When Subhash Kapoor, 40, a journalist-turned-filmmaker, was trying to make his second film, Phas Gaye Re Obama, in 2009, he struggled to get financial backing, especially from established production houses. After all, the film was a satire minus songs, foreign locations and big stars — all regarded as important, if not essential, ingredients for a successful Bollywood film.
From the viewpoint of the industry, the factors working against him were insurmountable. For one, his first film, Say Salaam India: Let’s Bring The Cup Home, a sports film released during the 2007 cricket world cup, had fared miserably at the box office. For another, he was an independent filmmaker with no godfather, formal training or track record.
After nearly eight months of unsuccessfully chasing big studios, he finally found an independent producer who agreed to finance it.
Phas Gaye Re Obama was released in December 2010 to generally favourable reviews and, through word of mouth, became a sleeper hit, beginning modestly but going on to doing well.
The favourable reviews caused Kapoor’s stock to rise. Just two days after the release of Phas Gaye Re Obama, Fox Star Studios, a major production house, offered to finance his third film, Jolly LLB, starring Arshad Warsi and Boman Irani, which will be released in September this year.
“In Bollywood, as in other places, nothing succeeds like success,” says the filmmaker.
Kapoor’s story illustrates how the Hindi film industry has changed. Thanks to a snowball effect of many such successful films over the past five years, the box-office is seeing trends that are threatening to change the rules of the game.
For example, Kahaani, a movie directed by Sujoy Ghosh centred on a pregnant woman played by Vidya Balan, was made on a modest budget of Rs. 15 crore and has netted more than Rs. 85 crore domestically in its entire run (it has also reportedly broken the Rs. 100 crore mark worldwide). It is the third-biggest hit of the year so far, behind only Agneepath, starring Hrithik Roshan, who reportedly charges more than Kahaani’s budget, and the formulaic Housefull 2, which had a star-studded cast.
Paan Singh Tomar, a biopic about a national level sportsman-turned-dacoit played by Irrfan, was made on an even smaller budget of Rs. 7 crore, and had a limited release, but made about Rs. 15 crore in two weeks on word of mouth alone. Vicky Donor, a Rs. 5 crore multiplex-friendly comedy about the misadventures of a serial sperm donor, starring first-timer Ayushmann Khurrana, has made Rs. 60 crore in five weeks (and is still running in theatres).
Like Kapoor’s Phas Gaye Re Obama, these movies are outliers in a traditional sense: They have either no songs or no choreographed ones, no bankable male leads — Kahaani had no hero, Vidya Balan got top billing — and have unconventional storylines. As film critic Raja Sen, referring to Vicky Donor, puts it: “When was the last time you heard of a Hindi film lead who makes a living by masturbating into a cup?”
The commercial success of such films isn’t entirely new. Films such as Khosla Ka Ghosla, directed by Dibakar Banerjee and released in 2006, and the Vinay Pathak-starrer Bheja Fry, released in 2007, were unconventional films that did well at the box office. Over the next few years, Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D (2009), Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (2010), Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (2010) and Delhi Belly (2011) were some of the most notable examples of films that did well both critically as well as commercially.
What is significant, however, is that as of this year, they are making more money. (See box: How they fared at the box office). While previous years’ examples also made profits, none of them even made it to the list of top earners for that year (barring Delhi Belly last year). In contrast, Kahaani and Vicky Donor are two of the four biggest hits of this year.
Bollywood trade analyst Komal Nahta thinks that Kahaani could well remain in the top ten overall earners list even by the end of this year. He feels that while masala films will always dominate the box-office, the percentage of commercially viable non-formulaic films is definitely rising.
Kapoor feels that the success of Kahaani and Vicky Donor are huge milestones. “This clearly indicates that the audience watching this brand of films has now reached a critical mass,” he says, attributing this change to viewers in urban and semi-urban areas who grew up with more exposure to quality international cinema thanks to satellite television and the internet.
“Viewers finally have a choice now,” says Anupama Chopra, Hindustan Times’s film critic. “With multiplexes offering a variety of films, from mainstream to alternative, at the same time, one isn’t always forced to watch run-of-the-mill commercial fare.”
Film distributors say that digital distribution, which is much more affordable, over the last two years has also had a role to play, as it enables alternative filmmakers to release more prints for the same cost. Moreover, with multiplexes mushrooming in tier-II and tier-III cities, audiences in smaller towns are now getting more opportunities to watch these films as well. “Till last year, about 60-70% of our cinema halls were digital,” says Prakhar Joshi, head of programming for PVR Cinemas. “Now, we have digitised nearly 100% of our screens. Had Kahaani released three years ago, before this happened, it probably wouldn’t have been as successful.”