New Delhi: Despite an ensemble cast, last Friday’s release Happy Bhag Jayegi, as the name suggests, is spearheaded by a woman protagonist. The film that revolves around a feisty runaway Punjabi bride, netted ₹ 10.71 crore over the weekend and is the latest to join the growing list of women-centric films.
Earlier in the year, Sonam Kapoor-starrer Neerja had earned ₹ 75 crore in box-office collections. Deepika Padukone’s Piku at ₹ 79 crore and Kangana Ranaut’s Queen and Tanu Weds Manu Returns at ₹ 61 crore and ₹ 150 crore, respectively, are also notable hits in the genre while the year awaits the release of other women-centric movies like Sonakshi Sinha’s Akira, director Aniruddha Roy Choudhary’s courtroom drama Pink and Vidya Balan-starrer Kahaani 2.
A pertinent question that however remains, has to do with the significance of the trend that has been initiated by the success of these handful of films.
“Every year there are at least two or three films that are female-centric, so to speak. Now if you compare that with say, 54 Hindi films released a year, it’s not a trend," pointed out film critic Shubhra Gupta. “And not just in India. Globally, the films that work best are the big adventures, the superhero films, all those that can travel, get dubbed into 30 languages or many subtitled versions. The films that have women in them tend to be smaller and appeal to a certain demographic which may not always translate into big numbers. That’s why people like Susan Sarandon or Julia Roberts have turned producers, they want to make movies that tell their stories," she said.
The challenges and discrepancies are most clearly manifest in the fact that films led by female actors never really notch up the numbers that projects led by their male counterparts do. For example, Salman Khan-starrer Sultan made ₹ 36.54 crore on its opening day and has already crossed the ₹ 300 crore mark.
“Those numbers will never happen," said Jayantilal Gada, chairman of film-producing and presenting company Pen India which has backed Kahaani 2 scheduled for release this November. “There shouldn’t be such expectation either because that number is symbolic of the value attached to the lead star’s fan following. So when you’re talking of a female-oriented film, the fan following will not be equivalent to a male star’s. Whether the hero appears in a good or bad film, he will get his share of box-office, a certain amount if the film flops, another if it is a hit."
But is the star power of a heroine-led film is enough to command a big audience?
“If you see, most of these films (female-centric successes) have worked by virtue of being very good cinema and boasting of strong stories and characters," said Ajit Andhare, chief operating officer, Viacom18 Motion Pictures that has backed films like Queen and Mary Kom. “Whether you look at Neerja which is a more recent success or any of our films that have happened, it’s to me, the success of a strong film than star power."
Also Read: Film review: Happy Bhag Jayegi
When it comes to star power, Andhare said, almost irrespective of content, the film works because people love the star and there’s a huge opening because the audiences simply line up. Plus there is the natural segmentation among Indian audiences that allows star-led films to cover a wider base.
“The hero-led film will command a different kind of audience but for that you also have to consider the constitution of the cinema audience that is skewed in favour of men," Andhare said. “To do a ₹ 300 crore business, you need a product that will appeal universally," he said, adding that the star-led films appeal to the lowest common denominator.
In contrast, take a film like Queen. “It’s universally loved. However, box-office is an altogether different discussion because it is governed by factors like where the film gets seen, will people go to theatres to consume it, and that is where the segmentation comes in. If it’s a Salman Khan or a typical star-driven film, then people will still consume it in the theatres," Andhare said.
Star power translates into disparate fee structures for male and female actors, in turn, impacting the production costs of their films.
“If a male star charges ₹ 50 crore, the top female actor may make ₹ 5 crore. That is the value the audience attaches to them and it’s going to remain that way," Gada said. “The shooting costs including technicians are the same—whether it’s a male or female-centric film. Considering such challenges, the success of films like Kahaani proves that if a female-oriented script is well-made, there are always chances of it working. Yes, it will not get an opening, Kahaani didn’t get one either. People do not come on the first day but the film grows with word-of-mouth praise and works in the long run if the content is good."
Impressive box-office performance is one indicator but the content of women-centric films itself has come a long way, according to film critic Bharathi Pradhan, by moving away from the clichéd, portrayal of a victimised woman. Plus it is also about the sheer joy of making cinema that makes a difference.
As Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, the director for Pink, said, “Of course, box-office is important. But your film being talked about also gives tremendous joy. Everyone talked about Piku and Neerja. As far as I am concerned, one has to be happy to make a film or be associated with one. If I am not happy, how will box-office be happy? First the collaborators have to be proud to make a film, then everything falls into place."