It was the narration of the script that did it. Before that, producer Gulshan Rai and director Yash Chopra were sceptical about Deewar, which broke the box office and wrenched hearts in 1975.
In concept, it was Mother India and Ganga Jamuna, both village affairs, repackaged as a big city flick. But Deewar’s script was so powerful that not only were the producers eager to make it, they also agreed to pay the scriptwriters – Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar – ₹ 2.5 lakh. “It was a very big amount back then,” Khan said on a show for Radio Nasha, an FM channel that is part of the same group as this newspaper. “One could buy a bungalow in [the posh Mumbai suburb] Bandra for that amount.”
Khan and Akhtar’s fee for Deewar was big for another reason: the top heroes of the time, such as Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra, used to get about ₹ 5 lakh for a movie.
Akhtar is a lyricist these days. Khan is largely retired; he does the show on Nasha and defends his son Salman in the press. And scriptwriters today get a hundredth of what the hero makes, not half, as Salim- Javed got for Deewar.
This is the theme of the conversations these days at the many coffee shops, producers’ and directors’ offices and film studios that dot the belt from Versova to Goregaon in Mumbai – the home of Bollywood.
The chatter in Bollywood these days can get scary at times. Men and women are talking about how the turbulence in corporate studios will take out ₹1,000 crore from the industry, which will affect everyone, even those who are working with production houses that are doing well.
They are talking about the reports that Walt Disney Company won’t make movies in India anymore. Siddharth Roy Kapur, who has been running Disney’s India operations since it acquired UTV in 2011, did not take calls, nor respond to messages.
Someone who has been writing for Bollywood for a decade says Disney’s India employees have been told to pack their bags by October 31, that the company will now focus on distributing movies, and make money in India from its global portfolio, some of which will continue to be dubbed in the Indian languages. It seems Disney’s appetite for Bollywood has been satiated with the failures of Mohenjo Daro, Fitoor, Tamasha, Katti Batti, and Phantom..
Mohenjo Daro – Disaster. The cost of the film was phenomenal (Rs 140 crore), the collections dismal
Great Grand Masti – Flop. Despite not having big names, the losses were big (to the tune of Rs 20 crore)
Fan – The film opened big, but this experimental Shah Rukh Khan starrer didn’t work
Sarabjit – Flop. It was expected to do well because of star director Omung Kumar who had made Mary Kom and Aishwarya Rai, but neither could save the film
TE3N – Flop. A medium-budget film; even then its three powerhouses of talent (Amitabh Bachchan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vidya Balan) couldn’t help the film’s fortunes
Fitoor – Big flop. The film cost Rs 80 crore, the losses were in the range of Rs 55 crore
Tamasha – Flop. The film entailed losses of at least 15 crore
Ghayal Once Again – A franchise film. The first one was a big hit, the second one a big flop (Rs 20 crore loss)
People in Bollywood are talking about reports that Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Motion Pictures, reeling under A Flying Jatt, Great Grand Masti, Azhar, and Kya Kool Hain Hum 3, may go easy on movie making after Half Girlfriend, which, based on the Chetan Bhagat novel of the same name, is under production.
Of course, companies have shut shop in the last two decades when Bollywood came to be corporatised. Formidable names such as Aditya Birla, Singhania, Mahindra, Tata, the Times Group and Zee have walked out after testing the waters. But of late this has become endemic.
The names to swear off Bollywood lately are not new to the business, they are the big guys who seem to have lost their way. Disney is one the world’s biggest movie producers, and its growing cold feet come on the back of three other global biggies – Sony, Fox Star, and Warner Brothers – stumbling in India. Sony had its Saawariya, Fox Star hit a rough patch with Bombay Velvet, and Warner Brothers lost its way from Chandni Chowk to China.
Several Indian ones have not fared any better. Reliance Big Pictures (Hawaizaada), PVR Pictures (Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey), SaReGaMa (Jhootha Hi Sahi) seem to have had enough. Eros, one of the biggest in the business, is reeling under flops.
And that brings us back to the issue raised in the beginning: the plight of the writer.
STAR LOOMS LARGE
“Out-of-control budgets are the reason for heavy losses, especially the absurd prices being paid to actors and their entourage. Hindi filmmakers need to rethink the entire model. We need to focus on scripts before stars. And then keep costs under control. It’s what we put forward in 3 Idiots: chase excellence and success will follow, not the other way round.”
That’s Vidhu Vinod Chopra talking. He takes time to work on his movies, sometimes four years on one, at times more. He does not pay his stars or director salaries; he pays them from the profits. Industry grapevine says Rajkumar Hirani, the director with the Midas touch, was paid ₹10,000 for his first outing, Munnabhai MBBS, but ended up with more than ₹1 crore as the film became a blockbuster.
Others work differently. Industry insiders, admittedly those on the creative side, say the MBAs running studios do not understand story, script, or screenplay. So they play safe by signing on the biggest star they can. That done, they get the director the star wants. And then they look around for a script. If the movie fails, they can always say it is not their fault, after all, they did get the most saleable star.
That’s a far cry from the approach Gulshan Rai and Yash Chopra had for Deewar, and it has pushed payments to the star, now the pivot, into the stratosphere.
Bombay Velvet – One of the biggest box office debacles. Losses almost up to Rs 90 crore
Roy – Flop. Like Ranbir Kapoor played an imaginary character in the film, the profits were also imaginary
Tevar – Flop. This small-town story with Arjun Kapoor and Sonakshi Sinha just didn’t work
Shamitabh – Resounding flop. Losses of at least Rs 25 crore
Shandaar – Flop, despite saleable stars, a top director (Vikas Bahl post-Queen) and hit music
“The stars have realised that no one in the corporate setup understands the script. So 40 to 50 per cent of a film’s budget is the star’s salary. The ideal figure should be no more than 10 to 12 per cent,” says Komal Nahta of Film Information, a Mumbai-based trade publication.
No one wants to bet on new faces. The small, indie type of producer who used to bet on new talent has been elbowed out.
After Ranbir Kapoor fell upon bad times with Roy and Tamasha, the younger crop – Ranveer Singh, Varun Dhawan, Siddharth Malhotra – are either cocooned among other stars (Dhawan in Dilwale, Malhotra in Kapoor & Sons) or they have a bevy of strong supporting actors (Dhawan in Badlaapur). When their solo movie does well, it does so because it is a really good movie.
Bigger stars therefore have everything their way. And if you love them you also have to love their dog. So the stylist, makeup person, and the driver get fat fees. These run into lakhs of rupees – for each. One eyewitness swears he saw a top star’s driver get ₹4,000 during a session of shooting. Another person says a star’s travel budget to promote a movie was ₹3 crore. A top heroine’s yoga teacher travels with her everywhere in the world, gets a fat pay, and has nothing to do after the one-hour yoga in the morning.
This means that the promotion, travel budget and overheads equal the cost of making the movie, which means it has to make three times its production budget to be a hit.
If the movie has one of the three Khans – Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan – in the lead role, then at least a budget skewed in favour of the star can be justified. They do deliver in the opening weekend – the all-important money-making window in the era of 3,000 prints. But second-rung and middle-rung actors demand parity with the Khans, as do the actresses. And the second and third-rung heroes... Well they are second and third-rung.
So who gets pushed to the margins? The writer. If the hero gets ₹40 crore for a movie, the scriptwriter is likely to get ₹40 lakh. Even the really successful ones get no more than ₹1 crore, that too if they throw in the dialogues, and even if the whole thing gets done by two or three persons. No wonder people now look at writing as a stepping stone to becoming director, whose pay, though less than the hero’s, is still substantial.
None of this would go down well with the global biggies. A writer who had once signed up with Disney realised that the company needed clearance from the HQ for the bhang laddus that were to be served at a party. “In India, you cannot make a movie without petty cash, you cannot do everything by cheque,” says this writer.
A BUSINESS LIKE NONE
Truly, there is no business like show business, but for more reasons than you imagine. “This business requires incredible talent, skill and luck. You are anticipating audience taste 12 to 18 months ahead, and it will be all decided one Friday,” says Sameer Nair, the head of Balaji group.
To Nair, all this talk predicting doom is pointless, as is talk of Balaji getting cold feet. “As good creative and commercial people, we will take as intelligent decisions as possible in this creative business. Excel sheets do not make movies, but neither do delusions. The truth is in the middle. We have a Punjabi movie called Super Singh coming up, and two others that will go into production.”
Nair is both a creative-type and a management-type. He had revived STAR TV in India when working there by roping in Balaji’s soap operas. So he understands that film business is unlike any other.
In any other business, what works once will work again. In movies, what has worked once will not work again unless you refresh it in an interesting way, as Manmohan Desai used to with his lost-and-found formula.
Secondly, every other business is about increasing your market share. But in movies, there is no concept of market share. Two movies released on the same day can be hits, or both can be flops.
“It will not work if you treat movies like any other business. If there are five good films, I will watch all five; if there is none, I won’t watch any,” says Ranjeet Bahadur, co-editor of 3 idiots.
Of course, it takes the co-editor of a movie that taught excellence over success to say that.