The Bengali film industry has suffered a major setback in recent times. Whether it is the shortage of funds or the poor quality of films or both is a question worth exploring. G.Singh reports …
Kolkata, 30 August: It is 10 a.m. in one of the studios in the outskirts of Kolkata. Sekhar Das is busy completing the post-production work of his Bengali movie Nayanchampar dinratri (the tale of Nayanchampa) starring veteran actress Rupa Ganguly in the lead role.
Sekhar da hardly has a minute to spare. A sense of urgency is understandable as the movie is slated for a release on September 9. He lifts his eyes for a moment and signals me to wait patiently. I ensconced myself in a sofa in one of the corners of the studio sipping a cup of coffee offered by the office staff.
The wait doesn’t seem agonising as the time is spent in glancing at the photographs of the famous actors adoring the walls of the studio, reminiscent of their immense contribution to the regional film industry.Within a few minutes, I get lost in nostalgia and remember a time when movies of superstars like Uttam Kumar and Prasenjit Chatterjee were the only stress-busters.
All of a sudden the director of the movie Sekhar da pushes the wooden gate of his studio room making a creaky sound. Clad in a white shirt and black trouser, he greets me with a smile on his face. His politeness and humble tone is impressive. After all, he is one of the most well-known script-writers and directors of the regional film industry. Sekhar da has four award-winning feature films to his credit. His movie Krantikaal (English title: Critical Encounter) was honoured in the Indian Panorama and got him two National awards, four International awards and six BFJA (Bengali Film Journalists’ Association) awards.
After getting seated, the ace director-cum-scriptwriter gets ready for the first question from the scribe, “How do you describe the present condition of Tollywood? Are you satisfied with the kind of movies being made?”
He replies, “The scenario is certainly not pleasing for the commercial big budget movies facing a failure in the box office. Several movies that were pinned to be block busters’ have tasted dust. The constant collapse has made it very difficult or rather impossible for the newcomers or independent directors to achieve their dreams. The situation is somewhat better for the film-makers like me who have won recognition among the film fraternity. The actors are willing to compromise their remuneration for them, but for budding film-makers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. The parallel cinema has audience but very limited. Several first time directors failed to take up the second project and soon disappeared into oblivion.”
“But why such pathetic state of affairs of an industry that boasts of about 70 releases every year?” He pauses for a moment before beginning , “The industry had huge amount of money pumped in through chit fund companies and other resources, till a year back. The time period between 2010 and 2013 can be termed as a golden phase when the number of films produced every year went up and also their quality. The first-timers were given opportunities that translated into several good flicks. But the heyday has now diminished with the industry going through a tough phase where film producing and releasing is a big challenge.”
Chit fund companies and film-makers have one thing in common: They both sell dreams. The phenomenon of financial outfits making foray into the film industry is not new. It began in Mumbai and particularly in South when Eenadu group led by Ramoji Rao, the media baron of the south, invested heavily in movies. It was widely held that Ramoji pumped money through his chit fund company.
People closely associated with Tollywood claim that around 60-65 percent of the flicks were financed by chit funds, till a few years back. The cash circulating in Bengali titles was approximately Rs 150-200 crores annually.
Post the Saradha muddle, things began to change with the financial outfits dragging their feet away from the film-making business fearing crackdown by the investigative agencies.
“Many big budget movies that were announced with much fanfare failed to see the light of the day. Most of the projects got stalled while others couldn’t move an inch after the initial announcement,” says Nirmal Dhar, a film critic.
He even doubts the tall claims made by the production houses about their profit margins, “It is a common tactic of big banners to boast of massive profits by placing advertisements in the newspapers. I suspect their claims as it is very difficult in the present scenario to even recover the production cost, leave alone making bumper profits. It is a carefully planned gimmick to earn more money by selling satellite rights. Some movies have done really well like Chander Pahar and Borbaad which were released recently, but they are exceptions.
He also cites negative implications on the industry after the exit of financial outfits. “They raised the production cost of the movies to a huge extent. Artists and technicians began to demand three or four times their actual rates. It had a huge impact on the regular producers and small banners who failed to cope up with the new found prosperity of the technicians and actors. A movie that could have been reasonably completed within a budget of around Rs 1-2 crores was made lavishly on an investment of Rs 7 crores,” he added.
Mr Ashok Dhanuka whose production house has produced movies like Khokababu, Khoka 420 and Khiladi with leading stars of Tollywood is among those who continue to reel under the aftermath of the quake, “The worst hit were people like us who earn their bread and butter from film-making. We found it increasingly difficult to meet the rising cost that directly affected our profits. Several producers were blown away in the wind but we held on to our principles and refused to bow down to the exorbitant rates demanded from us.”
Mr Tapan Dev Banerjee, the chairman of exhibitors section of Eastern India Motion Pictures Association (EIMPA) confirms a downfall in the flicks post the exit of chit funds. He pointed out that around 75 films are made now as compared to more than 90, a few years back, “The situation is grimmer than it appears. Several films have been closed down half-way mainly due to the paucity of funds. Many first-time producers came into the industry carrying huge cash in their pockets, but soon disappeared after making one or two movies as the funds dried up. These people had no expertise or knowledge about films and just came in to get attached with the glamour after making big in their financial outfits and were looking for an opportunity to invest their money. Though some were successful, majority of them went away without a trace.”
Rose Valley, which was supposed to be running a chit fund as well, was the most active in investing in Bengali films and financed around 13-14 movies including Moner Manush (which won the Golden Peacock) and Shunyo Ankya.
Apart from Rose Valley, production houses like Silicon group of companies, Remake films, Alchemist winded up their business overnight. As a result movies like “Bhalo Theko, Ami Saira Banu, Kacher dewal, and Jale Jangale closed half-way.
More recently, a famous production house of Tollywood has come under the scanner of Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), the regulatory body, which has restrained the company from doing any financial dealings.
Apart from financial outfits, several filmmakers also blame the remakes and their low standard for the sorry state of affairs. They claim that the lack of originality has been pushing the audience away from the theaters.
Reshmi Mitra, director of Macho Mastana and Mukti concedes that the viewers have lost interest after watching the same Bollywood stuff getting repeated in Bengali movies. She says that the ‘funda’ is very clear, “The Hindi film-makers remake Hollywood movies while the regional makers try to re-create every inch of the masala and story shown in Bollywood flicks. You cannot fool the audience who know very well that a particular scene has been lifted from which movie.”
She further adds that the dubbing of south movies in Hindi and other languages have worsened the matters, “The audience watch the flicks on their television sets and are wise enough to gauge from the promos itself whether the upcoming movie is a remake or a complete copy of the flick that they had recently watched on television. They decide to stay away even if they find a minor similarity.”
The major flop that attracted lot of attention was Rocky (2013), starring Mithun Chakraborty’s son Mahaakshay. The movie was promoted well but failed to elicit any response from the viewers who dismissed it within days of its release. It was a remake of a successful Telugu movie Oosaravelli released in 2011.
However, Sajal Dutta, a veteran film critic says that original ideas continue to rule the roost at the box office and are crowd pullers. For instance, those movies which have done well in ongoing year were not remakes. Apur Panchali, Bari Tar Bangla and Ramdhanu were based on original ideas which were hailed by audiences, whereas Jeet starrer Game and Koel Mallick starrer Arundhati failed to live up to their expectations.
Game was a copy of a Tamil movie Thuppakki while Arundhati was a remake of a Telugu fantasy film with the same name. The other talked-about films of the year — Obhishopto Nighty, The Royal Bengal Tiger, Chirodini Tumi Je Amar 2 and Take One – have done average business.
Unlike Bollywood movies where sequels are fast turning into money spinners, the situation is totally reverse in Tollywood where sequels are met with a cold response at the ticket counter. For example Paglu 2, Chirodin tumi je amar 2 failed to draw even half of the crowd as the previous flicks.
Movies performing badly in theaters directly affect their satellite rights, feels Saroj Mukherjee, chairman of distributors section in EIMPA (Eastern India Motion Pictures Association). He says that the poor show leaves the producers with no alternative but to accept the rates given by the television houses to telecast their movies, “It is a double whammy for the producers who try to recover the cost by selling the satellite rights, but face serious problems after the movie fails to draw audience in the theaters even if the product has substance and deserves a good price.”
People connected with the industry opine that the frequent closing down of theaters coupled with their poor maintenance has not only been driving audiences away from them but has also resulted in the shrinkage of the market for Bengali movies.
As per the statistics made available by EIMPA, the state has around 600-odd single screen theaters as compared to more than 1000, a decade back. What is worse is that around 30 percent of the cinema halls are going blank every year.
“It would not be an exaggeration to say that the closing down of the theaters has broken the back of regional cinema. The Bengali audiences prefer single screen theaters over multiplexes as majority of them are reluctant to spend Rs 500 for a movie. They are happy to spend Rs 100 for a flick and single screens aptly serve their purpose. Even the multiplexes don’t give prime slots to regional flicks, except in cases where the movie does exceptionally well as in case of Chander Pahar,” rues Arijit Dutta, Managing director of Priya Entertainments, one of Tollywood’s leading outfits.
“The rising power bills, taxes, salaries of employees coupled with minimal crowd and poor quality of movies has served as the last nail in the coffin. Several theaters across the state have closed shutters or have converted a portion of their space into bars to survive, while others fell in the trap of promoters who razed the halls to construct apartments,” said a theater owner requesting anonymity.
So what is the way out? Mr Dutta advocates that the government should step in to save the industry and the livelihood of thousands of people entwined with it. Well, the good news is that Chief Minister Ms Mamata Banerjee has assured that she would take all necessary steps to save the regional film industry from dying. We pray and wait for the assurances to turn into a reality.