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A still from ‘Sairat’
A still from ‘Sairat’

Essel’s big vision for Marathi cinema

Essel has to its credit some of the highest grossing films in Marathi language even before 'Sairat', which has collected nearly Rs90 crore, came along this April

New Delhi: Marathi cinema’s latest trump card, Sairat, is inching towards net box office collections of nearly 90 crore. Produced for about 3.5 crore, the sleeper hit has not just emerged as the most successful Marathi film ever but the highest grosser in the state of Maharashtra across all languages. And that, trade experts say, includes blockbusters like PK, which made about 65 crore in the state against Sairat’s more than 85 crore, according to data provided by Essel Vision Productions Ltd, the company which co-produced the film along with Zee Studios and Aatpat Production.

“I haven’t been able to fathom the impact of Sairat yet. But I’m sure it’ll change a lot of things, hopefully for the better," said Nitin Keni, chief executive officer, Essel. “A lot of Hindi and non-Hindi producers are jumping on to the Marathi bandwagon now because they feel that with minimum investment, they can earn as much as a Hindi film. But there’s another side to the story—there are people who have started thinking of things like the form films should take or subjects that should be tackled," Keni said.

To be sure, Essel is no stranger to success, though the proportions of the Sairat phenomenon may be uncommon. The private company promoted by the Subhash Chandra-owned Zee group started in 2012 by distributing films like the Mahesh Manjrekar-directed Kaksparsh, soon turning to full-fledged production with teenage love story Timepass (2014).

“We started Essel as a content creation company," Keni said. While a secondary aim was to come up with material for Zee, Zee Marathi or other television channels, the focus was going to be the production and distribution of films in Marathi, Hindi and other regional languages.

“The reason I chose Marathi films as the first step forward was that Maharashtra is one of the best multiplex-wired states in the country," Keni said. “The whole cinema scenario in the state is changing and producing better results in terms of revenues if the film’s content is good."

Hindi films like Jazbaa (2015) came along the way. “But they were taking some time," Keni said. “If you sign a star (in Bollywood) today, the dates committed are after six to eight months. So before I went into Hindi films which we’ve done now, we thought it was best to get to Marathi films. The market was ready for it and a critical mass had been achieved."

The Marathi audiences didn’t disappoint Keni. Essel has to its credit some of the highest grossing films in Marathi language even before Sairat came along this April. Beginning with Duniyadari (2013) at 25 crore, there was Timepass (2014) at 40 crore, Lai Bhaari (2014) at 36 crore, Dr. Prakash Baba Amte (2014) at 15 crore, Timepass 2 (2015) at 30 crore and Natsamrat (2016) at 40 crore, according to Essel data. Until 2012, a 8-9 crore business was considered exceptional for a Marathi film. A two-digit figure was nearly unheard of.

“It’s taken Essel some time but their vision of taking Marathi cinema to a higher level through content, presentation and marketing has been showing for the last one-and-a-half years," said Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema. “They have positioned themselves in the mind of Marathi audiences with quality films."

To be sure, the Zee association has helped the company that made gross collections of about 100 crore in 2015. Keni states Zee Marathi remains their foremost platform for movie promotions, especially their reality show called Chala Hawa Yeu Dya.

“The biggest advantage for Essel is that they already have a certain satellite amount assured for all their films," said Mohan. “Plus they have their own music label, Zee Music. So the theatrical burden is much less."

But for the company, the real triumph lies in, as Keni put it, “having caught the pulse of the Marathi audience".

“Marathi audiences are very different. Their staple diet has been weekend theatre which has unimaginable variety," he said. “So we’re looking at a dynamic, intellectual and forward-looking set of people. There was a time when people there would only watch theatre and television, when we gave them the kind of intellectual and artistic cinema they relished, that’s when they started coming out of homes."

The difference with Hindi cinema, on the other hand, is that you’re catering to an all-India audience and it’s difficult to be completely authentic in terms of culture, characters and scenes, as not everyone will get the local references. A multi-lingual and multi-cultural audience necessitates simplifying the subject. But Keni doesn’t see Bollywood as a threat, especially since a lot of their Marathi films have released alongside big-ticket Hindi projects. Sairat hit screens the same day as action flick Baaghi, while Timepass 2 came along with Akshay Kumar’s Gabbar Is Back.

“There is space in every state for regional as well as national cinema," Keni said, while admitting that four years ago, it was a challenge to get sufficient space and good show timings in theatres for Marathi films but that changed with Duniyadari’s 25 crore business. A Marathi film today gets about 300-400 screens, the same as a typical Hindi film.

25 crore in Maharashtra alone means 100 crore all-India but these aren’t films that travel outside. Plus exhibitors know we have an eight-week-plus run whereas most Hindi film peter out after the first week," Keni said.

Going ahead, Essel is looking at Hindi releases—Akshay Kumar-starrer Rustom on 12 August and a Nana Patekar film called Tadka later. Their Marathi slate, Keni said, includes a couple of “experimental" films in different genres which are under production.

“They will take some time but I don’t see any of them becoming a Sairat. I don’t see a Sairat coming in soon. But we will continue to make films that are very different from each other," Keni said.

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