'Sholay' director Ramesh Sippy on how watching movies changed after 1991 reformsfrom single-screen theatres to multiplexes
Mumbai: As one of India’s best-known industries, you would think the one story that has remained constant through the ups and downs of the Indian growth story is Bollywood—from black and white to Technicolor. You would be wrong. Ask Ramesh Sippy—as the director of one of the biggest blockbusters in Bollywood history, he should know.
For the veteran Bollywood producer-director, who made his superhit Sholay in 1975, the impact of economic liberalization on Indian cinema has resulted in the loss of the common man as its audience, owing to steep ticket prices as cinemas transitioned from rickety single-screen halls to plush multiplex theatres.
“Earlier, the reach of cinema was for the common man, the front-bencher—where you heard the whistles, the taalis and foot-tapping on songs in the theatre. Most of the audience paid a minimal amount for the seats/tickets and got the maximum out of cinema," said Sippy, the scion of a wealthy Sindhi family, which became a household name with Sholay.
“Today, in the multiplex, I think cinema has lost that audience completely, partly because they simply can’t afford it or partly because they can watch it on their mobile or from a pirated DVD," said Sippy.
Movie tickets used to cost only Rs30-40 until the 1990s. Now, moviegoers need to shell out Rs500-700 and sometimes even Rs1,000 per ticket—well beyond the reach of the ‘front-bencher’. The immediate impact of the post-liberalization multiplex boom—the idea was to maximize profits by getting several shows at one location—was the abolition of the limit on ticket rates.
So, basically the average moviegoer of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s has stopped going to the cinema. “Very rarely would they go—if at all—for a Shah Rukh Khan or a Salman Khan movie, preferably at a single-screen theatre where tickets are still slightly more affordable than the multiplex," said Sippy.
“The majority of income for cinema today is coming from multiplexes. And, therefore, definitely a minority is seeing the film and setting the verdict. What is considered a hit in theatres today is not exactly what it used to be," said Sippy.
Launched in the 1990s, multiplexes ushered in the biggest revolution for Indian cinema.
In the 1980s, people had stopped going to cinema halls, because the condition of the single-screen theatres deteriorated in tandem with the growing popularity of the video cassette recorder, making it possible for families to watch movies in the comfort of their homes.
Sippy’s 1985 film Saagar, starring Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia and Kamal Hassan, suffered because of that.
Bollywood’s fortunes began looking up somewhat with the 1994 family drama Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Theatres were run down since audiences weren’t going there. So, the producers of the film (the Barjatyas of Rajshri Productions) refused to release the film until owners renovated their cinemas so that families could once again sit in theatres that were clean, with toilets that did not smell.
“And it did make a change. It did bring people back to the theatres," Sippy said.
In the 1990s, the work of three filmmakers—Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar—brought in a generational change.
“Certainly the kind of films that were made before that—like Mother India and Shree 420, Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kagaz Ke Phool—they reflected the difference between the classes and masses a great deal. In that sense, you could tell that (the question of) poverty was a big deal in India," said Sippy.
The growth of the middle class after liberalization meant that while Bollywood continued to retain its colour, song and dance and escapist themes, some subtle changes were taking place.
For instance, the definition of the quintessential Bollywood hero—the staple of commercial Indian cinema—has changed. He was once a one-dimensional and righteous man; he is still flamboyant now, but also flawed.
“The hero of that time upheld the right and good values of life. With time, that started to change. The simplistic romantic lover, the good guy, the nice guy was the definition of the hero back then. It’s not that he is no longer nice, but broader strokes of flamboyance have emerged—he is more direct now, a no-nonsense guy," said Sippy.
Liberalization also brought about the trend of a large number of films being shot outside India. Until the 1990s, the norm was to receive film funding from private financiers. But foreign studios spotted the opportunities in the Indian market after liberalization took root. The inherent glamour and potential of the market was a lure, but the changing landscape of the entertainment industry, with mushrooming multiplexes, was an equally powerful pull.
“The actual production time on the set has reduced. Films are getting made faster. Technology has helped, as well as discipline. The money comes in together," said Sippy.
Alongside all of this, the moviegoing audiences in India have also matured. Gradually, the masala potboiler of the ’80s and ’90s—all song-and-dance and mid-air action sequences with no storyline to speak of—are being rejected by many.
“Today’s coinage is it has got to be different," said Sippy.
The success of films like Piku, Kapoor & Sons and Tanu Weds Manu Returns, among many others, is a testimony to that change.
This is the 47th part in a series marking the 25th anniversary of India’s liberalization. To read more ‘Days of Our Lives’ stories, click here.
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