Volume 5 : Cover Topic - Contemporary Indian Cinema Society & Culture (1)

Emerging trends in Contemporary Indian (Bollywood) Cinema

Partha Sarathi Raha


The last ten years, the decade of economic liberalization, has transformed Indian cinema quite thoroughly, though not beyond recognition. As a result, what seems to us to be the same old fare, merely suitably repackaged for our times of globalization, is actually a new stuff in quite some aspects. So what has changed? On the first hand there is a change in the celluloid economy accompanied by different thematic form and content. There has been a remarkable change in the means of production and consumption of cinema following the developments happened in overall entertainment sector in recent times. A steep technological progress with advent of new channels of reaching masses at affordable costs (e.g. spread of fast moving media like TV, VCD, DVD and Internet) is redefining the very approach to the industry with far-reaching implications. Of all, a major trend is evident from the fact that a growth number of small budget films are frequenting in theatres with a rate unthinkable even in near past, Its striking prominence is compelling a section of people to term it as another ‘‘new wave’’ of Indian Cinema. The trend has not yet taken any definite shape to be marked as an era of Indian Cinema, so would better be kept aside as a matter of debate. However it is worthwhile to note that there is a growing change in the perception of the industry and its modus operandi, which can be linked to our continuing socioeconomic changes.

The scope of this article is restricted to Bollywood productions that govern a major part of contemporary Indian cinema culture. Bollywood is just a segment in the Indian cinema pie, not the whole and certainly should not be equated to Indian cinema. However it is mostly representational of the dominating film scenario of the nation in term of operating principles, target and economical share. The reference to ‘Bollywood’ is in many ways useful to describe a specific set of industrial practices, a prevalent star system, ideas about genre and style and an overall entertainment ethos. In Bollywood like Hollywood, producers are concerned with relatively big budget films which will attract large audiences. But these amount to no more than 25 or 30 per cent of Indian films each year. The Indian film industry produced 973 films in 2004, a third of those in Hindi (Bollywood). Since the late 1990s a significant change in Bollywood production has taken place. New cinema building in India has attracted the affluent middle class in the major cities, but these are also aimed at the NRI (‘non-resident Indian) market in UK and North America. The NRI market is tiny in number (by comparison with the total Indian audience) – perhaps 4 million – but ticket prices are much higher. ‘‘Khabi Khushi Kabhie Gham’’ (or ‘‘3 KG’’) took $3 million in North America. It was this revenue that put the film into profit given an Indian box office of 250 million rupees and a budget of 350 million rupees. ‘‘3KG’’ was a commercial success because of its appeal to the affluent sector of Indian society at home and abroad. The unique status of the Bombay cinema, which established itself in the 1930s is partly attributable to the development of Hindi as more common language across the nation given its official stature. some 40 per cent of India's 1 billion plus population can enjoy a Hindi film. Bombay cinema thus has a particular political significance in its use of language. If the dialogue of Bombay cinema is artificial, so is much of the world it represents – indeed it is a different self-contained world in nature. However in production terms, it is Chennai (Madras) rather than Mumbai that is India's film capital. Chennai makes films in Tamil for a domestic and overseas audience and also acts as a production centre for Telegu, Cannada and Malayalam language films from the adjoining states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. The South is the hotbed of Indian cinema with 60 per cent of all Indian screens located in the four Southern states (Arthur Anderson Consultants studies). Bollywood and Southern cinema are in essence different production contexts within ‘Indian popular cinema’ framework and hare the common profiles of stardriven big-budget studio system. Both cinemas share an approach to traditional Indian forms and a range of uniquely Indian film conventions, not least the use of music and dance. Outside of the four Southern states (of which Kerala bears a distinct identity from the rest), regional production continues in other regional languages, including Bengali (which is shared by West Bengal and Bangladesh market) and Marathi (outside Bollywood). Regional films have a smaller potential audience and must usually contend with smaller budgets. Some productions are strictly commercial, some have more of a cultural agenda. With the exception of a small number of filmmakers who have achieved success on the international festival circuit, few regional productions are seen outside states and also abroad. In the 1960s a third category of Indian filmmaking began to emerge prominently following the establishment of the Film Institute of India in Pune and with the support of the state funding through the Film Finance Corporation (later the National Film Development Corporation) and under patronage of Doordarshan. With this kind of support, a new sector opened up for films that were more socially aware and formally owed more to aesthetics developed in international cinema. Some of the filmmakers who worked in this new sector especially in the 1970s, used their own regional languages (such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan in Malayalam, Mrinal Sen in Bengali) and some, the more commercially orientated such as Shyam Benegal, Govind Nehalni worked in Hindi. Benegal in particular was seen to produce films that were ‘parallel to Bollywood’ using different conventions. The New Cinema (conventionally termed as ‘art cinema’) was most prolific up to the early 1980s when the changes in Indian poliics and economics ushered in the greater commercial imperative.

Nevertheless there are vestiges of the parallel cinema that can be traced through some contemporary productions and we can still distinguish (though vaguely) three main streams of Indian film-dominant popular Indian cinema in Hindi and the Southern languages which operate in more or less identical norms, other ‘regional films’ in general mainly restricted in profile due to limited shares of audience, and a small number of ‘art-orientated’ films. The so-called contemporary ‘new wave’ claims to place itself in between the first category mainstream cinema and the third category art-oriented films. Though especially termed for only bollywood productions, the similar trend of this middle approach is apparent in some regional cinema arena too. For example, films by Rituporno Ghosh, Aparna Sen and others in Bangal brought a welcome break from the sickening state of Tollywood industry. The new cinema grossly dwells on the traits of a low budget production, restricted target audience, and diversified thematic and formal treatment.

The emergence is not without a cause and in the least a simple benevolent endeavor to raise the film appreciation standard of masses. Stung by the consistent string of magaflops, Bollywood's dream merchants are desperately hunting for a new winning formula that will ensure box-office bonanzas 96 per cent of the big budget movies made in the last couple of years have sunk without a trace. Movies like ‘‘Legend of Bhagat Singh’’ cost between Rs. 15 cr. and Rs. 18 cr. and barely recovered 15 per cent to 25 per cent of costs. A remarkably large number of film-makers have concluded that the best way forward is to play safe and produce lowbudget films that cost anywhere between Rs 1 and 5 cr. Many of these are targeted at niche audiences in the metros. Alternatively, some filmmakers are going even further and making ‘crossover’ movies in English targeted at affluent urban dwellers and international NRI audiences. An extraordinarily large number of production houses have opted for the ‘small is bountiful’ strategy. Metalight productions which made its mark with ‘‘Satta’’ shoot four low-budget films with each costing less than Rs. 5 cr. Channel Nine Entertainment was launched to make films for less than Rs. 1 cr. Inevitably, the success of low-budget films is changing the entire structure of the industry and the types of films that are made. It is opening new possibilities like the one that was grabbed by Percent Pictures, a newcomer to the movie industry. Its children's film ‘‘Makdee’’ made for under Rs. 1 cr. has been a huge success. While a big budget film may cost around 15 cr. making three small/medium budget films spreads the risk out as it is more likely to get one hit out of three. Distributors are happier with this structure because if one of the movies flops the production house can make up for it by offering a second at a discount. According to a recent statement made by Shrinagar film's north India head, at least 90 per cent of small films provide big money, by comparison the success of medium or big budget films is at best 50 per cent. Even after success of mega budget film ‘‘Taal’’, Subhash Ghai produced low budget film ‘‘Jogger's park’’, as part of a portfolio approach to movie making which distributes the investment among small, medium and big budget films.

A major effort is being done for bringing down the cost at production stage for low budget films. Efficient film factories have sprung up with 6-10 films on hand, all with varying budgets. A bulk of them have been shot on tight schedules, at times with unknown scriptwriters and directors, with money borrowed either at low interest rates overseas, or from Indian institutins. Invariably, smaller budgets, less stock, recycled sets and tighter schedules mean months of pre-production planning something which was previously unheard of in the industry. Kaleidoscope's ‘‘Saathiya’’, one of the successes of 2003, took 70 days to shoot, ‘‘Maqbool’’ was wrapped up in 50 days. Both films took under six months from concept to completion. Cost-cutting is achieved by releasing less number of prints as well. Each print costs between Rs. 30,000 and Rs. 40.000. For instance, Shringar made only 25 prints of ‘‘Mr and Mrs Iyer’’. By contrast, big films like ‘‘Kaante’’ had a staggering 500 prints. Many of these new ‘efficient’ production companies like Adlabs, Mukta Arts are also finding it worthwhile to integrate forward into distribution and exhibition with their own chain of multiplexes. Interestingly there is no compromising on publicity budgets which range from 15 percent to as much as 30 per cent of what is spent on making the film, the same ratio as of big budget films. In short, the strategizing is conscious and apparent across every phase, i.e. from conception to exhibition. One thing is evident from these facts that film business is getting more planned and organized than ever before. Of late, there is entry of big corporations in the industry which is by far dominated by illegal funding from individual producers, lack of transparency, unrest and dysfunctional practices. In fact there have been reservation in calling it as ‘industry’ given with the uncontrollability and immeasurable risks associated with it. The conventional finance houses (e.g. banks) have been mostly stayed away from giving loan or investing in the projects, hence the opportunities for entering the market remains unfavorable for most. While it is too early to gaze the exact benefit (and drawback) of prospective corporatization, which is even speculative of foreign players entering the market, it can be conductive to professionalism and scope for engaging a serious talent pool with sustainable growth of the industry.

The crisis has not to do with its manufacturing economics only. Bollywood has run short of new ideas and failed to keep pace with the audience in backdrop of its ongoing social changes. The globalization of the world economy has expanded the geographical boundaries of many industries including entertainment and people are exposed to more forms of entertainment globally. The increasing discretionary rise in income and changing lifestyle of the affluent urban middle class has divided the audience further. Low budget films have provided scope for trying with different themes with minimal risk thus improving chance of striking a hit with audience. Big budget films, burdened by a huge production cost, have to depend on a conventional winning formula for reaching to large homogeneous audience, but that is proving disastrous often. The market far from being homogeneous is widely segmented, so is its demands. ‘‘Audiences too are craving for something different now and we are giving them what they want,’’ says Madhur Bhandarkar, director of ‘‘Page 3’’ and ‘‘Chandini Bar’’. Unlike the past, no particular genre is determining the overall trend of romance, action and family drama has been replaced by movies with varied subjects. Quite a handful of films like ‘‘My brother Nikhil’’, ‘‘Hazaron Khwaishe Aisi’’, ‘‘Black’’ displayed a creative strength not so common for a typical commercial cinema. A new pool of young directors, technicians, scriptwriters and musicians, though still in a minority, are trying to contribute to the fresh look on-screen. Unlike the past, when image-conscious superstars played ‘nice guys’, today's actors are not averse to playing shades of grey with roles ranging from a common man to mafia don, psychotic killer, or a terrorist. One of the obvious reasons is the spectator's change in perception towards stardom. These have imparted a new dynamism in the creative aspects of filmmaking.

What has added to the viability of these niche films is the proliferation of multiplexes all over the country and especially in metros. Multiplexes with their smaller auditoriums provide such films an opportunity to be screened, which did not exist earlier. The average price per ticket in multiplexes is Rs. 100-150 against a national average of nearly Rs. 30. That means it has far more flexibility to mix and match shows, films, timings and prices ensuring better returns even on average films. It draws crowd for its options under multiscreens, neat modern look. With seating capacities of 100- 300 the viability of a single show improves for the exhibitor compared to showing it on large 600-1,000 seating halls. The multiplexes make better economics for everyone concerned in the film business. Exhibitors charge around Rs. 1.2 lakhs a week for a small auditorium that seats 150 people. That compares with Rs. 5 lakh for a 350-seat hall. And, since ticket prices are higher in multiplexes the exhibitor has enough cash to share with the distributor. The multiplex system has also helped small producers clearly target their films. They don't need to make films for a pan-Indian heterogeneous audience but for the niche affluent audience who wants to see urbane slick cinema in particular. It eases out the job of deciding the themes (formula) more precisely for a homogenous audience. Then there is battle between television channels, which is helping in recovering the production costs effectively. In the last few months the TV companies have been paying more than ever before for small screen rights. TV with its high penetration is shaping the definition of home entertainment significantly and so the film industry, as the large Indian middle class is the biggest consumer for both of these entertainment sectors. Added to that the fact that the thriving international circuit is also keen on movies with middleclass themes. Channel Nine Entertainment, which produced and distributed films like ‘‘American Desi’’ and ‘‘Freaky Chakra’’ for instance, has recovered over 70 per cent of his cost from overseas and satellite rights. Similarly, Percept sold the TV rights of ‘‘Makdee’’ to Zee and raked in about 30 per cent of the film's costs from the deal. The satellie companies which are fighting their own battles are forking out anywhere between Rs. 5 lakh and Rs 30 lakh even for small budget films. So, many producers are hoping that even a moderate run in India combined with TV and the international circuit will take them into profit. That's the calculation made by Pratap Raju, co-founder of Bandra West production and producer of cross-over film ‘‘Bas Yun Hi’’: ‘‘We hope that overseas rights and satellite and music sales would account for 90 per cent of the investment and we would be in profits if the film does reasonably well in the eight cities where it will be released in the first phase.’’ The low budget filmmakrs are also tapping new markets-like non-English speaking countries. Triplecom, for instance, has sold a dubbed version of ‘‘Mr and Mrs Iyer’’ in Italy for around $20,000. Films’ export earnigs are becoming increasingly important to producers, as the share from this segment is rapidly expanding. Of the estimated Rs. 4,500 crore turnover of the Indian film industry export earnings amounted to Rs. 1,000 crore. So come the series of ‘‘American Desi’’ kind of movies targeting a NRI population growing at a very fast rate.

There are other driving factors as well. There have been favorable Govt. policies like benefits for export industry including film, tax reduction for Multiplexes, rationalization of tax structure across the different phases from production to exhibition, etc. have augmented the growth. Added is the new means of earning by selling the film-space for advertisement, and VHS, VCD, DVD copyrights. Home video rights (combining VHS, VCD, DVD) attributed to 5 per cent to 7 per cent of the total revenue last year. Its popularity is increasing with the window between film's theatrical release and video release shrinking to an average 3.4 weeks. VCD and DVD are now most popular media in the home entertainment sector with the VCD formal dominating the market figuring in 90% by volume penetration. The reason being its cheap price, but DVD is growing much faster. This can be concluded from the fact that DVD hardware market is growing at more than 100 per cent per year while that for VCD is only 25 to 30 per cent. However the big concern is the piracy market, which is causing a major revenue loss for the distribution houses. While legitimate home entertainment market is estimated at Rs. 1750 million that for pirated market is Rs. 7000 million. And there is Internet with its easy accessibility and unique capacity to spread at tremendous speed that makes the fight against piracy really difficult. However stringent laws, decreasing DVD or VCD release window, reduced cost, etc. are some though inadequate steps taken for the prevention of piracy. Again DVD, internet, TV etc. have been proving beneficial to marketing the products with much more capacity than the traditional forms. The euphoria is on the air. The industry has gained a new momentum and so is its new consumer culture. ‘‘While the New wave of the 70s saw a rivalry between the art house and commercial cinema, today's films seek new themes but within the paradigm of entertainment,’’ says Pritish Nandy, producer of ‘‘Shabd’’, ‘‘Jhankar Beats’’. What is obvious is there is much glossy sophisticated look with these smart productions besides apparent novelty in themes. Majority of the films deal on the social and individual problems on superficial level and hardly disturb with the feel-good factor of the easy-going audience. The new trend is not without a potential risk of being hackneyed over time like its big budget traditional counterpart. Moreover it is limited to a small segment of big Indian audience. Whether it will take on a more sincere, widespread and relevant course of expression remains to be seen. But it has definitely brought a fresh breathing space - more importantly a promise of economical health of the industry and opportunity of exploration.



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