Warwick Davis, the English actor who played the lead in the Leprechaun films and Professor Flitwick in the Harry Potter films, among others, will be acting in an Indian film — Chingari, a Bhojpuri film. Needless to say, Davis will be the first Hollywood actor to act in a Bhojpuri film and the casting coup marks a feather in the cap of the Bhojpuri film industry, which has been growing at a fast clip in the last decade.
Sasura Bada Paise Wala (2004), directed by Mohan Prasad, had a budget of Rs 28 lakh and Manoj Tiwari was paid Rs 25,000 for playing the male lead. Though he was a popular singer of Bhojpuri (the dialect of Hindi spoken in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh) folk songs, Tiwari couldn’t have asked for more because Bhojpuri films had always been very small scale. But the film went on to do business of Rs 35 crore. For his next film, Daroga Babu I Love You (2005), Tiwari got Rs 25 lakh — a hundred-fold jump. “Now my fee,” says Tiwari over phone from Mumbai, “can go up to Rs 65 lakh.”
Tiwari, a diehard cricket fan, was at one time said to be keen to invest in an Indian Premier League franchise. In 2011, he had announced that he would build a temple for the “gods” of Indian cricket, Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, in his village at a cost of Rs 3 crore. Such is his popularity that the Samajwadi Party had fielded him from Gorakhpur (in UP) in the 2009 general elections. Tiwari, however, lost to Bharatiya Janata Party’s Adityanath Yogi. Of late, there has been speculation that he may join BJP. He was a part of the celebrity brigade that showed up at Anna Hazare’s fast against corruption in Delhi last year.
What Tiwari earns may be small change when compared to Bollywood superstars (Salman Khan: Rs 25 crore, Akshay Kumar: Rs 20 crore), but it reflects the transformation of Bhojpuri cinema in the last decade. About 150 Bhojpuri films are made every year — a new film can be expected every third day. Budgets now run into crores. Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgn have acted in Bhojpuri films.
There is a thriving market for these films in countries with a large ethnic Bihari population — Fiji, Trinidad, West Asia, Nepal etc. A dozen theatres in faraway Mumbai and Delhi run Bhojpuri films at all times, though these are yet to catch the fancy of multiplexes. That’s perhaps because of the large number of migrants from Bihar and eastern UP. Sociologists have begun to talk of how the social fabric of these cities is being affected by the influx of people from these areas. Bhojpuri cinema’s popularity is a part of this phenomenon.
Kisan Khadriya, founder of film trade magazine Bhojpuri City, says Bhojpuri films actually started being screened as fillers in single-screen theatres in metro cities when the latter started losing out to multiplexes. “Single-screen halls had to show re-runs of old Bollywood films. Bhojpuri films at least offered something new,” says Khadriya.
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Since they cater to migrants from rural Bihar and east UP, Bhojpuri cinema plays on nostalgia. Most films are therefore set in a rural backdrop, and have a traditional storyline (evil landlord versus simpleton farmer, for example). The mythological genre is alive and kicking here. The social and political upheavals in Bihar (the rise and fall of organised crime, caste wars, Naxal violence or joblessness) seldom find any space in Bhojpuri cinema. The films are stuck in a time bubble. It takes a Prakash Jha or an Anurag Kashyap to tell the reality. Double entendre, bawdy lyrics and vulgarity are rampant. The names too often suggest innuendo (Sej Taiyar Sajni Farrar, Mumbai Ke Laila Chapra Ke Chhela).
Aslam Sheikh, who has directed a clutch of blockbuster Bhojpuri films like Bandhan Toote Na, Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke, Pappu Ke Pyar Ho Gayil and Bidaai, says the quality is poor and current social issues are ignored because film makers target the bottom 15 per cent of viewers. “Budgets are low and an item number or a popular song from an old album is put in to attract audiences. And the film manages to recover the money. If more directors start targeting the remaining 85 per cent of audience — families and youth — things will change for the better,” he says. “The quality of films is deteriorating. The motive is to sell, be it through item songs or vulgar scenes,” Tiwari adds. Moreover, most such films are made on a budget of Rs 50 lakh or below and shot in 15 days flat. But Bhojpuri films often don’t find distributors. The movies get completed, but for the lack of distributors don’t see the light of the day.
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Oddly enough, the Bhojpuri film industry is located in Mumbai, not Patna. “Bhojpuri films are a rage in the cowbelt region, including Bihar, Jharkhand and eastern UP. But Patna lacks proper film studios and technical equipment. The artists are also available at a cheaper price in Mumbai. And the owners [of film equipment] there [Patna] demand cash payment,” says Sheikh. So, most films are actually shot in Maharashtra and Gujarat. For scenes of any city in Bihar, the crew flies in, cans the shots and flies out. Some observers say extortionists and kidnappers, who had a free run in the state till Chief Minister Nitish Kumar cracked down on them, too, are responsible for driving directors and filmmakers away from Bihar.
Bhojpuri superstar Ravi Kishan believes support from the state government could change things. “The Maharashtra government has made it mandatory to have a fixed number of Marathi film shows in multiplexes. Besides, it provides a subsidy of Rs 30 lakh to the film industry. Despite a 200-million-strong Bihari population, bigger than Marathi and Gujarati viewers, we are lagging,” says he. Kishan, the macho man of Bhojpuri films, is now a regular in Bollywood films as well. He has worked with the likes of Shyam Benegal (Well Done Abba) and Mani Ratnam (Raavan).
Time and again, the Bhojpuri world has attracted Bollywood actors. “The growing clout of our industry can be judged from the number of Bollywood actors playing the lead,” says Sheikh. While the 2006-blockbuster Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke saw Ajay Devgn, Mithun Chakraborty’s Bhole Shankar is labelled as one of the biggest Bhojpuri films ever. Ganga cast Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini.
Then there are Bollywood films with a Bhojpuri flavour. “Movies like Dabangg and Rowdy Rathore are a threat to us as we lack the finances, technology and even promotion and marketing ability to compete with them. And the audience clearly gets divided,” Tiwari says. But, Tiwari predicts things will change for the better. “The budget for promotion and marketing is very negligible. The film industry has recognised this problem and a change will be visible by 2013, in the way our movies are promoted,” he says.