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India’s Film Industry

Posted on Monday, Apr 28th 2008

The San Francisco International Film Festival is under way, and this weekend, we saw a couple of movies there. Of these, one was a 3-hour Bengali film called Calcutta, My Love by Goutam Ghose based on Samaresh Majumdar’s acclaimed novel, Kalbela, which I had read in my teens.

Frankly, I came out of the Pacific Film Archive movie theater feeling embarrassed.

The film was introduced by one of the organizers as notable for the Director’s multi-faceted talent not only in directing, but also screen-writing and music direction. Well, in all three aspects, the work was terrible. You can add to the list a few other terribles: editing and acting. This could have been a 1-hour, tightly told story of the Naxalite terrorist movement in Bengal in the seventies. Instead, it was a long drawn, ridiculous piece of amateurish film-making.

The experience disturbed me profoundly.

But no, I don’t want this post to be a review of the film. I want to talk about what’s wrong with India’s film industry, and how it can be fixed.

Let’s start with screen writing. Most films become successful or not because of the screenplay. Very few films with weak screenplays find acclaim. Some rare ones do, because of excellence in cinematography or some other aspect of cinema. Most Indian films have weak screenplays.

Add to that the fundamental problem that all Indian film-makers believe that there is no other genre in cinema than Musicals, thus feeling compelled to insert 5-7 songs in every film, dragging out the run-time by 20-40 minutes for absolutely no reason.

The third really crucial issue is Editing. I am not sure what film schools are teaching in India, but they better start an intensive program on editing. In Goutam Ghose’s film, it took 3 minutes of screen time for the protagonist, Animesh, and his wife Madhabilata to enter their home in a slum, and walk to the bed, so that a disabled Animesh could sit down and meet his son who was born while he was in prison.

In a nut-shell, my key observation is that Indian cinema would benefit from building specialized expertise in screen writing, editing, directing, music, etc. the way Hollywood has evolved. There is a whole profession of Hollywood screenwriters who specialize in that particular art form. And yes, they can win an Oscar for just that.

If India wants to develop a film-industry for International consumption, some thought needs to go into how the “industry” ought to evolve, how incentives, recognition and awards are structured, how technology gets used and leveraged, and how people in the industry are educated.

As it stands, the industry is moving in a random, haphazard fashion, and appears dated.

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I will not debate your point that the Indian film industry can improve, especially in the areas that you point out of screenplay writing and editing. However to argue that this must be done for the cause of international consumption is taking a very limited view of the industry and its market. Movies churned out from Hollywood are hardly made with international consumption in mind and many of them cater to specific micro-segments of the US as the industry and the distribution channels are mature enough to support that. With the exception of super-hero and franchise movies such as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, there are few other movies that appeal universally or globally.

Someone who follows box-office collections globally can clarify this but I would be surprised if the Chinese movie industry or any other regional movie industry made movies for international consumption more than local or national consumption. Perhaps the only examples would be from countries where a local market does not exist or is too small. The international consumption is a nice extra segment or market for any major industry and not the primary motive, including Hollywood. If at all, the Indian or especially Hindi movie industry looks at the international Indians as a major or even primary market in the last decade as an extension of its current audience but does not aspire broader international acceptance.

So, if the Indian movie industry is indeed making movies for the local or Indian (in mindset) audience, then the film industry surely seems to know where it is headed. More movies today are commercial successes than ever before, which means the producers and directors know what the audiences want – any genre as long as it is a musical. One could also argue that there is no real justification that the song-and-dance routines or the musical genre is dated, and songless movies that resemble the output of Hollywood is current. Every individual viewer, culture, or sub-segment of the movie-going audience will have unique preferences and until the distribution of Indian movies achieves the level of segmentation in the US market, the industry will be dominated by one-size fits all solutions.

Much as I hate most family dramas or slapstick comedies which dominate recent commercial successes, I find that the movies that I like are often not very successful at the box office. Johnny Gaddaar which has some of the best screenplay writing and editing, two attributes you mention, and was not a musical by any measure – was a box office failure. The reason, I guess, is that the global or urban Indian viewer will watch this movie on DVD if at all, or perhaps not even that. If Johnny Gaddaar had three songs (not seven hopefully), then I would not have been as impressed by it. But most of us with access to Indian cinema and Hollywood will buy box office tickets only for “escapist” fare when it comes to Indian movies. Maybe we as a segment see a lot of good dramas or thrillers or action movies from Hollywood, but not “escapist” musicals and starry romances so we prefer those from India while we hardly give those other genres a chance for Indian cinema. Hence, it is only reasonable that the Indian production houses invest in projects where they see a safe market – which is the musical genre or any other genre fused or confused with the musical just to play safe.

2005 for me showed a potential of changing tastes in the audience and film makers with as many as three big hits in quick time that were largely songless – Black, Sarkar, and Page 3. However, while few film makers try not to fuse a musical genre into every movie, the audiences only flock in greater numbers each year to the musicals. We still saw Bheja Fry, Johnny Gaddaar or Gandhi My Father in 2007 trying to break the rule but with very limited impact on the industry.

So, if majority of the ticket buying audiences in India want song-and-dance musicals, it will be forced on to other genres which can stand without them (with drama – as in Rang De Basanti or Taare Zameen Par or with a historical – as in Jodhaa Akbar or Mangal Pandey). That also makes these movies less attractive for broader international consumption but so be it when the global Indian audience is a large and rapidly growing market.

With this argument, I do not mean that editing or screenplay writing or other technical attributes of Indian movies need not improve. Here, the point you make about how the industry should evolve, the emphasis on building specialties and formal education in these disciplines are the right things to do. This is a huge industry that is only now working like an industry and industrialization will naturally bring these benefits over the next few years.

Sunder Sarangan Monday, April 28, 2008 at 5:23 PM PT

Hi Sunder,

Great, thoughtful points. Yes, Bollywood knows very well where the core local audience is, and caters to that audience very well.

The regional films have less of a core positioning, and they try to waver between commercial and art cinema, and very often succeed in neither genre. I am particularly talking about Bengali cinema which at one point DID have a good feel for what works (Uttam Kumar – Suchitra Sen).

There is, however, in this globalized world, an international market developing for films from India, China, and other parts of the world, in the same way that books written by immigrant and ethnic writers have appealed to an international audience.

But to be able to cater to this audience, an entirely different approach is needed. You are asking the question why that is important? There are several answers: (a) Money. $10/seat ticket costs versus 50-200 rupees. (b) Acclaim.

As examples, I want to cite 2 films: (1) Deepa Mehta’s Water (2) Meera Nair’s Monsoon Wedding.

Water grossed $8 Million, and was an absolutely beautiful film. Monsoon Wedding grossed about $30 Million and was even a mainstream commercial success.

I am not sure how Jodha Akbar has done (I know that it has done well) in terms of actual numbers. Do you have the number?

What’s interesting to test is what the biggest Bollywood hits generate versus even the smaller international hits like Monsoon Wedding.

Sramana Mitra Monday, April 28, 2008 at 5:39 PM PT

Hey Sraman,

Thanks for the posting.

I have to agree completely. At the same time let me try and dig deeper – the Indian Film Industry for the most part makes cinema for profit. The drivers of profitability, i.e. the tastes of audience have evolved with the evolution of the audiences themselves. Cinema can be a reflection and/or extension of reality and the Indian Film Industry tends to deal with the extensions a lot more.

There have been a recent spate of commendable movies from the industry – Taare Zameen Par deserves a mention, though an editor would’ve helped.

As someone succinctly said: “you cannot drive BMWs on Indian roads… Ambassadors are made for Indian roads.” What I am saying is the Indian roads are changing, and as a result the cars will too.

Too optimistic, eh?

Riff Khan Monday, April 28, 2008 at 7:20 PM PT

Sramana,

Not sure how much exposure you have had to south indian films (Telugu and Tamil especially). Not just Hindi films, even south Indian films are commercially released in US and UK, and over the last few years, the US has come to be seen as an important territory for revenues.

Yes, Bengali films of late may have lost the earlier ‘touch’ in terms of editing and screenplay, but every year there are some very good films from Bollywood, Telugu and Tamil that can boast of excellent production values.

There is a Film and Television Institute in Pune, and another institute run by South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce in Chennai. Plus, a few universities which have a Mass Communication program also offer programs in film making etc. Apart from this, actors like Anupam Kher have established their own academies for teaching these essential skills.Some of the Mass Comm graduates do go to US for courses in film making and then return to India to make films. In fact, some of them make a regional Indian film as part of their thesis, earn recognition and generate funding for their commercial venture.

Revenues: There are many Web sites that could give you the numbers, so, I will just give you a couple of pointers.

1.Sivaji, a blockbuster in Tamil and Telugu (simultaneorusly released in 2 languages) reportedly made around Rs.250 crore in the first four weeks.

https://www.businessworld.in/content/view/1971/2034/

The above article says the premier show ticket in New Jersey was priced at $25, comparing favorably with any hollywood blockbuster.

India Today recently ran a cover story on Bollywood.

Yes, there is a a lot of scope for improvement.But its not as bad as you make it sound.

Kumar Narasimha Monday, April 28, 2008 at 10:25 PM PT

Hi Kumar,

I have heard that south Indian films are doing well. The article you cite is a good data point.

There are some countries where Bollywood is very popular, by the way. Middle East, of course. I went to Morocco in 1995, and was surprised to find how popular Bollywood films and film stars were over there. There were little kids running after me, reciting dialogs like “Chhor do mujhe …!” It was hilarious.

Notwithstanding the above, I am personally interested in seeing a more sophisticated genre of Indian cinema become as big as Bollywood. More along the lines of the work of Deepa Mehta, Meera Nair, Merchant-Ivory, Satyajit Ray. In particular, the genre that Merchant-Ivory developed set in the back-drop of Britain is a very apt genre for India, given its rich period history and ambience.

By the way, I thought Jodha Akbar was a very well-done film but could not get any of my non-Indian friend to go see it because of the length.

Sramana Mitra Tuesday, April 29, 2008 at 8:54 AM PT

Jessie…

Wow, nice blog….

Jessie Friday, May 2, 2008 at 1:10 AM PT

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shekhar sarkar Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 9:51 PM PT