With earnings of Rs134.22 crore and Rs205.68 crore, respectively, its 2017 outings Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Golmaal Again have emerged as two of the year’s biggest hits. Plus, there is the moderate success of action adventure Commando 2 that made Rs25.09 crore.
The joy is fairly new. With dismal failures like Te3n, Hawaizaada and Bobby Jasoos a few years ago, the production and distribution company founded in 2008 had been struggling to save face.
“When we started Reliance’s film business, we were working like any other corporate studio where the idea basically was to acquire films, distribute and market them and, over a period of time, you either make profits or losses," said Shibasish Sarkar, chief operating officer, Reliance Entertainment.
The strategy didn’t work.
“We completely changed our business model in the past three years, stopped all acquisitions and started looking at joint ventures with respected Bollywood filmmakers’ companies," Sarkar said.
Beginning with Phantom Films, a company formed by Anurag Kashyap, Vikas Bahl, Vikramaditya Motwane and Madhu Mantena, Reliance began its new journey, albeit on a shaky note with Kashyap’s period drama, Bombay Velvet (2015), which was a box office failure.
Things improved soon though, along with Phantom’s critically acclaimed Masaan (2015) and Udta Punjab (2016). Other fruitful partnerships today include those with Neeraj Pandey, beginning with the Rs127 crore earner Rustom and Rohit Shetty’s blockbuster Golmaal Again.
“The main reason for the change in structure is that this is the only way we get a creative filmmaker as partner. In a corporate role, it is impossible to get creative leadership," Sarkar said. Now, he added, the studio gets a sense of the project from its inception and then, both partners take a call on whether they want to sell the film to some other studio with a sensible production profit or retain it and see a big upside.
“The sense of relief comes from knowing that our business model is working. From our perspective, in the new business structure, there is very minimum chance of losing money," Sarkar said.
The journey hasn’t been easy. A creative partner expects complete time and devotion from the corporate studio. But long-standing industry entities like Yash Raj Films and Balaji Telefilms show by example that a creative person leading from the front makes a difference, Sarkar said. Reliance’s age-old Hollywood partnership with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios has also taught it the efficacy of the model.
“They’ve never had a dearth of resources. But it’s not about money, it’s all about recognizing the importance of working closely with India’s concise talent pool," said Utpal Acharya, founder chairman of film company Indian Film Studios. Like any other corporate entity, Acharya said, Reliance took some time to come into its own and understand the game. The evolution is evident in the projects chosen thereafter—Golmaal Again is the only Hindi film not featuring one of the three Khans to cross the Rs200 crore mark. And the future line-up is nothing short of extraordinary.
Starting with Anurag Kashyap’s sports drama Mukkabaaz which released last Friday, Reliance has Neeraj Pandey’s thriller Aiyyary starring Manoj Bajpayee and Sidharth Malhotra scheduled for release on 9 February. Vikramaditya Motwane’s next, tentatively titled Bhavesh Joshi, starring Harshvardhan Kapoor, comes out on 25 May while Vikas Bahl’s biopic on Bihar-based mathematician Anand Kumar, starring Hrithik Roshan, arrives in November. The year closes with Rohit Shetty’s action film Simbaa, starring Ranveer Singh. For 2019, there is already Kabir Khan’s 1983, a biopic on Kapil Dev, also featuring Ranveer.
“There are enough audiences in the country; there should be better films targeting specific categories," Sarkar said on the current theatrical crisis. “We need to make more massy commercial films in India. There is a definite audience for the inspirational stories but there are also many single-screen goers in the Hindi hinterland and we are not making decent products for them."
The top ten leading actors should do more work, Sarkar added. “The Telugu market, for instance, has shown a huge growth in the last few years because for a certain amount of box office, you can depend on the top six or seven actors. In Hindi, apart from Akshay Kumar, nobody makes regular films. An actor makes one film in two years, so there is a huge gap for the consumer. Earlier, the same people would do at least two films a year, even if one worked and the other didn’t, there was a definite section of the audience waiting to watch a big-hero film," Sarkar said. “Lastly, of course, it boils down to the story. We need to work on the quality of writers and technicians and cater to what the consumer wants."
Reliance Group companies have sued HT Media Ltd, Mint’s publisher, and nine others in the Bombay high court over a 2 October 2014 front-page story that they have disputed. HT Media is contesting the case.