July 4, 2010

Show us a film, we’ll show you the money

Bollywood has never been more confused as now. Never been more unsure about the big stars/big film formula. Does this mean the movie game will change? Who and what will be the game-changer? Our correspondent talks to the biggest players about their hunt for that elusive thing: an idea that connects
Were you one of those who went into mourning when Hrithik Roshan donned a sombrero and salsa-ed his way out of our hearts in Kites, this year’s worst mega film till now? Despite having Hearthrob Hrithik, the film was old and stodgy, a good idea killed by lousy execution. Did you send a prayer to the gods that govern Bollywood, giving eternal thanks to the unsleazy sunshine shed by India’s first all-digital film Love Sex aur Dhokha? Despite having no celebrated faces, LSD was cool and groovy, finally unshackling sex and freeing love, reaching out to a young and restless audience that is changing at breakneck speed with each tweet.
The fact that you can get such startlingly different films within a couple of months of each other defines the confused state of Bollywood today. What works, what doesn’t, is more than ever a matter of gamble, and right now, 2010 shows all signs of an industry that doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going.

On two successive rain-spattered days in Mumbai, a clutch of B-town heavy-hitters talk about where the film industry is at and where they think it is headed. There’s Karan Johar who has gone from popcorn romance to infidelity to gayness to disability and religious identity and is now back to a contemporary date flick (I Hate Luv Storys released this week). Rohan Sippy, who has braved a second-go-around with Hollywood studios after the debacle of his Chandni Chowk to China, co-produced with Warner Bros (Dum Maaro Dum releases early next year in tandem with Star Fox). Ekta Kapoor who broke the barrier with Love Sex aur Dhokha and is now busy ramping up her new production offshoot, Alt Entertainment (LSD was the first film from the fledgling company). And, of course, Anurag Kashyap, the quintessential outsider who’s attempting the straddle between art and commerce like no one has before (Udaan, which he has mentored and produced, was India’s official entry at the Cannes film festival and is out later this month).

I have my opening line ready when I meet Karan Johar in his spiffy office, his desk surrounded by trophies, a collection of healthy nibbles at hand. Closest to him is a bottle of plump almonds. I ask for coffee. He grins and says, I get that a lot. What I get, instead, is conversation with Karan, who is now contemplating a radical change for Dharma Productions: a film with new faces. This, from a filmmaker who has flagrantly and proudly declared his penchant for big stars, big films: “How long can we carry on making movies with the same nine stars ? We will die of exhaustion.”

He’s known what it is to be golden. And also what it is to be reviled. His huge Twitter following is full of people who fling all sorts of invective at him, and he says he can understand that “because a happy, shiny person like me can be irritating”. “Earlier I used to get upset, now I just ignore them”, he says. And block them off his feed. Now on a sabbatical from directing, Johar is setting into motion the process which will have four films out next year, reading a script a day (“85 out of 90 are terrible”), thinking of ways to encourage good writing (“I would give anything for a perfect screenplay”), and mentoring debutant directors in his stable (“it helps if you have Malhotra as your last name, it seems like a karmic connection!”; I Hate Luv Storys is by Punit Malhotra). Are all you budding filmmakers with that surname listening?
The one truism that comes through loud and clear through all this is that stars are no longer guarantors of success. A Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise alone can’t rake it in anymore in Hollywood. Ditto for a Shah Rukh or a Salman in Bollywood. So is there a formula that will pull the industry out of the doldrums? The game is begging to be changed: who will be the game-changer?

“Greed and fear are the twin emotions that dictate us,” says Rohan Sippy, third generation Bollywood (grandfather GP began it all, and no one’s yet bested father Ramesh’s Sholay: it is at the top of every Best Bollywood film list), sounding like a wiser, smarter Gordon Gekko. “Because of the money having dried up, we are scared. The moment we have two hits on our hands, we will be back again doing the same thing. We need to be better behaved with each other,” he says.

Over a delicious home-cooked lunch of dal, stuffed bhindi and perfectly spherical tiny phulkis (father Ramesh joins us, and noting my delight says, she’s from Delhi, they only have large rotis there), the conversation veers towards how Bollywood has lost the ability to make films accessible to everyone. “Those were the skill sets that dad had, and Yash Chopra had,” says Sippy. “Only Raju (Rajkumar Hirani) is continuing that tradition, he is the Capra of our times. We need to get back to making great movies like we used to, those that connect us to sheer spectacle and drama. And we need to adopt new technology (yes, 3D, yes, digital),” he says.

After a dire course correction which involves re-structuring film finances, curbing greedy stars, rationalising distribution patterns (just because the multiplexes are there, doesn’t mean every film needs a 2000 screen release), ditching corporate profligacy and wasteful high-pitched marketing, ultimately it all comes down to the film.
“We thought we had everything in place for Chandni Chowk, but we didn’t get it right,” says Sippy, who is currently in the process of wrapping up the shoot on Dum Maaro Dum, a drug-buster film set in Goa. “ There is no other road map — you have to make a good film.”

So what’s Ekta Kapoor up to after making Love Sex Aur Dhoka? Her office, at 7 pm, is a beehive. Several aides hover, a potential painted K-serial wannabe waits nervously. The czarina of Balaji Telefilms escorts me in, the phalanx of garland-festooned gods and goddesses that fill a wall the perfect counterpoint to her red tilak-adorned forehead. A pale pink Ganesha is pushed to one side to make space for the voice recorder.
The moment she opens her mouth, though, all notions of fluffiness are dispelled: she’s sharp and observant, backed by an uncanny sense of what will work. “Just because I’ve made one kind of film till now (Balaji till now was identified with raunchy comedies like Kya Kool Hain Hum) doesn’t mean I can’t make something that’s totally different. That’s the whole point of Alt Entertainment,” she says. LSD is certainly alternative.

And edgy and dark in ways Balaji has not known how to be. “The moment Dibakar (Banerjee) narrated the story, I loved it,” she says. “I look around me, and I see it happening everywhere.”
Alt Entertainment will run on a cost-driven philosophy. “ We want to inhabit both ends of the spectrum— after LSD, our next film, from Balaji, Once upon a time in Mumbaai (out July end) is as commercial as commercial can get,” she says. Her team looks at the ‘feasibility pattern’ of new projects, and then it’s down to Kapoor to give the final nod. “All I want from a film is that it should engage me completely,” she says. And to see what people are watching, and liking, she catches a film every Sunday at a nearby multiplex.

It’s appropriate that Anurag Kashyap gets in the last word, because everyone I speak to brings up his name (Dibakar Banerjee’s follows in the same breath) as being hugely instrumental in pushing Bollywood out of its conventional rat-hole. When Kashyap began, he had no takers (his scintillating debut film Paanch is still unreleased, and it doesn’t look as if it’s ever going to see the light of day). Now, after Dev.D, he’s at a place where he’s no longer having to write dialogue for cheesy mainstream films to get by. He cranks open his laptop and shows me the ads he’s now doing for “bread and butter”: one of them has Shah Rukh prancing around a sleeping beauty.

But he, like the others, is wary of claiming game-changer status.”Dev.D was not a game-changer, it didn’t crack the box office in the way a Bheja Fry did”, he says, raising his voice to be heard over the din at hip suburban hangout Zenzi (the Rs 60 lakh-to-Rs 12 crore Bheja Fry story is now part of Bollywood lore). “I am no game-changer. Main change hotey huey game mein ek wheel ho sakta hoon ( I can be a wheel in a game that’s changing). Aamir (Khan) was a game-changer in the way he started doing one film a year, and is now taking the role of the actor-producer so seriously. Ranbir (Kapoor) can be a game-changer if he continues to pick the right roles. I am just the guy who will take your film from the paper to the theatre,” he says. Vikramaditya Motwane, director of Udaan, can vouch for that fact.

“The idea is to put the money back into the kind of films I believe in, and use it for a distribution venture with Ranjan”, he says. (Ranjan Singh, indie film marketer, whose first outing was the excellent Indian Ocean rockumentary Leaving Home). Singh, who is alongside, has been filling me up with all the new ways films with exciting, so-called “unsafe” content can be put out into theatres, and is all fired up about his next ventures, Makrand Deshpande’s Shah Rukh Bola Khoobsoorat Hai Tu, and Kashyap’s untitled next.

Kashyap recalls a visit home recently for his sister’s wedding, where his mother fished out an old letter: the 19-year-old Anurag, bursting with Technicolor dreams, had written that he would go to Bombay and change the way movies were being made, “Main filmon ko badal doonga”. He hasn’t really got all the way there, but now, when he gets an automatic mention anytime people talk about “different”, you know that he’s both a source of inspiration for the indie brigade, and envy for case-hardened industry vets, and that, in Bollywood, still surviving on mom-and pop-instincts despite all the talk of corporatising, is a big deal.

So, yes, there is acknowledgment that the game as it is being played at all kinds of levels, whether they are the smaller-budget, high concept movies or the monstrous tent-poles, needs drastic changing. But there’s no ready-made game-changer willing to take on the responsibility of the entire film industry. What we have at the moment are filmmakers ready to create shifts. The “golden period of our own” that Karan Johar is convinced is around the corner is still a way off. What the industry will have to hunt for, alongside its quest for its elusive chalice, is filmmakers who want simply to make a film, not a certified blockbuster from the get-go.

Go on, show us a movie. We will show you the money.