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Cinema In General
Indian cinema hits a dark patch
Indian cinema's real story now seems to be one of disaster. Films have been crashing at the box office with such regularity that financiers, producers, distributors and exhibitors find themselves in a terrible fix.
A few examples here will be revealing. Rajnikant's "Baba", whose pre-release publicity campaigns ran for months and got his fans hooked, is reportedly on the verge of being thrown out of theatres. When this writer saw "Baba" in open-air Prarthana (in Madras/Chennai) at the beginning of the picture's second week, there were an abysmally low number of viewers.
The movie scene is no different in Bombay/Mumbai, a city that inspired hundreds of thousands of men and women to create dreams on celluloid. Works such as "Mujhse Dosti Karoge'', "Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi'' and "Ankhiyon Se Goli Maare'' are said to have flopped. Even "Devdas'', the Rs. 50-crore venture jazzed up with colour, gloss, is yet to break even, according to sources.
At the Mayajaal multiplex, on the outskirts of Madras/ Chennai, one saw about 15 people during a Sunday peak show of "Devdas''. At Rs. 80 a ticket, plus Rs. 45 as toll to travel hardly 200 metres from the toll-gate to the theatre and with Rs. 10 as parking fee, "Devdas'' has very little to offer or at least is not attractive enough for one to cross these hurdles that include driving through the congested East Coast Road, connecting Madras/ Chennai to Mahabalipuram, the tourist town.
Apart from such hindrances as high cost and uncomfortable ride, there are several reasons why Indian cinema has now hit a dark patch. An important one is the utter lack of novelty in stories. This is somewhat similar to our circus tale: you have seen one, you have seen them all. Ditto, with films. The plots, the themes and even the treatment are so similar as if our movie-men have run out of ideas. Worse, it is not exactly rare to find blatant copies of Hollywood fare, and these copies are copied further.
For instance, a Hindi version of a Hollywood picture will be plagiarised by a Tamil or Bengali or some other producer/director, and without any qualms.
Another cause why our cinema is faring poorly now is the changes in film financing, distribution and exhibition, changes that have occurred after the government policy, which accorded industry status to this medium, was formulated a few years ago. Movies can now take advantage of institutional funding, tax-free multiplexes and 100 per cent foreign direct investment.
Twentieth Century Fox is helping Ram Gopal Verma ("Satya'', "Company'') to make three pictures. Columbia Tristar has had a good year with its distributions in India: "Bend it like Beckham'', "Monsoon Wedding'' and "16 December'' have made profits.
And not without a good reason. These films reflect the new thinking in this field, they are in synchronisation with what audiences want, at least in the urban centres. "Monsoon Wedding'', may centre on upper class wedding in New Delhi, but its director, Mira Nair, has not forgotten to pepper it with a little something that the other sections of society can identify themselves with. This is precisely where a movie like "Devdas'' fails with its old style and archaic expectations as far as returns go. While the old guard wants 100 per cent profits, the newer men in the arena are happy with 20 or 30 per cent.
Margins are, of course, misleading in many cases. "Baba'' is supposed to have made a profit of Rs. 44 crores, and this money came from people who reportedly saw a few rushes of the picture and advanced it to Rajnikant, producer and distributor. The theatres, the music company and those who bought the overseas rights have been losing money. So, the meaning of returns is convoluted in a certain sense.
In what is seen as unprofessionalism, funds are often made available purely on the strength of an actor's or director's or producer's reputation. Financiers seldom watch a film before signing cheques when it is made by a bigwig.
But investors must realise that even masters do not make a masterpiece every time, sometimes they produce rank bad stuff.In the final analysis, Indian cinema needs to become professional if it is inclined to do well, insiders say.
If there must be transparency in financial dealings (otherwise no recognised institution will come forward with money), there is also a pressing need to cut down on costs, especially those relating to actors' fees.
Beyond these, those men and women in charge of entertaining India's teeming millions must make a conscious effort to present a cinema that is refreshingly different. After all, who wants to watch time and again the same story where nothing changes except perhaps the faces of the actors and actresses.
(This story appreared in The Hindu dated September 16 2002)