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Gujarat farmers turn film producers

Gujarat farmers turn film producers

Ahmedabad: With land prices in south and central Gujarat having shot up in the last few years, farmers in the area have struck it rich. The prosperity has led to them acquiring the usual trappings, including sports utility vehicles and other such playthings.

It has also allowed them to aspire to the glamorous life, putting some of the money they’ve made from selling land into producing movies in the past three to four years.

In a star-struck nation, the well-heeled farmer likes nothing so much as the chance to enter the movie business, although the money involved is peanuts compared with the crores that go into the extravaganzas churned out elsewhere.

As many as 45 Gujarati films have been released this year, of which at least half were financed by farmers, according to Rambhai Bhimani, president of the Gujarati Film Producers Association, an apex body of movie makers in the state. Bhimani, a farmer himself, has produced three films—Dolo Mara Malak Ma, Hun Tun Ne Ramtudi and Mara Man Chogada Dhola. He’s planning to step down from the post as he wants to increase his focus on film production and make at least two movies every year starting next year.

“Eight years ago, diamond merchants and traders of Surat had entered into the film-making business. Today it is dominated by farmers, mainly from areas like Mehsana, Sanand, Deesa and the Saurashtra region," according to Bhimani, who has about 15 acres of land in and around Ahmedabad, where prices have risen as much as six times since 2006.

He also has holdings in Deesa, about 140km away from Ahmedabad, where he grows potatoes. The fickle nature of the business doesn’t seem to deter the farmer-turned-producers.

“Out of 10 films made recently, six were financed by farmers. It’s the glamour which mainly draws them. Seventy per cent of the films flop at the box office as they are not marketed properly," said Hiten Kumar, a popular Gujarati film actor.

A film costs Rs20-25 lakh to make on average, with the fee for the actors coming to about Rs2 lakh, except for a few male actors whose individual charges are very high. Most of the movies—largely love stories, mythologicals and historicals —are shot on locations distant from the big cities, which also lowers costs.

The math works something like this. The state government gives a Rs5 lakh subsidy for a Gujarati film to promote the local industry. A producer can earn an equal sum from satellite television and music rights.?With?most Gujarati films being released in single-screen cinema halls and running for about a week, the average earning from theatrical runs is about Rs2-3 lakh per movie.

The majority of the farmers or landowners who enter the business are not too well-educated and they get into it as a means of raising their social status and earning the respect of their fellow villagers, Kumar said. The new producers undergo a transformation in their lifestyle along with the new profession, discarding their regular attire in favour of western-style garb.

Most of the films released in the past year have been made by first-time producers with considerable land holdings.

Shaktisinh Vaghela, for instance, has 6.7 acres of agricultural land near Ahmedabad at Godavi village near Sanand, where Tata Motors Ltd set up its plant to make the Nano after being forced to relocate from West Bengal.

Land prices in Sanand have gone up from Rs35-40 lakh per acre to Rs75-80 lakh in the past two years, said Nirav Kothary, vice-president, strategic consulting, Jones Lang LaSalle India, a leading real estate consultancy firm.

Vaghela’s film Vir Bhatiji Maharaj released under the Maa Amba Film Creation banner last month has met with some box-office success. The movie’s plot is based on the life of a preacher-prince with a passion for protecting cows and serpents.

Vaghela, who owns an Innova and a Qualis among other vehicles, said his social standing has risen after the movie’s release. But old moralities die hard—some villagers criticized him for getting associated with the film industry. The producers also use the movies as vanity vehicles to exhibit their own acting talents or to promote their sons and relatives. Kirit Thakker, who brokers land deals in Sanand, Bavla and Dholka, played the villain’s brother in Ek Vaar Mara Malak Ma Aavje, a film produced by him along with three partners and released in January. He said the story was also conceived by him.

Thakker says farmers have also been using their cash to buy more land and selling it when prices rise. Money thus earned is being put into film production, he said.

Kothary of Jones Lang LaSalle corroborates that “farmers who are selling their land are moving into interior areas by buying land". Deepak Patel, who has 12 acres of farm land in Mehsana, said he became a producer because he had a story to tell. Patel not only wrote Prem Gaganna Pankhida he also penned the lyrics for six songs in the movie. The film, which revolves around the ties between nature and man, was made with the rural audience in mind and is set for release this month, he said.

That makes sense because there isn’t much of a following for Gujarati films in urban areas, which have been weaned on a regular diet of Bollywood staples.

The Gujarati film industry’s production costs added up to Rs16-17 crore in the past year, of which Rs12 crore was the collective loss, said Bhimani, who is also involved with film distribution and owns three single-screen theatres.

There isn’t much profit in the business but people are drawn by the glamour of the industry, he said. The audience for Gujarati films is mainly drawn from the lower income groups and this too is dwindling, he said.

“We need to focus more on marketing. There is also a dearth of good scripts and good screenplay writers. It is difficult for Gujarati producers to draw an audience that watches Bollywood," he said.

Hiten Kumar doesn’t wholly embrace the entry of this new breed of producer, primarily on aesthetic grounds.

“They are cash-rich but there most of them lack vision of good cinema. Also, what if there is a downturn and the real estate market nosedives?"

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