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Urban movies at the crossroads

Saibal Chatterjee analyses the growth and evolution of multiplex cinema India.

india Updated: Apr 04, 2006 19:18 IST

Homi Adajania’s debut film, the dark and quirky Being Cyrus, has opened strong at the box office. So, should lovers of India’s new and fast evolving urban cinema go into celebration mode and uncork the bubbly?

Well, the answer is yes and no. Yes because when a film like Being Cyrus comes along and holds its own in the multiplexes, it points to the growing maturity of the movie market and the audience that sustains it. No because stray commercial successes won’t rescue urban niche movies from the fringes of the business.   

As Meghna Gulzar, who prepares to launch her second directorial venture later this year, says: “Swanky multiplexes have changed the way we watch films. But until the distributors change their ways, things won’t improve for us in real terms.”

The fact, however, remains that small-budget, offbeat films, many of them made in English, enjoy much greater visibility today than ever before. 

Some weeks ago, Rajat Kapoor’s Mixed Doubles generated a fair amount of buzz when it arrived in metropolitan cineplexes. And now, Cyrus is poised to smash a record or two.

Homi Adajania’s debut film, Being Cyrus, has opened strong at the box office. But still the lovers of urban cinema don’t have much to cheer about.

No English-language Indian film has ever grossed as much as Homi Adajania’s maiden feature on its opening weekend. The film mopped up a cool Rs 2 crore from 80-odd prints between March 24 and 26. In the bargain, it has outstripped films like

Monsoon Wedding, Mr & Mrs Iyer, Bride and Prejudice

and

15 Park Avenue.

Being Cyrus is currently number two on our charts in terms of occupancy per centage,” says Aditya Sikri, CEO of Spice World, a Noida mall that houses the eight-screen Spice PVR. “It is second only to Malaamal Weekly.”

“In the days of single-screen cinemas, Being Cyrus wouldn’t even have been released at the expense of a mass hit like Malamaal Weekly,” says Sikri. Today, when a Neal n’ Nikki seeks to dislodge Apaharan, it cannot. “We ran both the films at the same time. Neal n’ Nikki was out in a couple of weeks, Apaharan ran for eight.”

The greatest disservice to the multiplex cinema movement has been done by filmmakers who have churned out half-baked products in the hope of cashing in on the expanding exhibition canvas. Few of these supposedly unconventional cinematic takes on urban life did not add up to great cinema.

Says writer-director Sujoy Ghosh: “The year 2003 saw the release of nearly 40 multiplex films. Only one (his own Jhankaar Beats) survived.” When his next film, Home Delivery, far more in your face than Jhankaar Beats, opened last year, the experiment boomeranged. 

Clearly, nothing can be taken for granted in this game. The only entity that really matters in the ultimate analysis is the paying public. You strike a chord, the film clicks. You don’t, you end up with egg on your face.

A dip in quality can pose a real danger to the fortunes of non-formula films. If amateurish products are passed off as cinema of a different kind, frustrated audiences will go right back to their weekly dose of mind-numbing Bollywood entertainment. There is a whole line-up of such films waiting in the wings.

Offbeat offerings became quite the rage last year. Page 3 in the first half of the year and Iqbal in the second catapulted movies from the fringes into the big league. Interestingly, neither used English though both films drew inspiration from the unconventional spirit of the new urban Indian cinema.      

Things are looking up for the small players. Says Madhur Bhandarkar, maker of Page 3: “Multiplex players have entered the distribution business. We can now make films like Chandni Bar and Page 3, and deal directly with the exhibitors.”

No wonder Sunil Doshi, producer of the recently released Mixed Doubles, emulated the Page 3 model. “I sought a Page 3 kind of slot for my film. I released 35 to 40 prints. It wasn’t a mainstream release, but it was big enough to reach out to its target audience.”

Bollywood big guns are increasingly seeing some percentage in backing offbeat ventures. Says Assamese veteran Jahnu Barua, director of the critically acclaimed Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara: “Yashraj Films came forward to distribute my film. That’s clear proof that the market believes a good film will find takers. I did not expect Maine Gandhi… to run for more than a week or two. It survived for as many as four.”

The multiplex business is set for exponential growth. The number of such facilities is projected to double to 150 in the next two years, with the capacity increasing from the current 90,000 seats to nearly 170,000 seats. The real multiplex revolution is waiting to happen. When the masses are drawn into its ambit and films of the quality of Being Cyrus assume a steady flow, the multiplex effect will well and truly kick in.