Break Free

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The finance and politics of Bollywood have taken several turns, and from being the once black-money funded business, it has become professionally funded and quite unrecognizable from a decade ago

ALAM SRINIVAS

ALAM SRINIVAS

Alam Srinivas is a business journalist with nearly three decades behind him working for The Times of India, India Today, Outlook Financial Express and Business Today. He is the author of Cricket Czars: Two Men Who Changed the Gentleman’s Game

Ekta Kapoor, the brain behind Balaji Telefilms and the seminal ‘K’ TV serials and alternate movies, is essentially a product of economic reforms. So are the existing business traits of Bollywood today. However, the political and social trends too have defined Ekta and the country’s mass entertainment. The rise, fall, rise, and a kind of stagnation have gripped both the individual and the sector over the past two decades. The Bollywood narrative is, in fact, the story of Ekta. The plots and sub-plots that impacted Balaji Telefilms affected Hindi cinema.

How can anyone disassociate the demolition of Babri Masjid, subsequent riots in Bombay (now Mumbai), and the escape of India’s ‘Most Wanted’ mafia boss, Dawood Ibrahim, to Pakistan from what happened to Bollywood and Ekta? How could the rise of rampant consumerism, brand obsession and the country’s middle class not impact the movies and TV serials, and their makers? The complex, even violent, interplays between religion, caste, class, and nationalism played a role to constantly shape and finesse them.

The end result is a mixed bag, a combination of good, bad and ugly. Business models in Tinsel Town have changed – for the better and worse. So have the sources of funds to finance movies. Professionalism seeped in, entrepreneurship blossomed, and insiders (actors, producers, and directors) became corporate Tsars. However, the maximum influence was on content, which flowed seamlessly between theatres, multiplexes, TV and digital spaces. At the same time, content became frozen – separate for serials, movies, and digital.

Ekta’s entertaining journey begins in 1994 – with TV. The transformation of Bollywood began a decade earlier in 1984 – with TV. Both were destined, affected by Lady Luck. The father of the Queen of Idiot Box, Empress of Small Screen, Jeetendra, a former popular actor, was asked by a friend to make a few pilots for serials for the NRI (non-resident Indian) audience. Before the pilots could be approved, the friend sold his London-based TV channel, and 19-year-old Ekta, who had made the pilots, was left holding the serial babies.

Quick Choice

So, she did the obvious thing. Between January and April 1995, she shopped the serials’ ideas to the newly-launched satellite channels, Zee and Star, and Mumbai-based content makers, like Sri Adhikari Brothers, the first TV production house to be listed on the Indian stock exchange. After several rejections, Zee decided to air Maano Ya Na Maano. The rest wasn’t history, as they say. More was yet to happen in the non-harmonious life of Ekta.

Bollywood’s kismet changed in 1982 when, according to media reports, the then I&B minister, Vasant Sathe, travelled to Mexico and chanced upon a local soap, Ven Conmigo (Come With Me). He was impressed, and asked the man behind the show, Miguel Sabido, to start a similar serial for the state-owned Doordarshan. There were no private channels at that time, and colour TV was only introduced during that year’s Asian Games, held in New Delhi.

Sabido came to India the next year, and finalised Manohar Shyam Joshi, later to win the Sahitya Academy Award, as the writer for the first, and possibly the best, TV show, Hum Log (We, The People). As soap operas boomed on the small screen, the content on the 70 mm ones went through a semi-metamorphosis. A wave of new (alternate) cinema, comedies, thrillers and love stories invaded the minds of the newer, prospering, evolving audience – the middleclass.

Of the 30 best Hindi movies listed on www.imdb.com, seven are alternative films (Ardh Satya and Arth), five are new-age comedies (Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron), eight are thrillers (Tezaab), and the others are cutesy love stories (QSQT, or Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak). There are a few that crisscross these overall genres. Clearly, these plots and sub-plots were different from the 1960s and 1970s, i.e. the purely colour-movie era that became common in the late-1950s.

Bollywood Inc

By the beginning of this century, economic reforms had transformed Bollywood, as it did TV. The corporatisation fever gripped them. It led to mini-revolutions in terms of finance, business models, entrepreneurship, content, distribution platforms and professionalism. Today, the headquarters of Hindi movies, Mumbai, looks completely different from what it was two decades ago. Movie-makers, movie-financers, and actors are not the same. Even the mindsets and attitudes, likes and dislikes of the audiences altered.

Yet, in its own ways, Bollywood remained the same. Only the shades, nuances, and contours look distinct. Scratch the surface, and the old mixes with the new, and the present reflects the past. Over 100 years of Indian Cinema (not Hindi, as there were nearly two decades of deafening silence until Alam Ara in 1931), some things remained frozen. Entrenched insiders, like Pahlaj Nihalani, film producer and former head of the censor board, and Onir, producer, director and writer of films and TV serials, contend that the situation has worsened.

50 shades of money

Until two decades ago, the bulk of film finance came informally, and most of it was black, or at least grey, in colour. The Mumbai underworld was a major financier, and movies helped them to spend, as well as convert a part of their ill-gotten wealth into white. The dreaded Dawood was friends with the movie stars and movie-makers; Sanjay Dutt, the infamous and controversial son of the famous and righteous Sunil Dutt, was jailed for his links with the Mumbai mafia.

In August 1997, Gulshan Kumar, film producer and owner of the T-Series brand, was gunned down outside a Lord Shiva Temple, a km away from his bungalow in Mumbai’s Lokhandwala Complex that housed several movie celebrities. The time was 10.40 AM; he was riddled with 17 bullets, one from a 9 mm and 16 from two 0.38 mm revolvers. An article in India Today said, “Brazen, rapid-fire, and in a sudden blaze. Death came to Gulshan Kumar much like success did.”

Even those who didn’t access tainted money borrowed from friends and relatives, or went to the cash-rich businesspersons who charged high interest. For example, Ekta’s initial money came from her father, who was rich because of his successful movie career. Her initial success came from the serial Hum Paanch, which was aired by Zee, and became an instant hit. In those days, TV content was largely foreign (for the urban middle class), or plots copied, or inspired, from them (Hum Paanch fell in this category).

By the 2000s, film-financing, as well as TV content, acquired new, and legitimate, colours. Take the case of Balaji Telefilms. It went public, i.e. raised funds from the institutional and retail investors in 2000. A few years later, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star TV, which launched its first Indian satellite channel in 1991, when cable TV gripped the country’s audiences, purchased a sizeable stake in Ekta’s venture. Today, Star has divested its stake, but Balaji Telefilms continues to have foreign institutional investors as shareholders.

Girish Johar, film trade and business analyst, explains, “The funds available for movie production have become wider. There are more options, like banks and other institutional finances. You can raise money at the (stock) exchanges. There is greater transparency.” There is a temporary lull due to demonetisation and GST (Goods and Services Tax) as many payments in the movie business are cash-driven. Experts believe that the situation will improve later in 2018.

Nihalani and Onir disagree. Nihalani says, “Only the large corporate companies and few individuals can take these (new) financing routes. For others, it is difficult to raise funds.” Adds Onir, “Banks and institutions support the large production houses. Things are difficult for independent producers like me.” In addition, viability and returns become huge issues with the mainstream financiers. In Bollywood-speak, these two terms imply an exciting star-cast. Hence, the options for several producers are more restricted than before.

In the good-ole days, as such producers contend, money depended on different kind of personal networks. Dawood would like your face, a sub-plot, or a scene, and open up his illegal purses. In some cases, he would insist on the inclusion of a specific actor, or more relevantly, an actress the Don was interested in. In today’s word, it is about numbers, glitz and corporate charm.

Single Model

A few decades earlier, they were production houses which specialised in either TV or movie content. There were mostly independent producers, directors, actors, and writers, who had specific expertise. There were separate financiers, distributors, and owners of theatres and TV entertainment channels. Each one had their own operational and financial business models. Today, the lines between these activities have blurred – sometimes completely. Large corporate houses undertake several of them under a single roof.

Nothing epitomises this trend better than the transformation of Balaji Telefilms – and Ekta. The former started as a purely TV production house. Her unprecedented rise came in July 2000, with the launch of the first ‘K’ serial, Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. It was aired by Star Plus; in the same year, Ekta had inked an exclusive content deal with Murdoch’s group. It was a wedding that was decided in the entertainment heaven. The honeymoon lasted for nine years.

Years ago, Ekta told one of the writers of this article that Kyonki Saas was possibly first serial to be based on extensive research. Although most TV channels and writers mostly borrowed their plots from foreign shows, Balaji Telefilms found that 60% of the viewers wanted localised content, and Hindi fiction-based soaps. A large component of the audience comprised women from all walks of life – there was no segregation in terms of religion, caste or community.

Kyonki Saas prompted a dream run for Ekta and Star. It was followed by several other ‘K’ serials like Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii and Kasautii Zindagii Kay. Within a few years, according to media reports, 38 of the top 50 TV shows across Indian channels were made by Ekta. So, by 2001, as one of the writers wrote in his book, Women of Vision, “The lights were on, the cameras were in place and Ekta was ready to take the centre-stage in TV soaps for the next 7-8 years. The no-good daughter of a successful actor was on a roll.”

The success of the ‘K’ serials was prompted by the new viewers – urban and rural middleclass – who benefited from a decade of reforms. Despite their prosperity and aspirations, they were interested in their immediate environment. Kyonki Saas combined the story of the poor and rich through the two protagonists. The daughter-in-law hailed from a poor Brahman family, and the mother-in-law from a wealthy one. Their confrontations and conflicts, and later friendship, narrated the stories of most daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law.

Obviously, the cable TV revolution, and the launch of a myriad number of channels helped. The underlying disquiet, as also public and sometimes vicious displays, related to issues like nationalism, religion, and Indian-ness (linked to a pride in the country’s emerging superpower status) played a part in viewers’ choices of content. The conservative images of traditional women protagonists clicked with them. The ‘K’ serials portrayed them enthusiastically.

Somehow, suddenly, the audience preferences changed in 2007-08. May be it was just rapid and unexpected for Ekta and her company. There was enough evidence there was a steady shift in tastes between 2000 and 2008 due to several factors. The most prominent among these was connectivity in all its forms. Mobile population and those of smartphones zoomed. More people could access the Internet. Cars became cheaper, so did the smaller versions of two-wheelers, and Indians could travel across cities, even nations, due to low-cost airlines.

Kyun Kay…

As Indians became connected to their country, and the rest of the world, they shied away from the now-boring traditional and conservative plots. They wanted something more exciting, possibly serious, which tickled their minds along with their hearts. The viewership of the ‘K’ serials tanked; Star Plus switched off Kyonki Saas after an unbelievable over 1,800 episodes. Incidentally, it was the first serial to cross 1,500 shows. The Balaji Telefilms-Star divorce happened in 2008.

Ekta was down in the dumps. She scouted for new channels, inked a deal with News X Group, which flopped. That’s when she initiated three strategies. She stuck to TV, but diversified into regional and language content. She looked at the big screen seriously. And she thought digital. Her foray into movies was an instant hit; so was her regional small-screen extension. Most of the movies, like Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, Love, Sex and Dhokha (LSD), Ragini MMS, and The Dirty Picture were instant financial and critical hits.

Ekta re-arrived, this time as the Queen of both the small and big screens. Her digital initiatives took longer. Today, Alt Balaji, a live-streaming platform, claims to be the third-largest viewed one, after Netflix and Hotstar (Star), and ahead of Amazon Prime. Balaji Telefims produces content, both common and unique, for various platforms. It’s no longer a pure-play TV production house. Its former CEO, Puneet Kinara, presciently predicted in 2011, “We want to emerge as a leading content player in television and movies in the next five to 10 years.” The intended, or unintended, consequence of the above trend(s) is that multiple talents got centralized in individuals. Mediums and platforms didn’t matter, neither did the responsibilities. One can make both films and serials, you can act in TV shows or movies, and one can direct, produce, act and write different content. Eijaz Khan, a TV and movie actor, explains, “There are two schools of thoughts. Some filmmakers have blurred the lines. But one cannot make a general statement that it is easier to transit from TV to films, and vice versa.”

Multiple revenue streams

Another result of these trends is that revenues are diversified. Not just in terms of genres (TV and films) and platforms, but also in terms of specific and specialised rights of the content. Today, most movies pre-sell their music, satellite and other rights. Within a month of the release, the movie is telecast on TV channels. NRI, or global, audience is huge. According to Nihalani, “Almost 70 per cent of the business comes from music, satellite and digital combined.”

Adds Johar, “There are several monetisation options, apart from movie distribution. Music rights are sold well. Effective ways are carved out to reach NRI and global audience. Satellite rights have widened to include streaming. Merchandising has emerged as an option – caps, T-Shirts, mugs, even comic books. In some cases, like Krissh, video game rights were sold. Apart from private channels, telecast rights can be sold exclusively to (state-owned) Doordarshan.” It seems like never-ending streams of income.

But therein lay the catch. Most experts believe that given these circumstances, only well-known names – actors and directors – can command premium and better pricing for the individual rights. Corporates insist on star-cast before they back a project. Take the example of Ajay Devgun. According to a source, “His next 20 film deals are already done – with Star Group. The money is pre-decided for the TV rights, and it will go to Devgun, and not the filmmaker.”

Ekta and Balaji Telefilms prove this. In the last three years (2014-17), the company’s annual turnover has more than doubled, profit after tax has trebled, and hours of programming has nearly doubled. As the company’s 2016-17 annual report stated, “We are omnipresent across the three mediums of TV, digital and movies.” It added, “We aim to create a robust strategy for each of our business to garner maximum revenues and minimize risks.”

It’s over to Ekta – again. She is indeed the real Queen of Tinsel

Town.

(Research by Surbhi Chawla)

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