It takes all kinds to make a big movie industry. Look at mainstream Bollywood as a case in point. It is made up of numerous active and not-so-active camps. However, the ones that really matter can be counted on one’s fingers.
At one end of the production-distribution spectrum are the giant banners, the likes owned by Yash Chopra and Subhash Ghai. At the other end are a host of peddlers of low-budget exploitation flicks that rarely, if ever, get into decent distribution.
The middle ground in Bollywood is just as important – it is occupied by a handful of industry insiders who know the tricks of the trade well enough to be able to churn out movies at a frenetic pace. They manage to thrive even if most of their releases fail to break even. By not putting all their eggs in one basket and spreading their resources across multiple ventures, these production outfits maximise their chances of wiping out the deficits that are created by the flops.
Spearheading this well-entrenched strategy is the ubiquitous Bhatt camp headed by Mahesh Bhatt, one-time prolific filmmaker and now scriptwriter and mentor to many aspiring directors. Produced either by Mukesh Bhatt’s Vishesh Films or Pooja Bhatt’s Fish Eye Network, these films are made on controlled budgets, with tight scripts and without saleable stars.
The Bhatt family with friends
The strategy works primarily because of the time-bound production and release schedules of the films. That fact that the Bhatts manage to rustle up at least one release every quarter of the year, even if a large percentage of these films bomb, one commercial success every 12 months is enough to help keep the production machinery out of the red.
The films that fail to ignite at the box office do not burn an unmanageable hole in the producer’s pocket because the budgets are never allowed to go out of control; the ones that succeed rake in huge percentages in terms of profits given the low investment made on these films.
Between them, Mukesh Bhatt and Pooja Bhatt have had a string of box office duds in the last decade, but every single year since 2001, Vishesh Films has delivered a film that has pulled things back for the banner. It had Kasoor in 2001, Raaz in 2002, Jism in 2003, Murder in 2004, Zeher in 2005, and Gangster this year. This level of consistency cannot be a matter of fluke.
What is it that makes the Bhatts such a force in Bollywood? It is probably simply the way they package and pitch their films. Staying firmly outside the star system, they draw inspiration from racy Hollywood flicks, turn them into taut indigenised desi versions and, above all, keep budgets on a tight enough leash to be able to make the four or five films a year strategy viable.
Indeed, in a sense, the Bhatts have been the pioneers of this multi-film slate concept that has now been effectively adapted to their own specific needs by Yash Chopra’s Yashraj Films, Subhash Ghai’s Mukta Arts and, most famously, by Ram Gopal Varma’s Factory, among others.
One might join issue with the Bhatts on several counts. Barring their latest hit, Gangster, and the earlier Kalyug, none of their films is remotely original. Two, their success rate is rather low – they have had more flops than hits since the late 1990s, when the super success of the Aamir Khan- Rani Mukherjee starrer Ghulam catapulted the Vishesh Films banner to the big league.
Just consider the flops that the Bhatts have delivered in recent years – Paap, Nazar, Inteha, Footpath, Rog, Holiday, Tumsa Nahin Dekha, Sangharsh, the list is endless. But all said and done no banner better underscores the virtue of a disciplined approach to film production and of the power of steady storytelling.
That apart, Mahesh Bhatt has groomed several young directors – notably Tanuja Chandra, Anurag Basu, and Mohit Suri apart from daughter Pooja Bhatt and wife Soni Razdan – ever since he called it a day after Zakhm. Not all of these directors have tasted an equal degree of success, but having cut their teeth in a system that thrives on a mix of natural instinct and elaborate planning, they are well prepared to face the challenges that are a part and parcel of filmmaking.
The other crucial aspect of a Bhatt film is its above-average music. The songs in these films are never short of interesting and the sounds are always a tad different from the run of the mill.
The Bhatts have a clear sense of what sells, and even if they often end up selling a little bit of themselves in pursuit of their goals, they never put everything they have at stake. That, more than anything else, explains the longevity of their success story in an era when the megastars call the shots. The Bhatts are stars of their own show.