What’s wrong with our movies?

RAJEEV MASAND

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BY the time you’re reading this, a record is likely to have been made. A Hindi film is expected to cross the Rs 160 crore mark within four weeks of its release. That’s very good news for an industry that every other year seems to be in a state of slump. So should we celebrate this record? Or be ashamed that the film in question is the creatively bankrupt, mindless comedy ‘Singh Is Kinng’?

Let’s look back at last year. Two of the biggest blockbusters of 2007 were Anees Bazmee’s ‘Welcome’ and Farah Khan’s ‘Om Shanti Om’.

Bazmee’s film which reportedly grossed Rs 140 crore, was one of last year’s worst reviewed films – a senseless comedy with an excuse of a script. Yet it did much better business than Aamir Khan’s ‘Taare Zameen Par’ which opened on the same day. Khan’s film, a sensitive and engaging drama about a dyslexic boy and a teacher determined to help him, made it to every critic’s top-ten list, and earned a sizeable and loyal fan following. Yet, at a gross of approximately Rs 110 crore, it didn’t come anywhere close to the numbers made by ‘Welcome’.

Shah Rukh Khan-starrer ‘Om Shanti Om’, a modern-day spoof of popular 1970s cinema, is reported to have grossed an unprecedented Rs 165 crore, while the far superior ‘Chak De India’ (also starring Shah Rukh Khan) took a more modest Rs 110 crore despite better reviews.

The best films don’t always perform the best. It’s a sad reality we must get used to quickly. Because after all, there is very little connection between hit films and good films. And that’s true not only of the Hindi film industry, but of Hollywood too. In 2007, ‘Spider-Man 3’, made approximately 151 million dollars in its opening weekend alone, becoming the Number One film in Box-Office Opening Weekend history. ‘Spider-Man 3’, went on to gross a very enviable 336 million dollars domestically, even though it remains the least favourite of the three films in the ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy, as far as critics’ reviews and audience choice is concerned. Meanwhile, Best Picture Oscar-winner ‘No Country For Old Men’ grossed only 74 million dollars in comparison, despite the strong awards buzz it carried and the unanimously rave reviews.

What has also become an obstinate reality are the sky-rocketing marketing budgets that studios and producers spend, both in Hollywood and now Bollywood, over promoting their films. There are studied campaigns that build up over weeks before a release – press interviews, making of segments that air on television, promos and trailers, appearances on popular reality shows, multi-city/country tours and promotions, and finally, a glitzy premiere.

 

Let’s hop back to ‘Singh Is Kinng’ being the release that’s most top of the mind. Its marketing budget has been pegged at a steep Rs 15 crore and a campaign that started at least a couple of months before its release. The film’s success is attributed solely to its pre-release buzz. When its distributors flooded the theatres with prints and back-to-back shows on its opening weekend (as many as 28 per day in some multiplexes), the audience was primed to catch it. The makers of ‘Singh Is Kinng’ recovered the largest chunk of their investment over the opening weekend itself.

Even the more recent ‘Bachna Ae Haseeno’ worked on the same credo. Coming as it did on the heels of a spate of flops from the mighty Yash Raj banner, the studio dropped its usual standoffishness and its stars were everywhere. It is estimated that the money spent on marketing ‘Bachna’ was more than the amount spent on marketing any previous Yash Raj film – including those with bigger stars. As a result, audience buzz was so strong around the time the film released that the tepid reviews didn’t really hurt the opening weekend.

While Aamir Khan bolstered ‘Taare Zameen Par’ and ‘Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na’ with savvy tie-ups and promotional campaigns, the trendsetter was really Shah Rukh Khan who launched a blitzkrieg, first with ‘Don’ in 2006 and then an all-guns-blazing campaign for ‘Om Shanti Om’ a year later. ‘Om Shanti Om’ and ‘Saawariya’ were at war at release stage coming as they were on the same date, but even during its pre-release publicity, the former eclipsed the latter, spending an estimated Rs 30 crore on its marketing efforts. That’s more than what three small films in the Hindi movie industry (say ‘Mithya’, ‘Bheja Fry’ and ‘Manorama Six Feet Under’) spend on their entire budget.

 

Hollywood is further ahead. ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’, the Harry Potter films, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and ‘Casino Royale’ are just some crowd-pullers that the studios spent millions over to promote. So far, 2006’s ‘Spider-Man 3’ is said to have had the biggest marketing budget ever, at an estimated 120 million dollars, but that’s in the past now. 2008 has the new Bond film, ‘Quantum Of Solace’ lined up, and summer 2009 marks the release of the sixth Harry Potter film, ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’. No eyebrows will be raised if the studios behind those movies decide to up the ante in terms of marketing and promotions.

So yes, Hollywood has the same financially disparate responses as Bollywood to movies that make you think and movies that don’t (the recent reaction to ‘The Dark Knight’ being an exception – it gathered applause from critics and made 158 million dollars in the biggest opening weekend in history).

Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that there are more studios in Hollywood that are willing to stick their necks out for unique projects. Miramax, Fox Searchlight, The Weinstein Company, New Line Cinema, Focus Features – these are just a few studios devoted to ‘specialist films’. In the Hindi film industry, there is Mukta Searchlight and UTV Spotboy, the specialist arms of two giant film-producing companies that are dedicated to developing niche projects. But it’s obviously a nascent idea here.

Once studios become more open to fresh takes and experimental approaches, the writing in the Hindi movie industry will automatically reinvent itself. After all, the fundamental problem with our industry has been its obsession with the formula. Some movies tiptoe out of that, only to fall back into the safety net of sameness once it’s time to tie up all the loose ends. Obviously, it’s our writing that needs to change.

 

Disregarding the fact that the script is the very foundation that a film is built on, the Hindi movie industry tends to shortchange the creators of that most precious raw material – the screenwriters. It has become fashionable for everyone to say that we have little good writing in cinema, but truth is, little’s being done to change that.

* Writers in India are paid less than actors, directors, music composers, cinematographers, and sometimes even less than playback singers and choreographers.

* They’re often forced by producers and stars to rip off successful American films, instead of being encouraged to come up with original material.

* When was the last time you saw the writer’s name on a film’s poster?

* The written word is never sacred. Nobody would stand for an actor stepping in to do the director’s job on a set. Nobody would allow a junior artiste to perform an actor’s scene. But very often on film sets, everyone from assistant directors to stars freely change lines in the script without the approval of the writer.

* It’s become customary now for actors, directors and producers to receive a share of a film’s profits. Isn’t it odd that the person who laid the foundation that the film stands on, is never considered for a piece of the pie?

* In the West, when a producer or a studio commissions a script to a writer, he’s paid a development fee against the time he spends working on the script. Closer home, writers are seldom paid before some material is delivered – which means, the time spent and expenses incurred while working on the script go uncompensated. Writers here are paid after, and only if, a script is approved.

* Once bought and paid for by a producer, the writer has no rights whatsoever over the script he’s written. The concept of intellectual property does not exist in Bollywood. Hence, if a film is being remade ten years down the line, the original film’s producer can demand a fee for selling ‘remake rights’, but the original writer whose very script is being remade receives nothing.

* The Indian legal system has done very little to help writers. There have been countless instances of writers accusing directors and producers of stealing their ideas and plots without giving them either credit or money for the same. More than a handful of these cases have landed up in court. I can’t think of one landmark judgment where the courts ruled in favour of the writer.

 

No wonder then that writers find it so easy to just lift off a Hollywood thriller, a Korean love story, a Japanese horror or, the latest industry trend – remake an old Hindi classic. Why invest energy into something that delivers neither financial returns nor the love of audiences?

The only way the Hindi film industry will be recognized globally is when we stop worshipping the knock-off. There has to be some payoff for originality – for one, maybe those hits that are rip-offs should not be considered for awards.

And here’s my other point – originality alone isn’t key. There has to be the secret ingredient of relatability. You should be able to see bits and pieces of your life onscreen. That’s usually what resonates best with audiences. Intelligent directors are those who can spot that in a script, translate the writer’s contribution and elevate the experience for the viewer.

 

When you think about it, it’s really the films with that punch that make the cut. Jaideep Sahni took the conventional sports film graph, but put in touches in ‘Chak De India’ that were intrinsically Indian – the underdogs in this patriarchal society were women. Also, their team spirit had to come in, despite the fact that they played for such diverse states and cultures.

‘Taare Zameen Par’s’ writer Amole Gupte made a case for inclusion of dyslexic children, just like any film about Down’s Syndrome or schizophrenia before ‘Taare’. But listen to its sub-text, where Nikumbh stresses how art can become a vocation in a culture obsessed with doctors, engineers and chartered accountants.

‘Pyaar Ke Side Effects’ had its flaws, yet you can see what its urbane audience liked – here was their dating lingo, their commitment phobias and their knee-jerk reactions.

One of my favourite films in recent times is another one that holds up a mirror to the Indian life, albeit a very Delhi one. That was ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’, excellently directed by Dibakar Banerjee. It did spring out of a real-life incident – writer Jaideep Sahni’s uncle’s land was appropriated. Sahni turned that into a black comedy about land-grabbing, throwing up real-life characters like the mousy Khosla, the boorish Khurana, and the son who wants to escape the system and go to a structured life in the US. ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’, like Anurag Basu’s ‘Life In A Metro’, struck a chord – these were people like us.

Yet what the Indian audience will watch thrice over is escapist cinema. ‘Krrish’, ‘Dhoom’, ‘Partner’, ‘Om Shanti Om’ and more recently, ‘Race’ and ‘Singh Is Kinng’. Even young, shining talent like Farhan Akhtar are too easily seduced by its success. ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ was like you and me, but when audiences baulked at Akhtar’s earnest, coming-of-age drama ‘Lakshya’, so did he. The director immediately switched to the remake of ‘Don’ and is back to ‘cool’ with ‘Rock On’.

 

It’s easy for us to yearn for candyfloss or racy movies – I enjoy a chick flick or a family film like the next person and I immediately queue up for comic book superhero films. But they are rarely going to raise the emotions in me that a ‘Jodhaa Akbar’, a ‘Taare Zameen Par’ or even a ‘Khuda Kay Liye’ will ever do.

It inevitably boils down to what critics have been reiterating for over two decades. Hindi cinema needs to leave the safe zone. It needs to take more risks. More hunger, more passion and most of all, more honesty. Writers and directors have to start listening to themselves instead of looking to what made the last hit.

And for god’s sake, let’s give that number-crunching at the box office a rest. The hit film often does more harm than good. It creates unhealthy competition with directors to outdo each other, creates unlikely heroes (pardon the pun) out of actors who won’t experiment and, worst of all, a hit spawns a hundred emotionless clones.

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