing so. The reason there aren’t good stories and scripts is that film-makers often don’t engage with writers seriously, and then don’t want to pay them. K.A. Abbas and Saadat Manto were major writers and critics. BR Films had a permanent story-writing department of respected writers, including Akhtar Mirza. Are film-makers actively looking for scripts among India’s new crop of authors? There are good stories today, such as Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal, and the Munnabhai films, not only for the great dialogues but also for the wonderful subtitles that made the films accessible to non-Hindi speakers.
Understand your audience
If you don’t like your audience, they won’t like you. Never again do I want to hear the canard that “the audience is too backward/ignorant to appreciate a film”. You have to understand and like young people. India has a young population and all cinema audiences are young. You have to know what they like, what they dream of, and not patronize them. Some of the most important films of the last decade have been about young people trying to find meaning in their lives, such as Dil Chahta Hai and 3 Idiots.
As told to Sanjukta Sharma
‘It’s an emotional decision’
Aamir Khan talks about money matters and his formula for success
His latest film, as a producer and bit actor, released last week. Dhobi Ghat was marketed as an “arthouse” film, not as an Aamir Khan movie, which would have helped recover the costs in the first weekend, he says. But, Khan adds, he did not want to lie to the audience because the film is not about him.
Khan brings with him the perspective of being a successful producer and one-time hit director. His Aamir Khan Productions Pvt. Ltd released Peepli (Live), in which he did not act, last year, and Dhobi Ghat on 21 January. He tells us what excites him enough to take on a film, in his interchangeable roles as actor and producer.
Script, script, script
The script has to excite, or connect with, me. When I am listening to a script or reading it, the emotion kicks in first. When I heard Taare Zameen Par, for example, I cried my way through the narration. I got up after the first 15 minutes because I was already bawling; I went to the loo and got a towel. I say yes to a film based on my emotional response.
I would agree there are not enough good scripts. There should be many more and we are responsible for that because we have not given, as an industry, enough value to writers. The fact that a writer has spent three months writing a script means he needs to be paid for it. If I don’t like it and I say I am not going to pay you, how is he going to earn? We are telling writers, at this point, if a script is green-lit (approved) then you will get paid. Now he is writing for that person who is in his head, as an imaginary person, who is going to green-light it. He would write differently, otherwise he may not get paid. If you want good scripts, that’s not how you should be writing. You should tell people to be free to write and I will pay you to give me a script. If I don’t like it, I won’t make it but I will still pay you.
The producer has to be someone I feel confident of, who will back the creative team, provide the resources and will be able to give it a good release. I don’t enjoy producing. I enjoy acting more. Producing involves a lot of administration, logistics—I don’t enjoy that but it’s satisfying. I was clear I never wanted to be a producer but I got sucked into it because I wanted to make Lagaan and nobody else would. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to make Taare Zameen Par or Dhobi Ghat. I am not a businessman. I make a lot more money as an actor by spending much less time. The position I am in currently, I have a say in (creative) matters (of a film I am not producing) without getting blamed for things. If you look at it economically, I earn much more as an actor for the amount of time I spend.
I need to have full faith, confidence and trust in the director. If you have a great director and producer, they will make sure you have a committed crew. Of course, it’s a risk (to work with first-time directors as a producer, with Anusha Rizvi in Peepli (Live), Abhinay Deo in Delhi Belly, wife Kiran Rao in Dhobi Ghat). But I spend a lot of time with my directors and test their abilities to deliver before I hand things over to them (as a producer). When I said yes to Rang de Basanti, nobody in the market would have trusted the film because there had been four films made in six months on Bhagat Singh and (Chandrashekhar) Azad. Obviously, I am not thinking but reacting emotionally.
By Arun Janardhan
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