May 31, 2020
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Flop Show

Bollywood's ship faces unfriendly trade winds at the box office, prompting some serious introspection

Flop Show
Flop Show
Ram Gopal Varma believes in ghosts. After successfully bringing alive the eastman colours of Hindi filmdom in Rangeela and plunging into the depths of the underworld in Satya and Company, the resolutely alternative filmmaker now wants to "scare the hell out of people". Only his Bhoot won't wear a white saree, nor will it roam around at night singing, flickering candle in hand. "It'll strike terror when you'd least expect it," says Varma, hoping Bhoot will also manage to strike elusive gold at an unyielding box office. Varma is betting on a non-formulaic ghost as the means of deliverance for a crisis-hit Hindi film industry that has already lost a whopping Rs 290 crore (on investments of about Rs 1,000 crore) between last Diwali and this.

His compatriot and the reigning prince of the mainstream, Karan Johar, is not so sure. The wunderkind is as yet undecided about his next venture but knows it certainly won't be another wad of star-spangled visual bubblegum: "I should be kicked if I make another crying, singing, dancing, happy movie."

Such soul-searching and introspection is rampant in Bollywood today. The world's second-largest dream factory is living its worst nightmare. "This has been the worst year in the last decade," says Komal Nahata, editor, Film Information. A year when housefull boards, frenzied booking-counter queues and manic scalpers seem to have gone totally extinct. "Everyone's wondering how to deal with the issue," says film scholar Ranjini Majumdar.

Predictions such as "No film looks exciting", made by trade analyst Amod Mehra at the start of the year, stand vindicated. The situation is so bad that experts are finding it difficult to even put together the Top 10 of 2002. "Any film that's not making losses is being declared a hit," says Nahata. Customarily, the ratio of hits is about 15-20 per cent, this year only 7-8 per cent have managed to generate any business. Devdas may have registered a Rs 45-crore turnover for distributors alone, but even that couldn't turn it into Gadar 2002. The hit parade remained puny, led by Vikram Bhatt's Rs 4.5-crore spook show Raaz that raked in Rs 20 crore. In fact, the dubbed versions of Spiderman and Bend It Like Beckham were more profitable than almost any Hindi movie. Diwali, usually the most upbeat time for business, sent the industry in mourning with all three releases—Jeena Sirf Mere Liye, Annarth and Wah Tera Kya Kehna sinking without a trace. In fact, such is the uncertainty that distributors have stopped buying films. Govinda's Khullam Khulla Pyar Karenge is just one such film lying unsold. Shararat, Chhal, Sur too had to wait in the queue for months to reach theatres. Distributors, stung by box-office flops, are no longer paying in advance for films now but buying them on commission basis.

The tale of woes hardly ends at theatre returns tanking. Advance sales of music, satellite and TV rights that used to often help recover half the investment for producers have crashed by 50 per cent. Last year, Tips lost Rs 5.5 crore on the music of Subhash Ghai's Yaadein alone and has stopped outright acquisition of film music. So has Venus. At Rs 12 crore, Devdas was the last big music acquisition deal. Now a major film fetches only Rs 1-1.5 crore for music rights while smaller ones are going with royalty schemes—no upfront payment but a share from the sales.

So producers who were making "table profits" with these lucrative deals are in the red. And the jury is still out on who the biggest individual loser was in the past year.Was it David Dhawan who came up with his fourth consecutive flop in Chor Machaye Shor? Was it Govinda who mustered two supreme duds, Akhiyon Se Goli Mare and Wah Tera Kya Kehna? Was it Hrithik Roshan who delivered a hat-trick of flops? Was it Vashu Bhagnani who couldn't get it right at all, be it Deewanapan or Om Jai Jagdish? Or were the biggest losers the owners of the 600-odd cinema halls that were forced to down shutters in the past one year?

"Everyone's in the panic room. The bubble had to burst one day like the sharemarket," says young filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. "Bollywood's myth-making is collapsing. It's a failure of Indian imagination," says social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan. But is this just another bad year or are people not interested in Hindi films anymore? Why can't Bollywood formulae connect with the masses any longer? Is it because the industry lacks talent? And, most important, how do you pull the audiences back to the theatres?

Perhaps the answers will emerge from the problems, chaos and the churning itself. "It's scary but then we have to spread our wings. Something good will emerge out of this," says filmmaker Mahesh Manjrekar. "It's a hyphen till new myths are worked out," says Vishwanathan. According to Indian new wave director Shyam Benegal, such continuous dynamics will actually help the industry's growth. "It's a pause, a lag between what the audience desires and what the industry is delivering," he says. Until that gap is closed, films will keep flopping.

Experts are advocating a five-fold resurrection programme—rationalise budgets, professionalise processes, reorient the star system, tell good stories and, most importantly, tell them well. In other words, it's time for a radical makeover. Especially since the audience is clearly coming of age. "People are getting smarter. They know that a good-looking package may not necessarily mean a good film," says publicity designer Simrit Brar. "They've outgrown anything that's outdated, they can spot anything that lacks the stamp of quality," says Johar. Vikram Bhatt feels Bollywood will have to face up to increasing audience hostility. "They are not going to tolerate anything repetitive," he warns. The root of the affliction can perhaps be located in the cliche-weariness that has struck the consumers of Bollywood massala.

But while the cinemagoer is not willing to be patient with drivel and mediocrity, the filmmakers betray a lack of originality and vision. "There's no adventure, risk-taking, mystique or curiosity about filmmaking anymore," says media commentator Sudheesh Pachauri. "People have lost confidence in filmmakers, they trust Ektaa Kapoor instead," says Vinod Mirani of Box Office. Audiences are increasingly veering towards other forms of entertainment, particularly the ubiquitous idiot box. They would much rather feast on flat, 2-D images that are just a remote away than venture out to see them unspool in expensive 70 mm darkness. At its very core, it's a creative quandary.

Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt would attribute it to a lack of talent in filmmakers".

They are timid—intellectually and imaginatively," says he. "There are plenty of showmen, but no artistes," says film critic Deepa Gahlot. Johar thinks that they themselves have created the crisis."As a body of filmmakers, we need to look within ourselves. We are not giving audiences anything that's really up to the mark," he confesses. Four or five good films in a year are certainly not enough. Varma thinks the makers should take it for granted that the audience is as intelligent as they are: "You shouldn't spoonfeed them or demean their intelligence." Clearly, the makers now need to get over their obsession with pretty pictures and look into substance. "Cinema is not about embellishments.It is about communicating ideas, feelings, emotions. The rest is just expensive window dressing," writes Gahlot. "We'll have to make better films, otherwise who'll pay hundred bucks to watch trash," asks Mumbai distributor Shravan Shroff.

But the only thing filmmakers seem to understand is a success they can instantly replicate. Trouble is: romance, patriotism, NRI dreams, nothing seems to be working. But, says Pachauri: "There's no popular culture without a formula." Could "no formula" then be the elusive new formula that Bollywood is looking for? "The formula emerging is to do your own thing, to break away from the norms," says Kashyap. More than anything else, Bollywood today needs an innovative vocabulary that's low on cliches. As Dil Chahta Hai very pithily asked: "Hum hain naye, andaz kyoon ho purana (We are new, so why should our style be old?)?"

"The only kind of films that the audience is willing to watch are original ones made from the heart. It can be action, romance, fiction, period drama, patriotic cinema or a thriller but it must get the adrenalin flowing," writes film journalist Bhawna Somaya. "We should come up with bolder, new themes which reflect today, not yesterday," says filmmaker Ketan Mehta. Varma believes in breaking away from the method. "The film may or may not live up to the expectations. People might like it or hate it but they won't ignore it," he says. "Make what you want to make," seconds Kashyap.

But better films can happen only with good stories. "Content is the weakest link," says Benegal. "There's no Salim-Javed today, no writer can sell a film," says Nahata. Also, filmmakers have done little to encourage new writers, in fact they have remained largely inaccessible to them. There was a time, half-a-century ago, when cinema's link with literature was deeper and institutional. The studio, which was the film industry's backbone then, was a nursery for young talent. Even a Saadat Hasan Manto could park himself in Bombay before moving on to higher literary stations. Now, in the absence of such invigorating patronage, all that our new breed of brain-dead filmmakers want is to rip off Hollywood; as Gahlot puts it, "there are no creative directors, only dvd hacks". So Analyze This becomes Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin, The Whole Nine Yards is reworked as Awara Pagal Deewana and Primal Fear inspires Deewangee. "There's plenty of talent in screen-writing. But makers don't have the vision and want to play it safe with established names," says Varma. Writers, the backbone of any film, continue to be treated with little or no respect. "The writer is the lowliest of the low in film hierarchy," writes Gahlot. "They will pay half the budget of the film to actors who don't deserve it but they'll begrudge good writers a few lakhs." While putting a film together, script comes last in the list of priorities. "Marketing and publicity is more important than the subject these days," says Nahata. Bollywood still hasn't developed the tradition of working with a bound script. Most often screenplays are written on the fly, in between shots with stray inputs of anyone and everyone, from the star to the spot boy.

Apart from giving scriptwriters their rightful place in the sun, the Hindi film industry also needs to redefine its overbearing star system and inflated budgets. Stars don't necessarily ensure hits despite accounting for 30-40 per cent of a film's cost. And there are too many of them with short career spans. Distributors, who have been putting their money blindly on them, have only realised the futility of doing so now when bombs have been bursting at the box office.

Clearly, Bollywood sorely needs to assess star value in a far more realistic manner. Also, a scaling down of ambitions and rightsizing of budgets.Which, riding on high sentiments created for the entertainment industry by reports from associations like the CII and FICCI, have turned unsustainable. The market can't support more than one Devdas. But we have a Rs 23-crore Om Jai Jagdish and a Rs 30-crore Kaante following close on its heels. Big-budget flops mean bigger losses. And there have been quite a few this year itself: Haan...Maine Bhi Pyar Kiya, Tumko Na Bhool Payege and the two Bhagat Singhs alone raked up lossses of Rs 33 crore! "What works is money spent the right way, otherwise you're sure to make a flop," warns Delhi distributor Ginny Chaddha.

For this, filmmakers need to plan better. "They have to understand the science behind the art—how much to spend, how big an audience to expect, how much would the minimum recovery be," says Nahata. One way out is to go small. It's also a means to bring in some fresh blood and break the star stranglehold. You work within a controlled budget, sell at a reasonable price so the recovery is also decent. "You'll see stars working in small films where the recovery point is not very high," says Benegal. In fact, small niche cinema finds support from the changing dynamics of the exhibition sector. The audience is getting fragmented and the days of universal hits are over. It makes little sense now to gun for a pan-Indian hit. And big-screen theatres are no longer viable and are getting replaced by multiplexes which are ideal arenas to play out a niche film (see box).

What Bollywood basically needs is a systemic overhaul. The industry has to professionalise to maximise returns on its high-risk business. "We require better discipline. Once the film goes on the floors it should be completed in five months," says Manjrekar. It needs to treat the creative pursuit as a business model, to make its processes transparent. Producers need to get corporatised in order to have access to funds from institutions.

Already, the RBI allows producers 40 per cent assistance from banks. Corporates are stepping into all departments of filmmaking—Metalight is getting into production, distribution and exhibition; iDream, Tata Infomedia and Pantaloon are getting into production and IDBI is providing film finance. Vikram Bhatt will direct Amitabh Bachchan and Bipasha Basu in Tata Infomedia's Aitbaar, while Varma has tied up with Fox to produce Shreeram Raghavan's Ek Haseena Thi. IDBI has reportedly doled out Rs 6.35 crore to seven producers for nine films. In fact, the slump notwithstanding, this is what has kept the trade going—new blood and new money. Despite the lull, there's a lot happening beneath the surface. After all, filmmaking is all about the unbearable optimism of being. It's never The End.

By Namrata Joshi With Lata Khubchandani in Mumbai
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