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Cinema In General
Editorial: Cut cinema costs
INDIAN CINEMA, WHICH started in the early years of the last century, sparkled soon after Independence with themes that were entertaining and educative. Social and economic dilemmas were tackled with a sense of rare courage, and audiences invariably walked out of a theatre with a deep sense of satisfaction. They were provoked into discussing and debating the issues of the day. Producers and directors were bold enough to not just present problems, but also suggest solutions. In a way, these films often acted as newspaper editorials or comments telling what was wrong with the fledgling nation and how it could be set right. Movies tried very hard to arouse a sense of patriotism among the people by cleverly trying to get them involved. But sometime after the mid-1970s, cinema made an unwelcome U-turn, when star power and appeal diverted attention from the medium itself. The masses began to throng halls mostly to watch their favourite heroes or heroines with glamorous make-up and costumes in absolutely unrealistic settings and situations. And they were paid handsome fortunes, which progressively began eating into the whole business of making pictures.
This trend continues, and the cracks on the screen are getting wider and uglier. A recent Press report says with alarming clarity that "things have got out of hand". Indeed, they have. About 60 per cent of a film's budget goes for paying the salaries of actors, actresses, directors, story writers and so on. The rest is used for meeting production necessities. At least, this is the pattern with the popular cinema, and most of the 800-odd movies shot every year reveal precisely this. If star costs cannot be met, the budget is raised, often to vulgar figures. Let us take, for instance, "Devdas". Almost Rs. 50 crores were spent on it, and a hauntingly beautiful period piece was made to look like a gaudy mix of mime and dance. The gloss and the colour took away the little inclination the director and his actors may have had to capture the spirit and essence of the plot. Ultimately, it seemed like celluloid without soul.
Not surprisingly, Smita Thackeray, president of the Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association, thinks that "high budgets are a deterrent to making good films". Iran is one among a few countries which makes excellent cinema on virtually shoestring expenditure. But even where this is high — like in the case of Hollywood — actors, directors and others are hardly ever paid sums of money that are disproportionate to the other heads in the budgets. Hence, these movies tend to have far better production values than those normally seen in India. Obviously, if stars are paid less than what they demand and get today, what is saved can be used to improve the quality of a film. Maybe, one can then have better sets, greater leeway in the use of raw stocks, and, who knows, better stories and scripts. The last two are the most neglected aspects of Indian cinema. Eventually, our movies must learn to work with tighter controls, a fact that may help them to sever connections with dubious sources of income. Underworld funding, which has become a common feature in Bollywood, has only led to bloodshed, and, of course, sleepless nights for some of the bigwigs. Surely, recast budgets in exchange for peace and joy are a small price to pay, and this may well help cinema to get rid of its tricky cobwebs.
(This editorial appeared in The Hindu dated August 30 2002)