Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music and society, giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian
Bala made in the budget of 25 crores earned more than 170 crores, although it came into controversies like copyright violation from the makers of Ujda Chaman that also has a storyline similar to it. Ujda Chaman is an official remake of Kannada film Ondu Motteya Kathe. Bala’s one song “Don’t Be Shy” was too claimed by music composer-singer Dr Zeus that the makers have used his track without giving due credit and acquiring any sort of rights. But these things did not hinder its success. It raised the issues of body image rooted in Indian society along with selfie and Tik Tok obsession in a humorous manner, which connected with the middle class of the country. Ayushmann Khurana’s recent release Dream Girl, made in the budget of 30 crores, is a blockbuster which earned more than 200 crores. Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, which tells the story of an aspiring rapper from Mumbai’s slum Dharavi, spell bounded audiences and critics alike. Made in a budget of 34 crores, the film grossed around 140 crores at the box office. Two other small-budget films Badla and Luka Chuppi, released in March, also captivated the audience and were blockbusters. Shahrukh Khan’s banner Red Chillies produced Badla at a small budget of 10 crores. The crime thriller starring Amitabh Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu earned 88 crores. Whereas, Kartik Aryan and Kriti Sanon starrer Luka Chuppi, a comedy movie set in the backdrop of Mathura, raked in around 94 crores in the domestic BO collection. Last year, Indian black comedy crime thriller Andhadhun, produced by Matchbox Pictures and co-written and directed by Sriram Raghavan, was made in 32 crores and grossed over whopping 456 crores worldwide. These films coming in the grey shades are showing us the mirror of society. And people want to see their own story.
Nowadays, in Hindi film industry, content-driven films with stories, narrating the nuances and emotions of the middle class have hit the right chord and are super hit on box office. This storytelling style is inspiring new age directors as well as producers to think new and bring a fresh way of looking at commercial cinema. Maybe this being the reason big-budget films like Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas have flopped. Sunny Deol directed and produced his son Karan Deol’s debut film in the budget of 60 crores but its soulless and storyline could manage to collect just 10 crores on box office. This year such perspective can be seen in the films Bala, Gully Boy, Uri-The Surgical Strike, Article 15, Luka Chuppi and Dream Girl. These films earned more than 100 crores. Interestingly, these films were made in a budget of less than 30 crores, which is considered small in Bollywood.
This is consecutively for the third year in a row when stories dominated the silver screen more than a superstar. Last year Stree, Badhaai Ho and Raazi beat the big-budget films on box office and entered into the club of 200 crores. Before that small budget films like Pink, Hindi Medium, Dear Zindagi, Naam Shabana, Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Begum Jaan earned big on box office.
Toilet Ek Prem Katha highlighted the toilet problem of the country, especially in rural India, and the consequences of this problem which led to a lot of frustration among women and dangers of open defecation around sexual harassment. The story starring Akshay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar, made in the backdrop of Mathura, was made in 18 crores and earned more than 300 crores on box office worldwide. It became Akshay Kumar’s highest-grossing film and, in fact, his first film to enter into the elite 300 crores club.
Pink, a film focused on the life of three young women who deal with thorny day-to-day issues, was found relatable by the young women the world over. It was a powerful, brave Hindi mainstream film made in a small budget of 23 crores and grossed over 100 crores worldwide.
A Visible Change
All these films have one thing in common - content-driven cinema. Earlier too films with meaningful stories were made, but their texture and treatment were different which failed to make their reach to a sizable audience. These were confined to film festivals only. But things are changing. Cinema is changing itself - in telling stories that its audience can relate to - and dynamics for selling such films has also diversified and broadened. Content-driven films are now giving competition to masala films. This big change has been visible in Bollywood in the last few years. The dynamics of storytelling has changed, new young directors are making films which are telling relatable stories. The new business model of Bollywood is attracting new players, which is reducing the industry’s total return on investment. And the new age producers, often an outsider operating in a close-knit clannish industry, are bringing in a fresh perspective to commercial cinema. Their success with filmmaking acts as a buffer for new directors, writers and ideas that leap beyond the conventional Bollywood gamut.
New Age Producers
Raising finance for a film is the most difficult task and the financiers put their money on many parameters. Usually, an expensive film has a big star cast, expensive director and exotic foreign location. But the story plays a vital role in the film and is its biggest strength. This formula is attracting young directors and producers because a powerful story reduces the dependence on the star cast and exotic locations. This is the reason that in the last 2 years more than a dozen new films have tasted success. Dharma Production CEO Apoorva Mehta said, “The content of films like Andhadhun, Stree, Badhaai Ho and Raazi speaks. These films have earned up to three times their budget.”
Ronnie Lahiri, who has produced films like Vicky Donor and Piku, comes from the background of management and worked in the hotel industry until he met director Shoojit Sarcar in 1998. As Ronnie said, “I knew that 9-5 job is not meant for me, but I didn’t know what to do. Then I met Shoojit through a common friend. That time he was into ad filmmaking. And I wanted to join some ad agency. Shoojit told me he is good with the creative field and knows how to make a film, but bad with finances. Coming from a management background I know how to handle finances, so we collaborated.” Ronnie and Shoojit’s collaboration with their banner Rising Sun Films came up with Yahan in Bollywood. After that, they made Shoebite, Vicky Donor, Piku, Madras Cafe, October and Pink. Next year they are coming up with films Gulabo Sitabo and Udham Singh.
In the past decade, a growing number of outsiders, from personal and professional backgrounds who have nothing to do with the film, have impacted mainstream cinema of the country. The business of making films is more attractive today than it was more than a decade ago. These new-age producers, coming from different backgrounds, contribute to films at many levels than just financing and exhibition. They are redefining the role of producers. These contemporary producers evolve from managerial to creative tasks. They operate with a content-first approach to films. From scratch to finish they put their efforts. For them, homegrown Indian stories are a priority as they find audiences consistently. These producers are not limiting their function to the finances but involving themselves from script development to finding the suitable cast and crew, to post-production, and finally, the pre-release process of marketing and promotions.
According to Ronnie, Shoojit Sarcar and he begin the project after assessing if a story idea can be transformed into film. Once they decide, they engage with the writer, usually Juhi Chaturvedi. “For us, writing is a long process spread over a year with discussions and evaluations. For films like Pink, Madras Café and now Udham Singh, given my background in history, I am completely engaged in developing the script. We run a tight ship till this stage. Once the script is in place, we come up with a wish list of actors. But I always begin with the thought that there might be no star for this film, and it must hold up with Shoojit’s repute,” Ronnie added. 40-year-old Dinesh Vijan, founder of Maddock Films gave up his high-income job of a banker in 2005 and entered into Bollywood as a producer with Being Cyrus. He was one of the producers as well as the youngest member associated with the film. In 15 years Dinesh Vijan has produced critically and commercially acclaimed films like Bala, Stree, Hindi Medium, Luka Chuppi, Badlapur, Love Aaj Kal and Cocktail. He will make his directorial debut next year with Angrezi Medium, a sequel to 2017 hit Hindi Medium, and a small budget film Rooh Afza with Raj Kumar Rao and Varun Sharma.
Similarly, Neeraj Pandey, who is originally from Bihar and graduated from Delhi, had worked with Bosch before stepping into Bollywood as a director-producer. He produced his directorial debut A Wednesday under the banner Friday Filmworks, which he founded with Shital Bhatia. Neeraj Pandey has produced films that he doesn’t direct himself but believes in making good stories. They produced films Special 26, Baby, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, Rustom and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha. Another such banner is Clean Slate Films, which Anushka Sharma and her brother Karnesh Sharma co-own and has produced nominal budget films like NH 10 and Pari. Karnesh turned to film production after leaving his job in merchant navy. Aanand L Rai is another potential producer who left his career in computer engineering and moved to Mumbai where he started assisting his elder brother and television director Ravi Rai in television series. Later he started directing TV shows. He then turned to Silver screen. Director of Raanjhnaa and Tanu weds Manu series, Anand Rai went on to become a producer by producing films like Manmarziyaan, Mukkabaaz, Nil Battey Sannata under his banner Colour Yellow Productions.
Story is Star
The producers of Dream Girl (made in 30 crores) were not sure about the response of the audience, so they expected that if the film crosses 40 crores mark they will consider it a hit. The film was released on 1800 screens and it was on a rampage. It grossed over 200 crores. The film is written and directed by Raaj Shaandilyaa, who made his debut as a director with it. Dream Girl brought the issue of small-town Indian male fantasies and loneliness in the form of witty one-liners and jokes.
Last year released Badhaai Ho’s story was brilliantly penned by Shantanu Srivastava, Akshat Ghildiyal and Jyoti Kapoor and director Amit Ravindranath Sharma put it on the silver screen with equal beauty. The film revolves around Ayushmann Khurana, Neena Gupta, Gajraj Rao and Surekha Sikri. Before its release trade analysts assumed that it will do average business around 50 crores. Produced by Vineet Jain, Badhaai Ho (made in 29 crores) proved everyone wrong and did the business of more than 220 crores. Whereas big-budget films like Padmaavat and Sanju’s profit ratio were not that big. Trade analyst Taran Adarsh said, “Padmaavat grossed over 300 crores and Raju Hirani’s Sanju made in 80 crores also earned more than 300 crores in India.” Small-budget films made their place in the hearts of the audience. Last year, 10 big films of the year were dominated by films that did not have big heroes and big budgets. Be it Badhaai Ho, Andhadhun or Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety.
On choosing the stories connected to the common man, Dinesh feels his background of not belonging to the film industry matters. He says, “When I started, there was a gap between the films I wanted to make and what was working. We tried to bridge that gap while making them. Right now, I feel all the stories I’ve always wanted to tell are in fashion. I don’t like making films that have a reference point and I don’t like repeating ideas.” On the films that didn’t go well on the box office, Dinesh feels they become monumental in his life because you learn more from your failures than from your successes. He adds, “Films Agent Vinod and Raabta have flopped but Agent Vinod gave me Badlapur, while Raabta gave me Stree. I managed to sell Hindi Medium because the trade was interested in Raabta and look at how that turned out! At that point, we were still dependent on outside funding. From Stree, we are doing everything in-house. If the film makes money, we make money but if it doesn’t, no one outside loses money.”
Big Studios Alliance
In the 80s, for content-driven film directors had only one support -- NFDC. Government-aided National Film Development Corporation made several films including Mirch Masala, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Salaam Bombay. Filmmakers like Kundan Shah, Meera Nair, Ketan Mehta and Shyam Benegal were supported by NFDC. But these filmmakers were asked to make films on a very low budget. Kundan Shah, the director of the highly-acclaimed Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro which was released in 1983, said in his interview with BBC that he had to face a lot of trouble while making the film. He said, “A budget of about seven lakh rupees was set for making the film. It is a different matter that later it was increased while shooting. But we had to shoot in very tight conditions. For the people of the unit only dal, roti was made. Sometimes they got rice.” However, now the scope has increased. With the alliance of big production houses and studios, filmmakers can make story-oriented movies more freely. Amid the known and well-established banners, Yash Raj Films has shown flexibility by making Maneesh Sharma their in-house producer for non-typical YRF films. Maneesh Sharma produced Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Sui Dhaaga. Karan Johar, who is known for making grandeur commercial films like Student of the Year, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Kalank and Brahmastra, too has had joined hands with small budget films like Lunch Box, Hasee Toh Phasee. About his alliance with Lunch Box, Karan Johar explained in an interview that the film was a move away from masala films, but still a film that he was proud to join. He said, “I believe that I cannot make such films but still, at least we can join them to encourage such films.” Viacom18 has financed films like Tanu Weds Manu, Kahaani, Mary Kom and Andhadhun. In 2018, Viacom 18 made a lucrative profit with Andhadhun. Its COO Ajit Andhare said that the film’s story is its biggest strength.
Last year, films like Badhaai Ho, Stree, Raazi and Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety thrashed industry’s Khans -- Aamir Khan’s Thugs of Hindostan, Shah Rukh Khan’s Zero and Salman Khan’s Race 3 -- on box office. This trend continues this year. This year films like Uri, Tashkent Files and Article 15 drew the audience to the theatres.
Big Budget vs Small Budget
Looking at the success of small budget films, it would seem that now big expansive films should not be made. Why are big-budget films flopping? Ronnie Screwvala, the producer of Uri founded his independent banner RSVP after UTV. He has his point of view on it. According to him, though small budget films are successful, the success rate of such films is very low. He says, “Three low-budget films have been successful, but fifty such films have come and gone. No one is aware. If the low-budget film is a hit, it has a great script, strong trailer and behind it mouth publicity is responsible.” However, expensive films can be considered as an example of low risk and low rewards because generally broadcasting companies and digital companies sign deal only in the name of the star before the film is made.
A film financer too believes that the main reason for big-budget films getting flop or doing average business on the box office is superstars’ irrelevant demands. Industry’s top five stars either want 50 per cent of the cost of the film or they take 80 per cent of the total revenue with them. Both business models are dreadful and putting the industry in losses. Film distribution and promotion is another big issue with small-budget filmmakers. Just two years ago, Shoojit Sircar and Ronnie Lahiri were not able to find a film studio, which would release Pink (a successful social thriller), because distributors were not positive about its success on box office. Therefore the duo decided to go a step further and distribute it independently. As Ronnie said, “Before Pink, we depended on the studios to market and promote the film. When we decided to distribute Pink, not a safe bet after the success of Piku, we learnt a lot. Now Shoojit and I can decide how to market or promote a film, which is ideal”. For Ronnie Lahiri, social media publicity is another big step in selling such films. He said, “Revealing an image on social media more than a year before the film’s release makes no sense. We prefer to save the interesting material for people once a film is set to release, as that serves the purpose.”
Multiplexes are also playing a big role in supporting low budget films. In the last few years, many multiplexes have opened up in big cities which have created a new audience. Therefore established studios and production houses do not hesitate in joining these films as they want to increase their range. A new passion is seen in producing such films. A veteran actor like Manoj Vajpayee finds the current phase as a good phase. He believes today small filmmakers dare to make serious, meaningful, out of the box films because they believe that the story will have power for the producers to invest money. However, until a few years ago, people were not ready to invest in such films. Even the new market also emerges for short films.
The trend of content-driven cinema earning good money started with Kahaani film in 2012. The Vidya Balan starrer was directed by Sujoy Ghosh and proved a blockbuster. It was made in just 8 crores and did a business of more than 70 crores. However, behind every successful film, there are also five unsuccessful films. Another big tool that helps in gaining the popularity of small budget films is digital video streaming. Digital media gives viewers to these films, adding to that it is also giving a big platform for new, promising and talented stars like Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkumar Rao, Vicky Kaushal, Karthik Aryan, Kriti Sanon, Kiara Advani and Taapsee Pannu. It has boosted their popularity manifold.