It took three uncompromising years for independent filmmaker Piyush Jha (38), director of Chalo America (1999) and King of Bollywood (2004) to make his third film, Sikander, the story of a young Kashmiri boy’s aspirations. Three years spent in the faint hope that “in a country obsessed with stars”, someone would invest their money and faith in a small but well-scripted, starless yet honest film. Sikander is finally set to release on August 21.
But this struggle is an integral part of the independent filmmaker’s real-life screenplay. Says Jha, “If you’re trying to break new ground, it will be tough.”
The honeymoon period
It was only three years ago that the offbeat Khosla ka Ghosla, a low-budget film with no Khans but Anupam Kher and Boman Irani in great form, was embraced by critics and audiences alike. Only two years since Bheja Fry, made on a shoestring budget with a rotund, bespectacled Vinay Pathak as its protagonist, was declared a commercial hit. And it was only last year that Aamir, starring television actor Rajeev Khandelwal, and A Wednesday, an exceptionally clever look at terrorism, received rave reviews.
In 2008, it finally seemed like the good times were rolling for small-budget films.
“It was a misconception,” declares actor-director Rajat Kapoor, who starred in Bheja Fry and directed Mithya. “We were never fooled into thinking our movies could give Shah Rukh Khan sleepless nights. We were just glad that we were allowed to exist.”
They did better than exist, in fact. Bheja Fry (estimated budget Rs 70 to 80 lakh), took in collections of about Rs 16 crore, Reema Kagti’s directorial debut Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd., made on a budget of Rs 3 to 3.5 crore, earned Rs 9 crore at the box office, and Dibakar Banerjee’s Khosla Ka Ghosla’s collected over Rs 7 crore against a budget of Rs 1.5 crore.
Small fry in big Bollywood
This year, however, a string of small films like Barah Aana, Firaaq, Straight and Sankat City sank without a trace.
“Yes, there was a bigger romance with small-budget film six months ago,” admits Raja Menon, ad filmmaker and director of Barah Aana. “Then again”, he adds, “The small films haven’t fared any worse than the big-budget ones, except Love Aaj Kal.” He also attributes this short-lived love affair with small films to the producers’ strike which caused a backlog of big-budget movies to be released in a row after the strike ended. “The media is only talking about the big movies thanks to their hardcore marketing,” he says.
But Menon makes no excuses for the debacle of the small-budget films in 2009. “We have to give the audiences better quality — a sound script and strong story,” he says. Saurabh Shukla, actor-director, who has helmed the upcoming film Raat Gayi Baat Gayi, is more straightforward. “A bad film won’t work irrespective of budget.”
Then again, it’s an undeniable fact that Indian audiences would rather see a mediocre film starring Shah Rukh Khan or Hrithik Roshan, than one starring Vinay Pathak or Vijay Raaz. And more so during recessionary times. Between Kambakht Ishq starring Akshay Kumar and Kareena Kapoor and Sankat City starring Kay Kay Menon and Rimi Sen, which would you spend Rs 250 on?
However, most believe it is only a matter of time before another Bheja Fry beckons. Vikas Behl, COO, UTV Spotboy, is confident about his low-budget films. “We have eight to 10 films under production, and three more — Aage Se Right, Peter Gaya Kaam Se and Pan Singh Tomar – are set to release this year,” he says.
But for the independent filmmaker, surviving in a star-struck, escapist movie world is the harsh reality, with or without an economic slowdown. A reality which Shashanka Ghosh, who directed the gritty Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II, is all too familiar with. It took him 14 long years to find a producer for Quick Gun Murugun, his forthcoming cowboy spoof. “Two big studios were on the verge of buying it, but the top bosses refused because the film had no big names,” complains Ghosh. “I will always face problems unless I get Hrithik Roshan to act in my film.” Jha’s rehearsed answers didn’t please potential producers who persisted: “Where are the stars, where is the feel-good factor, where are the songs, how will we market the film?”
“Small-budget films will never eclipse big budget ones,” asserts Shashanka Ghosh. “But I have hope that there are people who believe in these films. And we will rise above the system.”