Smelling a blockbuster in Bollywood is a bit like getting a multi-bagger in the stock market. Talk is cheap — and easy — while mistakes are frequent. While the country's film industry is bustling in the lap of growing multiplexes, an expanding non-resident Indian (NRI) audience and the prospect of exporting “crossover” cinema to a global audience, one thing remains common between the old celluloid world and the new digital universe: you just can't predict a hit or a flop so easily.
Surprised? Read on.
If you thought Sholay and Munnabhai MBBS were predictable or runaway successes, here are some facts just to get the record straight. When Sholay was released in 1975, the initial response was, to put it delicately, poor. The same was the case with Munnabhai MBBS, the movie that gave actor Sanjay Dutt a new lease of life. Distributors didn't want to touch the offbeat comedy. Eventually when it was released, according to the film's producer, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, “I got a call from a friend saying, ‘Guess how many advance tickets were sold in Pune for the movie—just four’.”
However, as word-of-mouth publicity caught on by the ultimate judges who sat in the dark to cheer and laugh at the two movies, the old show business maxim was back at work: the audience rules and predicting its ways is not easy.
Sholay was a revenge-based action thriller, and Munnabhai MBBS a black comedy with a golden heart. Chak De India, the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer that became a surprise hit, was about the spirit of triumph by unfancied women in an increasingly unfancied game called hockey.
What emerges despite the diversity of themes and the unpredictability of hits is a common insight — that scripts and stories matter a great deal.
Experts believe that small budget movies that are tailor-made for the multiplex audiences have been faring extremely well — Khosla Ka Ghosla and Bheja Fry, where the main cast and crew were relatively unknown, are cases in point.
None of these movies conform to the ‘typical Bollywood movie’ tag and yet have gone on to carve a niche in Hindi film cinema. It is official: formulas can fail.
“In the first week of Sholay's release, nobody even thought that it would go on to be such a hit,” film-maker Vidhu Vinod Chopra told the FICCI-Frames industry conference last week as he spoke of his own whodunit thriller, Parinda.
“It flopped initially as the audience were not very receptive to a story that did not have the customary masala that went into Hindi films at that time.”
But Parinda did pick up momentum and apart from the brilliant acting it was the strong story line and script that gave it the accolades that came its way.
“What the audience wants is a very tricky question and frankly speaking you have to be a little crazy and want to do the work that you completely believe in to be a good film-maker,” said Shimit Amin, the man behind last year's hit movie Chak De India that was directed by him and produced under the Yashraj Films banner.
“Hollywood too has been seeing this churn in recent times,” Chopra said, adding that what the audience wants today also largely depends on who the audience one is catering to.
“The NRI audience is one such sect who an increasing number of film makers are targeting,” said film-maker Sudhir Mishra whose recent film Khoya Khoya Chand, loosely based on the life of 1950s movie figures, got some critical acclaim but bombed at the box office. “Film making is an act of arrogance and an act of love, where the arrogance is backed by a certain craft,” said Mishra.
So is the famed formula for a film a dead idea? “Yes,” said Sippy, “There was an era of formula films. It worked for a while, but people became fed up with such stereotypical films.” In the end, like an unsolved mystery in a crime movie, the question of a film's fortunes at the box office remains unanswered.
“The truth is that even after seeing a film it is not always possible to predict how it will do at the box office,” said Chopra, with Mishra adding for good measure: “A film should be judged by its impact on the people. If the audiences leave the cinema hall happy, the film should be rated as good. That's the yardstick.”