Lights, Camera, Conversation… “For the love of money”

Why does most of our discussion about cinema centre primarily on box-office collections, especially if a big star is involved?

As I write this, Bollywood-oriented web sites are screaming that Talaash has finally entered the 100-crore club, though this figure includes revenues from overseas. (The domestic total is a little under Rs. 85 cr.) At the time of release, the story was slightly different. The web site boxofficecapsule.com mourned, rather ungrammatically, “Talaash collected rather good numbers over weekend and was expected to fetch good numbers on weekdays. But film dropped with every passing day and it was apparent that this time audience at large did not like the content of Aamir Khan’s latest offering.” Then came the clincher. “Film collected further 3.50 cr nett on Thursday and film has finished week one at 67 plus cr nett. Film has to collect 30 cr plus in 2nd week in order to reach 100 cr nett mark…” And the second week’s total was a mere Rs. 15.5 crore, which means that Talaash will not join the 100-crore club when only domestic receipts are totalled.

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This has been the dominant mode of discourse around the film, apart from reviews and a stray opinion piece or two expressing indignation over Aamir Khan’s apparent endorsement of superstition. On the other hand, had Talaash been a Hollywood movie, these are some of the topics that would have risen around the film’s release, in newspapers, magazines and web sites: the best supernatural-suspense films of all time; ten best cops with moustaches; the origins of rug-pulling in the movies; how spouses in the cinema deal with loss; the literary tradition of lonesome policemen; why hookers in cinema, with the exception of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, just cannot catch a break; ten reasons Talaash would have sucked had there been a male in the director’s chair; Farhan Akhtar’s evolution as a dialogue-writer; from Dil Chahta Hai to Talaash, a look at the male-centric multiplex movie; and, this being awards season, why Talaash won’t win the Oscar for Best Actor.

In short, we’d have had a range of writing around the movie, from the super-serious to the ultra-silly. And I’m not even talking about the lengthy profiles and interviews, the comment pieces and the debates that would have appeared. But here, all we seem to do is bother about the box office. That’s not wrong. You can do serious reporting using facts and figures that make up the trade aspect of a film. But when all those reports converge around a single question, whether or not Talaash will enter the 100-crore club, it’s depressing – not just because we can’t seem to think of other things to write about and around the film, but because the 100-crore mark itself is meaningless with this sort of film, with restricted appeal. That such a moody and slow-paced film made Rs. 85 crore so far is in itself a smashing success story, without speculating if Aamir is still the top Khan.

What, for instance, would Talaash have earned had Salman or Shah Rukh starred in it, both stars with a more massy appeal? Besides, a look at the Wikipedia page of Bollywood’s 100-crore grosser reveals that most of them are masala movies (or variants thereof, like the sci-fi masala Ra.One, or the masala comedy Housefull 2). Jab Tak Hai Jaan, if not quite a masala movie, is very much from a proven genre, plus it came with the star power of Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif, and the names of Yash Chopra and AR Rahman. The only two films that seem surprising additions to this club are 3 Idiots and Barfi!, the former a “social comedy,” pumped full with messages, and the latter a whimsical dramedy. Had Aamir made Ghajini 2 and had that film not made 100 crore, then there would be something to talk about. Why put these pressures on Talaash?

But that, I suppose, is part of the baggage of being a star – even a star director, for that matter. A lot of the number crunching around Lincoln has revolved around the fact that Steven Spielberg has, after a long time, had a $100 million hit. (His last blockbuster was the pre-sold Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; his last non-franchise, non-blockbuster film to hit that mark was Catch Me If You Can, a whole decade ago). You cannot completely do away with these expectations. But the difference is that there have been scores of other kinds of articles written about Lincoln, ranging from The Scoop: Why Lincoln Grew a Beard to How Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln Benefited from Crony Capitalism to The Eternal Reach: How Steven Spielberg’s evolving ideas continue to ignite cinema. And all we have about Talaash is endless handwringing about a numerical benchmark. You’re probably going to tell me that our mainstream media doesn’t have space, any longer, for serious, analytical writing about cinema, but isn’t that why blogs were invented?

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

34 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “For the love of money”

  1. Brilliant – while i agree with the basic premise of your article, i would also lay some of the blame on our stars .

    The majority of our marquee names stick to safe and proven subjects and when they do take risks ( SRK -> Paheli, AK -> Dhobi Ghat) – the films are marketed and distributed in the same way as their other more masala movies. As a consequence the media coverage also tends to be the same exacerbated by the cluelessness of your average cinema reporter, so unless you are really tuned in , the public cannot differentiate and the only metric on both sides -producer and consumer – is , is it 100 crores yet ? A self-feeding closed loop of idiocy.

    A good example of how to manage this is the way George Clooney, Johnny Depp and the early Brad Pitt choose and market their small , “more artistic” films versus the Oceans , Pirates and Mr and Mrs Smith type films. And these are bigger stars than the Khans, Kumars we have here.

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  2. Great article yet again !

    I think the comparison between ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Talaash’ may not be a right thing do to, while the former talks to the international audience , latter speaks to a national audience. Hence the number of people viewing and writing about it differs. The reason why not many blogs analyze and write about Indian movies is the same reason why we dont see many books being written about Indian cinema.

    Also box office reports are easy to write.I know of a journalist who frames an article about a movie’s box performance solely through the tweets provided by a film analyst.So its lazy writing.

    I think the producer’s and trade analyst are trying to fool the uninformed with box office numbers and use them as a marketing stunt to bring audience to the movie hall.If you observe,box office numbers of big hero movies are talked about very often while Barfi crossed 100 crore with less noise.

    It’s irony when media talks about 100 crore club day in/out and then ask stars why people are crazily following the 100 crore club :)

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  3. Not sure I agree with you entirely. Yes, there is hype around the movie concerning a completely commercial centric benchmark, no doubt given Aamir’s track record, but I personally have come across plenty of thoughtful pieces around the merits of the movie itself, including yours.

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  4. That ra.one is in the 100 cr club itself proves its worth. And you are right when you say that a film like Talaash is with restricted appeal… So it might be unfair to make it a contender. Besides the more movies are made based on just the collections the more sub standard they might get.. Of course collections are important but a movie is above and beyond the money :)

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  5. It’s unfair dismissing Talaash as crap because it “apparently” endorses superstition. It’s a supernatural drama so it comes with the turf ,no? Horror movies show ghosts as well but nobody seems to have a problem with that and I am not even defending the movie just the genre!

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  6. A couple of years ago, I was helping a colleague with a patent idea. He wanted to file it in India. One of the people we consulted gave an insight into the differences in patent process between the west and India. The idea he tried to impress upon us was that patents don’t mean anything in India unless you demonstrate the ability to ramp up your production quickly. I have a feeling that it applies here as well.

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  7. This is a spot on assessment. How I wish that there were more interesting discussions and blogs on Hindi movies. I am also just baffled by why the general public is interested in “100 cr”; “200 cr” – it’s not like they’re getting a cut of the profits. There may be two reasons: a very number crunchy society, or the lack of interesting talking points on the big budget movies. A lot of them like SOS, RR, etc. seem interchangeable after all.

    For me, Talaash was an interesting experiment and I commend Aamir for participating in such projects. However, for some reason, his ability to move me with his acting abilities has been on a downhill trend ever since Taare Zameen Par. Still, when Irrfan and Nawazudin can’t be household heroes, it’s better to have the suboptimal Aamir than a 100 Akshays creating “blockbusters.”

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  8. Dear Baradwaj,
    As an Indian movie lover in America, I’ve been feeling this for a long long time. There used to be a website called passionforcinema, but once that went down, I haven’t been able to find very many worthwhile discussions going on about Bollywood films. Even most reviews are fans trying to justify why XYZ rocked even if the movie was awful..but beyond that, there isn’t much (as far as I know!). Interestingly, there are a lot of non-Indian bloggers who love Bollywood and have a lot of good stuff to discuss (filmigeek comes to mind). Maybe I just don’t know where to look!
    -Saad

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  9. Well, most bollywood movies are like popularity contests – stars play themselves and people go to watch the stars. So, not worrying about the box office is like not caring about the result of an election after casting the vote.

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  10. I was counting the number of shots in a bollywood romantic meloday and noticed that there were 20+ shots before even the song began (initial music period). And there were only (comparatively) 40+ shots in the next 4 minutes. This made me think it would be a good subject of research as to how directors/editors do the shot division for a variety of emotions. The above example is for a movie the hero of which is a new comer but for a Salman song, even if romantic one, might have consistent average duration shots (2 seconds each or so). But I am sure there would be a very small crowd interested in the shot division of Dabang 2. In an age where money’s importance is increasing and value is decreasing, we cannot expect more from the popular media. So, BR, we look forward for your blogs for meaningful and interesting analysis of movies ;-) Similar to the above article.

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  11. It would be funny if suddenly more people started liking Talaash (and the film is declared to be an unquestionable success) once it turtles its way past the 100-crore benchmark in India (the domestic total is now a little under Rs. 94 cr.). With Dabangg 2 being the only major release for the next 3 weeks, there’s a good chance that it will. I certainly hope it does, if simply for how it gets perceived by the general public, both now and in the future.

    Great article, by the way. I couldn’t agree with you more.

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  12. This comment is really off topic. I just recently managed to watch vazhakku en 18/9 and it was quite disturbing. I dint think it was a great move but there was this lingering unease that I couldn’t point my finger to. So as always I came over and read your review and the comments. Oh yes all the comments and its almost dawn here. Finally I can rest. You were right. The characters needed a shade f grey and that’s what was killing me. I couldn’t handle the way chennai was portrayed although this could have been set anywhere. Nevertheless the us vs them handling was perfect. Now I can rest in peace. Apologies for digressing but that review really lifted the rock solid burden. Oh and the movie totally did not work for me.

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  13. Saad : PassionForCinema was a good site , i wonder what happened to the writers, directors , cineastes who frequented that site. I am hoping someone comes up with a replacement of sorts.

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  14. Excellent and timely article. This is the problem with modern India, over emphasis on money and commercial success, while generally ignoring quality. Look at our cricket team, lots of money, powerful board but nothing to show on the field. IPL, lots of money but rubbish. Politics, the less said the better. Movies are no exception.

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  15. BR I don’t think the average blogger cares all that much about the 100cr club. It is the media and your fellow journalists who are the culprits most of the time. After all how does a blogger even get to know that a film has made 100 crore?

    This aside,as a general rant I would say that Indian media especially these private national channels are shitty in their overall coverage of politics/sports/cinema/whatever. Wait, that would actually be insulting shit.

    And when will these pricks stop calling the Indian film Industry as “Bollywood”?

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  16. We encourage laissez-faire capitalism in the world of art and entertainment but foster crony capitalism in the real market, great !!

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  17. Double standards really. The same sources who lambaste ‘Talassh’ had no qualms about ‘1920’, ‘Ragini MMS’, ‘Shaapit’ etc. The same people cheered the box office succes of -those movies. And those movies were nowhere near the box-office collections of ‘Talaash’. Pure hypocricy from every angle really.

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  18. vijay: It’s not just the media, but even the publishing industry, as I’ve found out to my amusement/annoyance.

    So now I’m thinking about my second book, right? I’m in two minds whether to do a film book or a non-film one — ride the wave versus try something very different. I’m talking to this person and that one about ideas — all these people based (like the national TV channels) in Delhi. And you should see the reaction they have when I toss out ideas like doing a book on — say — K Balachander.

    Their logic is that (unlike Mani Ratnam), KB is not a well-known figure in north India, and so the book won’t sell. And I point out that there have been very good books based on Helen and Leela Naidu (by Jerry Pinto) and “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron” (by Jai Arjun Singh) — and they saw fit to publish these books despite the fact that these actors/films aren’t all that known in south India. I’ll say that in the four southern states alone, the KB book will sell more than the Leela Naidu book, given what a big name he was/is. But that cuts no ice.

    Not that I’m dying to write a KB book, but just pointing out how the Establishment is so Delhi/Hindi-centric that that’s all they consider.

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  19. “Not that I’m dying to write a KB book” – Baradwaj, it will be great if you could actually get to write a KB book, one of the most underrated directors in India. Somebody should really document the travails of this octogenarian, his career arc would essentially be a brief history of Tamil Cinema.

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  20. The problem here is that people assume there is a fine line between the art and business of cinema, therefore the thinking of good film would definitely make good money. Even Hollywood prone to these errors(spin-offs, sequels). However, that industry has clearly differentiated business and art(i.e Hollywood Stock Exchange vs Indie Film Festivals). The Indian cinema industry,however,has nothing defined at all. Everything is mixed up because the structure it was built on. There are always single producers(exception of few studios) and they are the ones who end up with the highest risk of loss, leading to the craze of box office returns.
    That is not, however a bad news. With the presence of internet and willing participants, its is not that far when the discussion on “The Art of Cinema” will gain prominence.

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  21. You shd seriously write a KB book. That would be a treasure trove for cinema… Indian cinema. If you could get the tamil cinema stalwarts to endorse it then Delhi would come calling.
    Besides KB had a lot of eccentricities in his direction smit would make for an interesting read for any movie buff!

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  22. ” I’m talking to this person and that one about ideas — all these people based (like the national TV channels) in Delhi. And you should see the reaction they have when I toss out ideas like doing a book on — say — K Balachander.

    But why is it that you have to pitch it to someone in Delhi in the first place? Is it becAuse the publishing heads are all based there, or is it that the target audience is not restricted to South alone and you are looking for a pan-Indian celebrity?
    For that matter, I wonder if Mani Ratnam is really all that popular in Delhi/Bombay for all his Hindi forays. Atleast the element of nostalgia that the Chennaites have growing up with his films and all that is not there for those from up North(the non-Tamils I mean).They know him only from Bombay-onwards and even then his 2 best films after that were strictly in Tamil-Iruvar and Kannathil Muththamittaal. Someone like Kamal could be more popular there

    If you do not want your book to be tied to a single celebrity, you can maybe do assorted re-takes on those films(Hindi/Tamil/World Cinema) that have helped shape your tastes and defined good cinema for you over the years, so it would be a bit auto-biographical in that sense. A Part of the picture type writeup maybe accompanied by a short take on the maker, his style and his oeuvre.
    Iam not sure if there are lot of good books out there by Indian authors on World cinema, so that might be an USP. But then the publisher might bitch about those directors not being popular in India.

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  23. Rangan boss, why no review for ‘Dabangg 2′ yet? I thought you loved the “unfairly criticised” eighities’-style cinema. Not only that, you have ignored movies like ‘Bodyguard’, ‘Son of Sardar’, ‘Singham’ etc. Why bro?

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  24. Simbleya. Readymade subject irukku. Trick is to take the long term view. Sure-fire successful pitch with delhi bosses.

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  25. Prakash Ram: There’s actually a book on his life and times in Tamil. Have you seen it? Just released this year…

    vijay: “Is it becAuse the publishing heads are all based there,” Yup :-)

    Actually, they commissioned a Rajinikanth bio by Naman Ramachandran. So it’s not that they are completely off south Indian figures; just that a certain “brand value” has to be there (seen through their eyes, of course). I think I’m just going to write some fiction now :-)

    Bunny: Seeing it this Friday.

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  26. sonna piriyAdhu. Just do a job on them pitching for a Rahman book and recycling your many Rahman articles and adding some fluff. pichikkittu vikkum. Use that money and clout to write the book you want.

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