Filmmaking: Braving All Transitions (Column: B-Town)

Vinod Mirani

The film industry during the 70s and 80s consisted mostly of prospect hunters. There were established production houses but more coming every day to give a shot to filmmaking. The Hindi film industry moved from Lahore to Kolkata and thence to Mumbai where it prospered, throbbed and still delivers anything between 150 to 200 films every year.

But 90 per cent of the films fail to deliver and lose the investment on regular basis! Why does this happen and why do more people still flock to the industry wanting to make films? Where do the new funds come from if most who invest here exit with losses? It is now called an industry but it is more like a casino where the stakes are always against the investor.

There are two sides to this losses and investment circle as well as two phases: the era of independent producers and the era of the corporate culture filmmaking, marketing era. The corporate kind now calls the shots. Like the West, India too followed a studio system, each having a number of actors and technicians on its muster. That era gave some great artistes as well as the creative minds. Most of them fell to the high risk business of filmmaking eventually.

There were studios like Bombay Talkies, Filmistan, Filmalaya, Ranjit, Basant, Prabhat, Kohinoor, Imperial and so on. But films have had this magnetic power to draw people from all over, either to act or to be in related creative fields. Aspirations drove many youth to take a train to Mumbai. Punjabis, somehow, dominated the inflow. Big stars, big banners all had Punjab background till Amitabh Bachchan happened in the 1970s.

Getting back to independent filmmakers, they flourished following the end of the studio system. The thing about filmmaking was that it required no qualification if you had money. If not, it was a hard climb till one could make his own film. The fact that anybody could become a film producer was the main reason why over 90 per cent of films failed in any given year. The idea for most of them was to make a quick buck. No experience, no knowledge of filmmaking or content (after all, content is what makes a movie work). Some of these aspiring producers had money and the film industry always welcomed that for there was no financing available from banks or other institutions.

In the film industry, nobody cared where the money came from as long as it did. The industry ran on suspect money sources as politicians, diamond merchants, farm owners, businessmen, smugglers and, eventually, the underworld started bankrolling the films.

Content and quality was never the priority, money was. Filmmaking may not be a profitable business for most, but it ran kitchens while a film was under production. The system as it worked, a producer had to just sign a pro note and a film processing lab guarantee and he could raise monies. The liens were only on the film's negative, never on an individual! (A bit complicated but high interest rates charging Shylocks always fell for it.) These lab guarantees did not mean anything if a film never saw the release! These were such days that everything as in commitment was on word of mouth. Of course, except, the promissory notes a producer signed for the financier.

There were so many independent producers who thrived on the law of averages. That is to say, if one film worked after a couple of flops he was still in the game. That one hit made him into a go to man with those 3 to 5 per cent interest charging financiers. And such producers were many as against multiple fly by night kinds.

There were regular banners like BR Films, Shakti Films, Pramod Films, Rajshri Productions, Yash Raj Films, Nadiadwala brothers (each with his own banner), Goel Cine, H.S. Rawail, Manoj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Pahlaj Nihalani, Dara Singh, Jeetendra and many score more big time and small filmmakers, who accounted for hits as well as flops but had learnt the business of filmmaking and ended up with a number of film negatives under their names. A film negative has been a cash cheque over the period.

Earlier, a film negative owning could earn you money again in re-issue rights or by selling it. When the video format came, it earned money for the maker through video rights. When Doordarshan came on the scene, the same negative earned from DD terrestrial telecast rights and, now, private TV channels telecast rights. Luckily, these rights are for a limited period and re-occur every few years. And their generations, not competent in either filmmaking or other fields in most cases, are still eating out of these rights.

The era of independent producers came to an end when the studios with foreign resources entered the fray. The film industry has always worked like this; not knowing or caring where your money is coming from. And it has survived though many producers may have gone bankrupt in the process. An individual has never mattered here nor made a difference. Only success and the successful matter. For a time. It all began with Amitabh Bachchan Corp Ltd. Banker Uday Kotak sensed a brand value in Bachchan which led the forming of the company. So far, film stars were only known to and accepted as endorsing consumer brands, but Bachchan was designated as a brand in himself. His newly incorporated company had no clue about the economies of scale. It showed on the balance sheet soon enough and the company came on the verge of bankruptcy.

The ABCL sunk faster than it was launched and also put Bachchan in debt to the extent of coming to the verge of declaring bankruptcy! Yet, the failure of ABCL did not deter others. The prominent houses like Tatas, Birlas, Biyani, Mahindras and such decided to take the plunge into film production but realised soon enough that it was not for them to make films for they controlled nothing except the purse strings. Notwithstanding all these entries and exits, came the foreign studios.

With the opening of the economy, though not immediately, came the entry of corporate film companies. They were led by a marketing graduates. They thought they could as easily manage the film business as they could sell a biscuit brand or a toothpaste or a shampoo. As most realised in due time, film was more a business of instincts rather than marketing expertise! Some of these companies paid a price for learning the ropes and some, like Disney, Pyramid Saimira, Eros, and Warner Brothers, decided to opt out of filmmaking.

The regular independent production houses are now few in number. The prominent among them are Yash Raj, Sajid Nadiadwala, Karan Johar, Vinod Chopra-Raju Hirani, Rajshris Productions, Excel Entertainment, T Series, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Balaji and a few others. But save for Yash Raj, almost all others are sourced by the studios. The actors who have turned producers, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, John Abraham, Saif Ali Khan, Anushka Chopra, Kangana Ranaut, are backed by corporate finance.

What has changed for the film industry with the coming of this new culture is that the working of every aspect has become transparent. The money deals are all above board doing away with the black money component which earlier sustained the industry. No wonder than that there was not a word of discontent from film folk when demonetization happened!

There is no way an independent producer can even dream of making and marketing a film oh his own strength. The cost of making a film and then taking it to the audience is beyond him.

@ The Box Office

*Gully Boy, a Ranveer Singh-Alia Bhatt film, was released on Thursday, Feb 14, to make the most of the Valentine's Day mood. And the film lived up to the strategy with a bumper opening day figures. The film collected about Rs 18 crore on the first day. Ranveer Singh has now established himself as the new superstar of Hindi films with a line-up of huge hits.

*Amavas, one more attempt by Sachin Joshi to make his place as an actor in Hindi films, fails badly.

*Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is poor. The idea of bringing the father-daughter duo of Anil Kapoor and Sonam did not attract the audience. The film, which collected Rs 16 crore in its first week, may add just about Rs Rs 2 crore for a week or two.

*Manikarnika has added Rs 9.5 crore in its third week taking its three week total to Rs 87.5 crore.

*Uri: The Surgical Strike continued to hold its own even in its fifth week. The film collected about Rs 19 crore, taking its five week tally to Rs 218 crore.

(The writer is a veteran film writer and box office analyst)

--IANS

mirani/am/mr