Bollywood's New Act

Forget

the saris, cleavage, item numbers, superstars, love triangles and

glamour, Bollywood is undergoing something of a renaissance.

For

as long as anyone can remember, this has been the success mantra of

'masala' Hindi films, but India’s film industry is transforming into

‘big ideas’, not ‘big budgets.’

The

usual mega bucks ‘make or bust’ films are being usurped by the low- and

medium-investment flicks that were at one time labeled 'parallel/art

house' cinema. The difference is that now they are also raking in the

money at the box office.

The

recent hit list is growing. Despite lacking an identifiable

all-star-cast, small-budget films (made for under 100 million rupees)

such as Aamir, A Wednesday, 1920, Rock On and Phoonk have not only won accolades from the critics, but also drawn the crowds to make hefty profits.

The return on investment (RoI) for Ugly Aur Pagli starring Mallika Sherawat produced by Pritish Nandy is reported to be good. Hulla, made on a meager budget, is a realistic comedy, directed by Jaideep Varma.

These movies follow the successes of others in the genre such as Bheja Fry (budget 5 million rupees, grossed over 120 million rupees), Jhankar Beats, Jogger’s Park and Khosla Ka Ghosla. In the medium budget category (usually 100-200 million rupees), those that have done well include Chak De India, featuring super star Shahrukh Khan, Jannat starring Emran Hashmi, super hit college love story Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na and the mega blockbuster Taare Jameen Par, with a young boy as the main actor.

Taare

was directed by serious actor Aamir Khan and has been selected as

India’s entry for the Oscars in the foreign language category. It was

actually made for much less than 100 million rupees, but Khan spent

lavishly in promoting it. The dividends have been huge, with the film

winning both critical acclaim and big profits.

Taran Adarsh, a trade analyst, says of A Wednesday,

a 35 million rupees film on terrorism and staring critically-acclaimed

actors like Anupam Kher, that its strength is the 'newness' of the

content. “A Wednesday, may not be a king-size entertainer, like the recent release, Singh is King (budget 500 million rupees) that attracted humongous audiences, but it did pack in a king-sized punch.'

Rock On is going strong a month after its release while Ram Gopal Varma’s black magic movie Phoonk is a scare thriller that has drawn audiences.

Today,

nearly 15 million Indian viewers spend about US$1-3 on movies daily.

According to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and

Industries’ (FICCI) annual report on the Indian entertainment sector,

close to 1,150 films were made in India in 2007.

Although

the sheer numbers beat what even Hollywood makes, the movies are worth

considerably lower at US$2 billion. According to FICCI, new techniques

in production, marketing, and growing audiences will increase this to

US$4bn, by 2011.

However,

big production houses may find the going difficult. Big banner Yash Raj

films reportedly earned a return of just 10 per cent from five big

projects last year. In 2004, Yash Raj earned a 150 per cent RoI from Hum Tum, Dhoom and Veer Zaara. And recent release, Love Story 2050, made for over 500 million rupees sank without any impact on the box-office.

Needless

to say producers and financiers are closely studying the low budget,

low risk and high returns category of movie making and selling.

Pictures drive audiences, success stories drive scripts and the box office numbers drive the funds.

'The

RoI is attractive if the strategy is sound budget management for a

bouquet of films. Since big stars have limited dates one has to look at

other ways to keep the camera rolling,' Rahul Puri, executive director,

Mukta Arts, said.

Private

equity firms such as ICICI-backed Cinema Capital Venture Fund have

turned their hand to financing movies, while Reliance Big Entertainment

has inked a mega deal with Steven Spielberg for movie-production and

distribution.

Wafer producer Moser Baer is also tapping this new area of film production with expectations of good margin and profits.

Mahindra

and Mahindra's media venture company CEO Indranil Chakraborty told AFP,

'Fifteen years ago no one could predict that television and

entertainment would be such a huge business. Hence, we are entering

into films with a medium-budget flick, Mumbai Chaka Chak, a comedy caper that will appeal to the masses.'

Indeed, there is more to come: Welcome to Sajjanpur, directed by Shyam Benegal, is a satirical take on the computer illiterate and uneducated Indian village populace.

Saas Bahu Aur Sensex

marks the distribution debut of Warner Bros’ for Hindi films. Despite

its big production house backing, this is a small-budget film sans any

big stars or commercial appeal.

The USP for the film will be its unique story and novel treatment, the likes of which worked in films like Khosla Ka Ghosla, Bheja Fry and Mithya.

Ritesh

Sidhwani, co-producer at Excel Entertainment, has said that an evolved

socially conscious audience improves the commercial viability of

different types of cinema.

Film

analysts credit the rising numbers of multiplexes in urban locations

that offer a new platform for the new and younger lot of filmmakers to

play around with subjects, content, audiences and genres.

The

lack of star power is made up by word of mouth that plays a crucial

part in the first week of the release, considered the critical period

for recouping investment.

Moreover,

sophisticated marketing techniques have taken precedence, giving the

audience an opportunity to make an informed decision to watch a movie

at the theatre from the trailers and previews that are released.

'Multiplexes have changed the way people now think. I believe till five years ago, Rock On would not have been that much of a hit as it has been today,' Komal Nahata, another trade analyst said.

The

real challenge, however, for the small budget movies is in cracking the

overseas market that big budget Bollywood films have very successfully

tapped in recent years.

Movies such as Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Salaam Namaste, Krissh, have been able to re-coup their investment due to the die-hard non-resident Indian audiences spread all over the world.

Today the US

and the UK are considered big markets for Hindi movies, with a

sprinkling of foreigners too making a beeline for the song and dance

fares.

Yet, good things can come in small sizes.

Aided

by the urban multiplex culture and the corporatization of the film

industry, the new wave of cinema should stay as the show must go on.

Importantly,

the audiences for these movies are both the classes and the masses, who

have kept the box-office ringing. The pulp-fiction regularly dished out

in a traditional magnum opus is being challenged.

The

protagonists are no longer the superstars. Instead they are the 'real'

average India middle-class, and their simple daily trials and

tribulations are in for an intimate take.