Published: Verve Magazine, July, 2011

The masala dailies have wrung their words out trying to understand what happened last year. Heavyweights sunk at the box office and a handful of unknowns, nobodies and alternates walked away with the entire silver screen pie. Sitanshi Talati-Parikh decodes the enigma of the mega-budget losses and small-movie wins

Recently, film critic Rajeev Masand wrote a column deriding the excesses of the Indian film industry. He spoke about the glory of big budgets – including the cost of taking star wives and their entourage shopping – being washed out in the final tally at the box office, when the film faces the music of a silent box office register. While he was talking about an upcoming film, it is bringing back into focus the hot topic of discussion – namely the cold slush of the big-budget movies that failed miserably, against the refreshing warmth of the surprise hits: small films that made it huge.

Like a sudden bad hangover from the ’90s, Indian cinema is facing a crisis of money: too much money chasing an average story, a tired movie star, and refurbished content. The lucrative movie-making business has created an illusionary clout of movie stars and divas, gift-wrapped with zero professionalism and huge egos. These stars continue to be bankable at the box office, which is why big banners are willing to turn a blind (albeit bleeding) eye to their demands. After all, at the end of the day everyone rakes in the big bucks and trills home happy.

Suddenly though, expensive movies are not enough to attract the audience: with a refreshing sensibility that one wished would extend to our political choices, moviegoers have shunned some of the biggest movies last year. Big in the form of stars, directors, production houses, and production costs (see box for details). Think Kites, Tees Maar Khan, Guzaarish, Raavan. Before that, Saawariya, Blue, What’s Your Raashee? and even My Name Is Khan didn’t fare as well as one would have expected or the producers preferred to suggest. What went wrong? The formula elements were there: masala, big actors, varied concepts, established directors, expensive marketing and sufficient money chasing all of it to get a rise out of the staunchest movie buff.

How big can the movie be? The money being poured into the movies has become ostentatious without any sign of equal returns. This has led to a sudden flow of in-movie advertising, a desperate bid to sell music, cable and overseas distribution rights to the highest bidder. The problem lies in production costs. When a great amount of money is poured into lavish film sets, movie star salaries and their entourage fees, shooting abroad, and with relaxed schedules, it becomes impossible to recover those costs. And many times, the glitz outdoes the actual story. In the age of information overload, content is king: a good movie primarily needs a good script to work, the rest will follow. Udaan, one of the best movies last year, did well despite the odds; and others lost out despite the factors in their favour.

The final tally
It is not so much the audience that is changing as much as the amount of money being poured into a film that is challenging the final tally. Does a movie deserve that kind of money? Take Blue, or Kites for instance. Both gambled big, banking on the larger-than-life phenomenon: hoping that international locales (ridiculous when you see Kites which is shot in a barren desert) and a carrot of expensive productions would be a box-office draw. Possibly with the fact that much of the audience is now far more well-travelled, satellite television provides enough entertainment in the form of international scenery, viewers don’t necessarily want to go to the theatre merely to see American scapes or underwater corals.

Shah Rukh Khan’s RA.One, rumoured to have a budget of Rs one billion, makes it one of India’s most expensive films. Releasing later this year, Khan claims that the ambitious movie calls for special effects (collaborating with international teams) and cutting corners just won’t do the trick. With satellite rights already reportedly sold to Star India for Rs 40 crore, the film is playing the high stakes. Even if Khan magnanimously feels that he is setting the standard for technically well-produced movies and is ready to bear the costs of being such a trend-setter, no one can hope to gamble with big numbers and go in ready to fail.

More than the death of the blockbuster mega banner film, as some reports are willing to tout, what has emerged is a license to live for the small or medium film. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s ’70s and ’80s saw the popularity of small films that spoke to the finer sensibilities of a discerning audience. Lately there have been slick mega-budget movies appealing to the grandeur of an emerging and moneyed India. Ironically, rather than get washed away in the gloss of a mega film, smaller films now, once again, have a greater chance of surviving, not only because of a good product, but particularly because their budgets are controlled. The big budget movies’ wins are meagre, their losses massive – so it’s not surprising that established production houses like Excel Entertainment (run by the Akhtars and Ritesh Sidhwani) are willing to stake their bets on smaller films like Karthik Calling Karthik, to give them room for one Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, releasing this month.

Where the star cast is willing to share in the profits than take a big upfront fee also makes a difference in the movie business – think Aamir Khan, Farhan Akhtar, Shah Rukh Khan, Imran Khan. Guzaarish, for instance, started out in the red – after paying out massive amounts to the three heavyweights: director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and actors Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, added to which the cost of making the lavish film, it was left with a massive total to bat towards. Even with a decent opening weekend, you cannot lay your bets on pulling in those kind of numbers. What may change the dynamics of the game is producers getting smarter and not trigger-happy stretching their purse strings for stars like Akshay Kumar who demand larger amounts and who believe in cross-bargaining, or even those directors, like Sanjay Leela Bhansali who genuinely think they are worth that much.

A talking point
Inevitably, the success of a film gets measured by numbers and the total pull from the box office. Which means that for a movie to be successful in a wide and diverse audience mix, it needs to satisfy various segments of society – which is impossible for one trying to be different. It then becomes obvious that such a film must be made with a small budget, so that the niche audience it is catering towards will accept it, and it can recover costs and possibly encourage others to take baby steps forward. There are few films in that mould which can satisfy enough people to become a talking point and generate sufficient traction to make it successful across the board. Udaan is one such film – like Iqbal (2005) was at one point of time. This works because an inspirational story has a universal appeal.

Certain films have recently faced flak because of too much ‘Hollywoodisation’. Kites took a Hollywood-type story, placed it in a Hollywood-style location and brought in technicians and a look from that part of the world. Besides the failings of the story, direction and editing, what didn’t resonate with the Indian audience was the fact that the mindset of the characters also became Western. As the Yash Raj and Dharma stable has proved time and time again, the locales and the clothes can be Western, but the identity and characterisation shouldn’t. While the movie may be echoing how a certain portion of the urbane youth is beginning to feel, it doesn’t resonate with the Indianness of the Indian culture. The audience seems to prefer an aspirational look and styling, with a strong Indian sensibility. Possibly a reason why Tanu Weds Manu or a Band Baaja Baaraat scored over Anjaana Anjaani and Break Ke Baad, despite the fact that the former had an average production and the latter a slick and well-styled product.

Within the milieu of an Indian sensibility, movies that were of the different mould, may not have been runaway successes, have nevertheless prepared us to accept experimental stories: Karthik Calling Karthik, Ishqiya, Anjaana Anjaani, Wake Up Sid, Rocket Singh, Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, Dev D. Rather than embrace the old formula, others would now be more willing to tread unknown waters. Would Delhi Belly – releasing this month – stand a chance if Aamir Khan Productions, UTV and Imran Khan were not associated with it? Possibly not – there is something reassuring about a safe bet. The viewers trust Aamir’s choice, and there will be people willing to see – even if out of sheer curiosity – what he has to offer next.

Great expectations
That leads one to expectations. One expects that a movie that has a big name or multiple big names attached to it would be good. So heavyweights act like our elected representatives – we trust them to be discerning in their choices, to provide us entertainment. And sometimes, as was the case with Madhuri Dixit, we also believe that they can make even an ordinary film superlative by their mere presence. The basic premise when we know big names are associated with a project is ‘How bad can it be? It’s worth a watch.’ This is what producers bank on to recover their costs in the first weekend, and it is what makes stars feel invincible.

And the small films that became conversation starters, centrepieces and endnotes? Besides a fresh script or perspective, what they have in common is that they have at least one big banner backing them and possibly even a big production house overseeing things – Udaan (UTV), Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai (Balaji Motion Pictures), Peepli [Live] (UTV and Aamir Khan Productions), Ishqiya (Shemaroo and Vishal Bharadwaj Pictures), Band Baaja Baaraat (Yash Raj Films), Tanu Weds Manu (Viacom 18 Motion Pictures). UTV readily picks what would appear to be more experimental films – think its round up of Mumbai terror movies in 2008, while other big banners are following suit by adding smaller films to their stable to balance the money being poured into a bigger venture. UTV Motion Pictures has actually been a part of a good number of the losing films last year, but has saved face with the popularity of the small films it backed.

Brand value
Would the backing of notable production houses attract top stars to milder scripts? Maybe, if they didn’t worry so much about their brand value dipping with lower sign-up fees, they (and then in return big banners) would be willing to hedge their bets on smaller films. Would Aishwarya have done films like Chokher Bali or Raincoat (even though it meant working with acclaimed Rituparno Ghosh) in the middle of her career trajectory, had she had plum offers in hand at the time? Possibly not. At a certain stage of stardom, movie stars tend to become particularly risk-averse, afraid to jinx a happy mainstream run. Which is ironic from the tally last year – all the top stars have struggled to make it through, while non-A-list actors like Kangna Ranaut, Anushka Sharma and Madhavan, and a new breed of directors have scored big – simply by having nothing to lose.

Another recent game-changer: in a rapid movement, social media has played a role in reducing the impact of big names versus good movies. With previews and online buzz allowing a good film to gain traction possibly even before the first weekend opening or very quickly during the first weekend, it stands a fair chance of doing well overall, and continuing for a longer time in cinemas and then negotiating a more competitive price for DVD and cable rights. On the flipside, social media still only reaches out to a few multiplex audiences in the urban sectors, lacking a strong overall impact.

At the end of the day, it’s some bad choices that have made this a conversation piece: people will not stop being drawn to the glamour of huge films. As we have seen, the buzz about Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara more than sizzles, with an overwhelming amount of names (Hrithik Roshan, Katrina Kaif, Farhan and Zoya Akhtar) and their unique combinations, including Abhay Deol and Kalki Koechlin, guaranteeing a sizeable opening. With the recent disappointments though, what will happen is that smaller films, which would ordinarily be considered niche and maybe even risky propositions, will now become more attractive to audiences who are looking for more challenging views. So the chances are the urbane audiences will watch Zindagi… and Delhi Belly this month with equal gusto. As long as there are some steady players: financiers, producers, directors and actors ready to take the plunge with small, experimental, unique films, willing to adjust budgets for the cause of the film rather than their pockets or egos, there will continue to be a breeding ground for good cinema. Where cinema remains an art form before it becomes a business.


Vishal Bharadwaj, Priyanka Chopra,
UTV Spotboy

Salman Khan,
Eros International

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Vipul Shah,
PVR Pictures

Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Hrithik Roshan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan,
UTV Motion Pictures

Mani Ratnam, Abhishek and Aishwarya Bachchan, Reliance Big Pictures,
Madras Talkies

Deepika Padukone, Neil Nitin Mukesh,
Yash Raj Films

Hrithik Roshan, Rakesh Roshan, Anurag Basu,
Reliance Big Pictures

Kunal Kohli Productions, Reliance Big Pictures,
Deepika Padukone and Imran Khan

Priyanka Chopra, Ranbir Kapoor

Ashutosh Gowariker, Abhishek Bachchan and Deepika Padukone,
UTV Motion Pictures

Farah Khan Productions, UTV Motion Pictures,
Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif