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Bollywood Going through Purple Patch in Last Couple of Years

Number of hits and successful films is on the rise

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The revenues are up by 11 per cent year on year. Pixabay

Bollywood is going through a purple patch in the last couple of years. Or so it appears. The revenues are up by 11 per cent year on year. Number of hits and successful films is on the rise. Box office collections and non-theatrical revenue are on the rise. Stars (actors and directors) are earning in tens of crores. Even the technicians, writers, musicians are much better paid than a couple of decades ago. The number of films made every year has increased as have the number of screens.

There is even a larger variety of films being made and appreciated by the audience. Many newcomers have made their mark in the recent past. Newer avenues of monetization have cropped up. There are many people still willing to bet big money on films including unusual ones as new platforms emerge by the week. There is saturation coverage in media. Dozens of film festivals in India and overseas screen Hindi (Indian?) films regularly. Animal spirits are back in tinsel town. A brave new brood of creative professionals is doing wonderful work and a lot of it is also resonating with the public. There are several new platforms to enjoy films than merely a cinema which is opening new vistas. Is Bollywood finally overcoming its insular and inert existence?

It is generally believed that there is a new generation every 20 to 25 years. With every generational change the society changes as do trends. If we take a bird’s eye view of entertainment, we see a similar pattern of evolution. Zooming in and looking at popular Indian cinema through this generational prism and this paradigm holds true. So, if we begin in the mid 1950s through 1960s, we see the rise of great directors V. Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, BR and Yash Chopra, Chetan and Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, Amiya Chakravarthy, Shakti Samanta and so on. This pattern is repeated over successive decades with different sets of people. The stories were varied from human dramas to thrillers, social comments to romances.

Yes, there were stunt films, mythological and melodramas but the standout films were the films which appealed to young urban middle class. And family audience. Or the front benchers who watched a completely different kind of cinema-stunts, horror and often a potpourri of all genres. There was a clear divide in the kind of films which were watched by ‘gentry’ and ‘masses’. Except for an occasional off beat film good cinema was what we would call middle of the road cinema today.

Bollywood, Purple, Patch
Bollywood is going through a purple patch in the last couple of years. Pixabay

Critics love to discover noir in some of the classics but two generations of great film makers from the 40s to the 70s were basically interested in telling human stories and not bothered about dark cinema. Some with elaborate set pieces other stark and real. Interestingly it was in the thirties that the unique Indian song and (and often dance) routine was introduced and has remained a hall mark of Indian cinema. A few understood and used form well and could be Avant Garde in their cinematic expressions even as they told very Indian stories. Social concerns and style worked in tandem Let us not forget almost all equipment was outdated and in short supply. Many managed with what we would today call ‘jugad’. Even the cinemas had poor projection and sound and the prints threadbare. Yet millions thronged to see their favourite stars light up the big screen night after night. Cinema was the primary escape from the drudgery of a hard life.

The marquee names changed every decade or two as they still do with notable exceptions of course. Talented and successful people either faded away, died or were cruelly cast away by an unforgiving box office. Unfortunately, most of these talented people were unprepared for the walk down sunset boulevard. I have seen the biggest stars and filmmakers live and die in obscurity, lonely, often with little or no income, sometimes in sheer penury. A few who did have the money were forgotten in their lifetimes. Remembered by cineaste of film scholar/student or discovered in the dusty shelves of film archives and lately on Internet or social media.

In the 1970s the film school graduates made their way. A few became stars and film makers but many became the technical backbone of the Industry. This was one major change. Another was the rise and fall of the new wave cinema (1960s to 1990s) where some really path breaking films captured the festival circuit but got pushed aside in audience sweepstakes. Fortunately, a more audience friendly off beat cinema has emerged in the last few years. Several film makers are making edgy and unconventional films but there is a universal attempt to reach out to the audience. For the first time since the fifties these off beat films are taking the mainstream films head on and often winning the race.

Market domination by about 50 names in an industry of a million was as apparent in 1950s as it is 70 years later. Twenty per cent of films released in a year contribute to 80 per cent of the box office. A dozen films every year were and are declared blockbusters. The rest wallow in failure and frustration. A majority of people were kept waiting a lifetime at the sidelines for a chance to enter a sound stage then as they are now. It’s a similar situation even now with one difference. Many nowadays drift away towards television (and online now) and are thus gainfully and sometimes very successfully employed.

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The general refrain even then was the industry is in dire straits. “We will be wiped out by taxes, censorship, production costs, star tantrums, lack of screens, distributions bottlenecks”. That’s the general mood even today amongst smaller, independent film makers with addition of some new laments — nepotism, corporates, multiplex monopoly. The problem is this business which does not require you to have either the skill, talent or resources to enter. No wonder every year we produce 2000 films of which 60% are never released. Over production and too much of trash is the bane of showbiz. The boom and bust co-exist in Tinseltown. (IANS)

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A New Mindset: Need of Bollywood

Till the 1980s it was usually traders, merchants and traditional money lenders

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Every generation since the beginning of the Indian film Industry has seen a fresh set of people finance it. PIxabay

If the Industry has survived (thrived?) so many decades it is because of the influx of fresh capital from new, glamour struck players. Every generation since the beginning of the Indian film Industry has seen a fresh set of people finance it. Till the 1980s it was usually traders, merchants and traditional money lenders. Then the exhibitors and distributors started advancing money and a lot more of glamour struck venture capital came in. Of course, sine the 1930s the top stars of the time always set up their own production companies and the trend continues to this day. Every decade technology delivers a bonanza to the perpetually cash-strapped film industry.

The popularity of radio and records and cassettes saw music royalty bring in extra cash in the 70s and 80s. This was pattern was replicated by the coming of TV and home video in the 80s and 90s and now streaming rights. However, the big break was the spread of Multiplexes. Suddenly, box office exploded as these modern hangout cinemas pulled the young urban youth and families back to the cinemas. The overseas market, largely driven by large South Asian diaspora, changed another market dynamic. Some younger filmmakers realized this and tailored their films for this well-paying market segment.

A paradigm shift happened in the mid-90s when some young media professionals-turned-entrepreneurs set up the first fledgling studios (after the demise of the earlier lot in the early 50s). A few of the old timers reimagined themselves and stayed in the new sweepstakes. Some music companies too became quasi studios venturing into film production and distribution. By the turn of the millennium, Bollywood had become not only a global brand but a billion-dollar Industry. Entertainment was recognized as Industry making institutional finance available to film producers. Import of equipment was liberalized and foreign shooting became convenient. Slowly the disorganized mom and pop business moved towards professionalism and eventually corporatization. Bank finance, insurance, contracts, copyright came into play.

Mindset, Bollywood, New
If the Industry has survived (thrived?) so many decades it is because of the influx of fresh capital from new, glamour struck players. Pixabay

However, more change was to come in the decade that followed. The rise of the Internet following the mobile revolution changed the game altogether. Rising income and aspirations and changing lifestyles altered the media and entertainment landscape. Digitalization of cinema from pre and post production to distribution and exhibition has also contributed to a dramatic change in Indian cinema. Today you can make a film on your smartphone and commercially release it. Now there are film makers who are making films only for the digital space.

By 2010, major studios — Fox, Disney, Reliance ,Viacom and Zee had arrived and further changed the market dynamics. In the last decade, video-on-demand and Over-the-Top (OTT) platforms together with broadcast TV not only brought additional revenue but newer niche markets. Audience is consuming filmed entertainment differently across different screens. Now Amazon, Jio, Netflix, Hotstar, Zee 5, Alt, Apple, Facebook, Google et al are commissioning films and are the new financiers of the movie industry. Thousands of new and old members of this large fraternity are getting back into the creative mainstream. There are at least a 100 production companies all over India. There are more trained professionals than ever before and encouragingly a lot more women in power in Bollywood. Every year at least twenty first timers make a mark and many of them from small towns with no family connection. For a change the big potboilers compete with small, new age films.

There are many young, often first-time film makers who are making path breaking cinema which a substantial enough audience is loving it. Today’s top actors are also a lot more adventurous. In any case, even the most commercial of films are much more rooted in reality than before. Production design, cinematography and sound are now of international standard. Unfortunately, marketing costs have spiraled up but without the adequate research and media planning resulting a lot of wasteful expenditure. Star prices still remain abnormally high, often being 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the entire budget. Interestingly, after a gap of many decades, talent from smaller towns and even villages are coming to Bollywood and many are making it to the top. Also, a lot more films are set in smaller towns reflecting concerns of a new class of film lovers.

The most heartening development, though, is the influx of streaming services. Not only do they bring a lot of money into the system but also offer a far, far wider variety of films: shorts, documentaries, animated, real-life dramas but also all genres of features films. They are not hung up on stars or big names. Besides, in another welcome development, a number of big producers and directors and even top stars have ventured into producing content for these digital giants. Thankfully, all of them are also giving breaks to new writers and film makers and some exceptionally talented actors.

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There are some endemic problems which still linger. Paucity of screens and over production make it unviable for smaller, especially independent films to get a release. The obsession with big screen in an age where 80 per cent of all content is watched on TV and increasingly online is rather an archaic approach. It is estimated that half the world will watch content on handheld devices by 2025. With a multitude of leisure alternatives films, including those made by Bollywood, have to compete with texting, social media, gaming, sport, live events, streaming audio and video, adventure and even travel and dining out.

Writing largely still remains a weak link and is invariably derivative and mediocre. We need a more energetic and creative fraternity which is willing to experiment and is willing to move to newer platforms. This obsession with the big screen has to end. A few hundred cineastes and critics hung over on purity of cinema cannot let opportunities drift away. Film making is ultimately about storytelling and an audience. Why should screen size be a limitation? A new mindset is what is most required in the Indian film industry, particularly Bollywood. We can, in the next five years, double the size of the filmed entertainment Industry to $6 billion per year. (IANS)