The last five-odd years have seen decades' worth of experimentation and risk-taking in the Indian film industry
Anurag Kashyap speaks about cinema with passion. At TV.NXT, a television industry event in Mumbai last week, he talked about how TV stations in Europe funded some of the best films he saw. And he rued the fact that the Indian film industry can’t seem to get enough money and people interested in “different” cinema. Mr Kashyap, who made Dev D and Gangs of Wasseypur, among other films, has spent his entire professional life being the maverick in the business. He knows how hard it is for non-popular type directors and writers to break through the clutter that the race for the box office creates.
But, and this was my argument with him, without the popular there would be no “different” cinema. Both feed each other. And both need to be alive and healthy for the other to survive. Here is why.
About 12 years ago, the Indian film industry was a basket case. The world’s largest film industry just produced a lot of films. Its ability to make money from them or create world-beating cinema was pathetic. This applied largely to all the popular languages — Hindi, Telugu, Tamil and so on.
The problem? Extreme fragmentation on the supply side and revenue leakages on the retail end. There were thousands of one-man shows producing one film in four years. So the production risk was spread all over the place. And the sources of finance were, at times, dodgy.
On the retail side, of the then 12,000 screens, barely 8,000 were functional. These brought in less than 25 per cent of the money collected. The rest leaked out of the system. More importantly, each of these theatres seated anywhere between 800 and 1,000 people. That meant that a film had to do several weeks in these cavernous places before it could make money. This was the reason silver jubilees were a big thing. You needed a star-oriented entertainer that catered to the largest mass of people who would watch it again and again. That is what brought returns to the producers. Soon almost all risk-taking and experimentation in cinema stopped.
The late ’70s to the late ’90s were easily the worst period in the history of the industry. Some of the most pathetic films marked it. There was “parallel” cinema, which made some nice films. But largely it remained about inaccessible, dense films that were being different because they got NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) funding.
In 2001 the first multiplex came. Soon others followed. Then single screens started getting digitised. Soon the same films were making 30 to 50 per cent more at the box office. This was because the money that was not being declared started registering on the system thanks to computerised screens. By 2008 the industry grew 3.5 times. As this money started flowing in, organised finance came into production and retail. The studios started forming.
Then something incredible started happening.
A creative energy not seen for 20 years was unleashed. Every writer, director, actor and producer repressed for years started coming out of the woodwork. So the screenplays for the witty Khosla Ka Ghosla and the edgy Company were penned by an unknown computer engineer called Jaideep Sahni, now part of Yash Raj Films. A little-known musician called Vishal Bhardwaj wrote some of the most original screenplays and dialogue with Maqbool, Omkara and Kaminey. He also directed them, and scored some great music in most of his films. From the advertising world came R Balki (Paa and Cheeni Kum), and Rensil D’Silva, who wrote Rang De Basanti and directed Kurbaan. You get the point.
The last five-odd years have seen decades’ worth of experimentation and risk-taking in the Indian film industry. This happened because the business of monetising films, especially popular films, has been put back in shape. If Fashion did not make money, then UTV would have found it difficult to back films such as Peepli Live or Delhi Belly. Bheja Fry and Dabangg are part of an ecosystem that is now robust enough to create and monetise any kind of film. Its stakeholders – meaning studios, distributors and theatre owners – are confident about funding and screening any film.
This is a confidence that the European film industry does not have. Its producers are, largely, subsidised by the state and the theatres survive on Hollywood fare. Even the quotas and licences on Hollywood imports that some countries impose do not help their industries. India and South Korea are among the few markets globally to have a healthy local film industry.
Having said that, it is true that we are not pushing the envelope the way, say, Scandinavian or even Korean film makers do. To that I would say: they have been around longer. Give the Indian film industry another 10 years; let it become stronger financially; and let audiences evolve, too. We will then reach there, without subsidies.
The simple answer is yes. But is mere inclusion enough? No. It is only a necessary, but not a sufficient condition, unless accompanied by strong ...