Take a trip to the local cinema this week and you will probably come face-to-face with a life-size poster of the latest Bollywood epic, Jodhaa Akbar, produced on a record-breaking budget of Rs400 million (Dh37 million).
With stellar A-listers Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as the leads, the film comes with enough celebrity value to ensure good box-office returns in the first few days of its release.
But the astronomical budget may end up putting a damper on the profitability of such an expensive venture if ticket sales plummet in its second week.
While this is a nail-biting time for director Ashutosh Gowariker and producers UTV Motion Pictures, it is also a time to zoom in on the eternal movie industry question: are small-budget films a safer bet in terms of profitability when compared to expensive films such as Jodhaa Akbar?
The latest trend of indie films in India certainly seem to underline that Bollywood filmmakers are now bowing to economics. Over the last two years, some of the biggest players in the Indian film industry have contributed a sizeable chunk of their time and resources into producing small- to medium-budget films.
One of the main reasons for this is that Bollywood’s elite is diversifying into film production. Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla set the ball rolling with their production house, Dreamz Unlimited and Aamir Khan and Ajay Devgan followed suit by setting up their own respective companies.
Taran Adarsh, trade analyst, and editor of Trade Guide, a film business weekly in India, was recently quoted as saying:
“Today, production houses don’t have a choice but to start looking at small budget films or independent films. With actors turning producers, directors are now looking at lesser known names and smaller projects as an effective way to keep the ball rolling.”
As independent cinema clambers to fill in this market demand, the growth of the multiplex culture in India has fuelled this trend even further. Describing this change, Nelson D’Souza, Head of Operations, UAE, for Yash Raj Films, says:
“There is a great divide in India between the urban multiplex cinema audience and the mass commercial audience in the rural areas.
“Small-budget films work in multiplexes because the high ticket prices ensure that returns are favourable, and today, multiplexes account for between 40 and 50 per cent of a film’s box-office revenue in India. This is why you see many filmmakers now exclusively churning out films for urban audiences.”
Yash Raj Films (YRF), arguably the biggest film production house in India, has earned a reputation for producing movies that are opulent and filmed on a larger-than-life canvas. In monetary terms, that means their budgets usually border on a seven-figure scale.
D’Souza admits that YRF is not known for making small-budget movies. He says: “The only film from our repertoire that may qualify as a limited budget film is probably Kabul Express (Rs75 million), which had John Abraham and Arshad Warsi as the main leads.
“And while I can’t comment on the policy that our head office is currently adopting in terms of future small-budget projects, it is reasonable to say they will be based on what the commercial audience is demanding and simple economics.”
In the case of UTV, their last few major releases have included major productions like Rang De Basanti, Life in a Metro and Taare Zameen Par. All boasted at least one A-list star headliner, along with a profitable run at the worldwide box office.
But even with this track record, the production house ventured into the independent genre by funding the small-budget Khosla Ka Ghosla in 2006.
The film became a runaway hit, and many industry experts now look upon it as the turning point in Bollywood for the revival of the small-budget underdog.
Made on a “Bollywood shoestring” of Rs20.5 million Khosla Ka Ghosla also became one of those rare movies that attracted international viewers.
Mahi Golchin-Deepala, Managing Director of Phars Films, the sole distributors of Indian and other regional films in the GCC, believes star names play an important role in how popular a film will be abroad. He says: “It’s usually understood that if an Indian film doesn’t have a Khan [Shah Rukh, Salman or Aamir] or a Bachchan [Amitabh or Abhishek] in the lead, the film will not attract viewers in the UAE.
“This is why movies like Mixed Doubles and even the recent Superstar are either released straight to video or shown in limited theatres.”
But even Golchin-Deepala admits that Khosla Ka Ghosla not only managed a cinematic release in the UAE, but also went on to rake in a tidy sum at the box office.
So what ultimately made this virtually unknown film, with no A-listers hit all the right buttons with cinemagoers?
Amrita Pandey, associate vice-president-international distribution and syndication, UTV says: “It is the way the film has been marketed that plays an important role in getting people to fill seats. Once the audience is in the theatres, then the storyline and good performances have to work to keep them there.”
Such was the case for Khosla, which was marketed by UTV at a whopping Rs10.5 million – a good 50 per cent of the total budget of the film was just spent on getting its name out there in the bright lights.Siddhartha Roy Kapur, UTV’s senior vice-president of marketing, says: “Smaller movies need a huge push because they cannot garner sponsorships and promotions at the inception vis-à-vis the big budget movies.”
Many mid- to big-budget movies in India spend 10-20 per cent of production costs on promoting a film and marketing expenses usually raise a film’s production costs by between 40 and 60 per cent.
The marketing blitzkrieg worked for Khosla Ka Ghosla, and more recently, the hit-film Bheja Fry. But for every such small success story, there are damp squibs like Hattrick, Buddha Mar Gaya, and Ek Chalis Ki Last Local; each sank even after getting an international opening.
However, high production costs and a reputable director cannot always guarantee a success story. Last year’s Saawariya is one such example.
Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who earned a favourable reputation with films such as Black and Devdas, created cinematic history with last year’s biggest box office dud. But despite a budget of Rs350m, from which a reported Rs200m was spent on marketing alone, was not able to save the film.
Film director Mira Nair says: “Small and big doesn’t really matter, it’s the overall concept of your film that is the key to success.
”Nair, who currently has her hands full with a literary adaptation of Shantaram starring Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan, adds: “The taste of the audience is altering, but now its time for the major producers to stop chasing the formula-based films.”
Industry experts say that Bollywood producers are now using high-content “art” films as an inroad to the international awards scene and markets beyond non-resident Indians.
Pandey echoes the statement, adding: “In Bollywood trends are constantly changing. For every small film that does well there are many more which do not even see a theatrical release.
Coming Soon in 2008
Tashan (Rs400million*): The Yash Raj Production film sparked the real life love story between Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. It is scheduled to hit cinemas in April.
Drona (Rs600m): Bollywood’s answer to Superman, Drona stars Abhishek and Jaya Bachchan, along with Priyanka Chopra. Set for a tentative August release.
Gazini (Rs450m): This Geeta Arts-produced film stars Aamir Khan. Gazini is set for a Diwali release around October.
Chandni Chowk to China (Rs500m): Backed by Warner Bros, the action comedy is being directed by Nikhil Advani and stars Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone in the lead. Expect a year-end release.
Blue (Rs1billion): Tentatively scheduled for release in December 2008, this film is set to break all records with its budget. Produced by Shree Astavinayak, the film stars Lara Dutta, Akshay Kumar and Sanjay Dutt.
THE SMALL PLAYERS
Mithya (Rs20m): VK has come to Mumbai to be a Bollywood movie star like many others do. He gets tangled in the web of the underworld, which changes his future. It released in India last week.
Black & White (Rs22m): Renowned director Subash Ghai returns with this low-budget film, which will see Anil Kapoor playing a politician who adopts an Afghan terrorist to rehabilitate him. The film will be tentatively released on March 7.
Meerabai Not Out (Rs15m): Actress and TV anchor Mandira Bedi stars as Meera, a cricket-crazy math teacher who must choose between her two great loves – Dr Arjun Sachdeva (Ejaz Khan) and cricket. Due summer of 2008.
I Think I am 24 (Rs12m): Directed by Saurabh Shukla, this film stars talented Ranvir Shorey and beauty queen Neha Dhupia in the lead. The film is scheduled for a mid-2008 release. The story is still undisclosed.
Pankh (Rs30m): After creating one of the most talked-about films of 2007 with Shootout in Lokhandwala, Sanjay Gupta’s White Feather Films has launched this indie film starring Bipasha Basu along with newcomers Maradona Rebello and Sudipto Chattopadhyay.
*All production budgets are estimated.
Is small the new big in Bollywood?