They are all over Bollywood – in their dark glasses and business casuals, making offers you cannot refuse.
Not the new mafia, they are Bollywood’s new corporate honchos, the new age producers transforming the movie industry. And from two opposite ends of the city, two men are watching.
Over three decades, Mahesh Bhatt, Bollywood’s master of reinvention has set benchmarks for Hindi movies. But to stay ahead in the new Bollywood, Bhatt’s company, Vishesh Films, is about to begin a new journey of its own. It has tied up with a major international company and will make something it has long scoffed at — big budget films.
“The dream is the same, the dreamers have changed,” Bhatt said.
A two-hour drive away in the seaside money district of Nariman Point, editor-turned-producer Pritish Nandy meets visitors in a conference room lined with nattily designed posters of his films. Nandy knows a thing or two about this new Bollywood. After all, he helped invent it.
And somewhere midway on this long drive, in the neighbourhood called Mahalaxmi, is the swank office of Sandeep Bhargava, now betting on a new breed of cinema.
Bhargava is the chief executive officer of Studio18, one of the leading corporate players in the film business. With deep pockets, legal money and a new way of working, corporate houses like UTV, Studio 18, Reliance ADAG, Mahindras, Adlabs and Eros are changing the face of the business. Hollywood majors — like Warner, Sony Pictures and Disney — are jumping in too.
But moviemaking was a messy game years ago when Bhargava was pursuing his management degree in the American state of Ohio. Movies wasn’t where MBAs went to work those days. “The culture was dominated by the underworld and petty shopkeepers. Some were a pretty sick lot,” said director Sudhir Mishra. “Now, the nature of financing has changed.”
Much else was changing all around. Even after the Vajpayee government gave Bollywood the status of an industry in 2000, corporate majors watched from the sidelines, just releasing Hollywood films in India. Nandy, bored with his work in television software, decided to move in that year to his new home: the movies.
“There was a belief that only ‘mainstream’ movies — the formula movies — worked. And I did not believe that,” he said. “We wanted to do mainstream films — not what was called parallel cinema — and try and transform it inside out.”
The year 2003 brought two landmark films for both Bhatt and Nandy. Jism, written by Bhatt and produced by his daughter Pooja, introduced John Abraham and made him and Bipasha Basu stars. It became one of the biggest hits of the year with an audacious edginess and a pushing-the-envelope sexuality.
Later that year, came two small films produced by Nandy, Chameli and Sujoy Ghosh’s Jhankar Beats.
By the end of that year, the word “corporatisation” was doing the rounds of Bollywood. Then headed by Bhargava, Sahara Motion Pictures led the way, putting on the floor about 40 films. “In the early days, the cost of production was not very high. Artistes were not charging a lot, and not a lot of corporates had come in with deep pockets… (but) transparency was a big concern,” Bhargava said. “But by 2006, just about everybody was entering here.”
India had swiftly changed too. Malls and multiplexes were coming up, incomes were rising, and ticket sales were soaring. Viewers were returning to theatres, experiencing the joy and comfort of film viewing with the family.
Bhatt realised it was time again for the only constant of his life: change.
“At Vishesh, we have survived for three decades, but with the corporatisation of the media, we are finding it difficult to stay afloat,” Bhatt said. “We have tied up with Sony-BMG. Budgets will be much more scaled up. We will cater to the indigenous audience but hope it will stand shoulder to shoulder with world cinema.”
In another part of the city, meanwhile, Nandy was winning his own small and big battles. “The mainstream industry tried its best to ignore us… till it could no longer do so,” Nandy said. “People were watching these movies, people were waiting to see more of this stuff.”
The corporates made lives easier for a lot of people. Payments were clean. Financing was assured. Once it was in the works, there was certainty that a film would be made. Films began to be sold well, and new income avenues emerged — including mobile phones, the Internet, cable television.
“Theatre revenues are going up by more than 17 per cent every year, but less than 50 per cent of revenues are now coming from theatres,” said Bhargava. “To an extent the conventional wisdom that all films lose money is being turned on its head.”
Every time that happens, Nandy says, “It not only reaffirms my faith in the Indian audiences’ quest for good cinema, but also redefines Bollywood.”