Inside Story: Bollywood Studios Have Created Monsters Out of Stars
Filmmaker and journalist Khalid Mohamed pens down his experience of dealing with Bollywood film producers.
Filmmaker and journalist Khalid Mohamed pens down his experience of dealing with Bollywood film producers.

Inside Story: Bollywood Studios Have Created Monsters Out of Stars

Film corporates can kill– the filmmaker’s spirit that is. Word is already out that a majority of the conglomerates are on the brink or have closed shop. The survivors are soldiering on, albeit by rewriting their charter of demands and supply.

Entertainment is rated as a booming business, win some lose some. Survive or skedaddle. However, thanks to their fathomless pockets – their own or derived from investors in American, Canada and the UK – now the infamous star system has been exacerbated to the point of no return.

The first signs of this were apparent when eminently marketable stars were approached to sign contracts for a clutch of projects at sky-high fees. The names of Hrithik Roshan and Akshay Kumar rent the already vitiated air.

Hrithik Roshan and Karisma Kapoor in <i>Fiza, </i>directed by Khalid Mohamed.
Hrithik Roshan and Karisma Kapoor in Fiza, directed by Khalid Mohamed.
At the risk of being purely personal, I can only say that there’s nothing like an open house – at a corporate office or at a traditional producer’s, unless you have connections or are backed by star power. In my case, Fiza, was backed by UTV simply because Hrithik Roshan turned into an overnight craze following his debut in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. Or else the stance was, “Karisma Kapoor? Sorry women-centric subjects are box office poison.”

If anyone were to check the Fiza figures even in the trade papers way back in 2001, it will be seen that it toted  99 per cent collections in the first week. It made its producers chortle all the way to the bank. Yet for some mysterious reason, it is burdened with the tag of a flop. Made on a peanut-budget, the initial investment raised from friends, got the project started. Its value rose in the eyes of UTV solely because of Hrithik Roshan. As for its content or even music score, whazzat?

The first decade of the 2000s had witnessed an all-time high in the sale of the satellite telecast rights of the star-lined films. Cool. Corporates were on the gravy train. Only the stars turned around and demanded a thick slice of the sweet satellite cake, devouring as much as 50 per cent to 80 per cent of a successful film’s profits.

A clued-in film producer-director, a couple of years ago, told me:

It makes no sense for me to sign up a Salman or Shah Rukh Khan any more. Even if my film is an enormous hit, I am left with crumbs on my plate.
Ranveer Singh in <i>Bajirao Mastani.</i>
Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani.

Efforts to beat the star system has yielded a fresh constellation of market-friendly actors but still not quite in the league of Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir Khan and  Akshay Kumar. Currently Ranveer Singh, on the heels of the surprise super hit status of Bajirao Mastani, is hot property. Amitabh Bachchan despite downers and uppers commands an hefty salary. In the meantime, Hrithik Roshan and Saif Ali Khan particularly, are in a state of flux.

Would it be fair to blame the corporates for the absurd hegemony of the star system today? Yes.

If once the grass-roots producers (meaning those not into corporate patios, structured policies and ‘expert’ wings) pampered them, the corporates became Dr Frankensteins who have created runaway monsters. Unwittingly so, if you would like them to give them a benefit of doubt.

Never mind the corporates’ shudder-inducing edict of “Content is King” (ha!), practically every filmmaker, a newbie or a recognised one firmly, is quizzed rightaway, “But which star have you got? Who is to ensure footfalls during the opening weekend?” Even in the present wave of belting out biopics – based or inspired by real life stories and er... true-life events – no saleable star means, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you buddy.”

Also Read: An Insider’s View - Why Is Bollywood Going Bust?

No industry which by and large manufactures dreams can be entirely sane. As for its observers and fringe dwellers, like myself, they can only offer subjective opinions. Which is why I break here to quote two seasoned executives from film corporates. Both of them did not want their names mentioned, since they’re still in the whirl of show business. One of them has elevated the status of a corporate during his five-year-long tenure there, before moving on to a rival company. Indeed, the rapid hire-and-fire-or resign practice at the corporates suggests that it can be a game of musical chairs out there.

Says the executive about his experience at the corporates:

I would go with that. Evidently, frontline producers-directors and the stars have prospered. On the other hand, the corporate studios, in dire completion with one another, have bled profusely. And it hasn’t help any that most of the corporates hired ‘experts’ from disconnected industries.

“You’re crying wolf. You’re being unfair,” retaliated the other corporate executive though, who is toying with the idea of founding his own media house. To be fair, he has a valid point when he states,

Bollywood can never close down. Its annual production rate assures at least two if not more new releases every week. However, it is imperative for the studios to base their acquisition decisions on creativity and feasible pricing. There has to be a leap of faith asap.

Maybe those are facile words, quite easily mouthed than achieved.

Also Read: Industry Reacts to Our ‘Why Is Bollywood Going Bust’ Inside Story

After Fiza, vis-a-vis the next two films I directed – Tehzeeb and Silsiilaay – it wasn’t a heart-boosting exercise either. Completed in the worst-case scenario, meaning paltry budgets, neither of its producers – one a newbie striving to enter the showbiz scene and the other the gregarious producer Vashu Bhagnani – were nightmares-come-true.
A poster of Khalid Mohamed’s <i>Silsiilay.&nbsp;</i>
A poster of Khalid Mohamed’s Silsiilay. 

The newbie has not paid my minimal fee, as writer-director to date. Neither has Bhagnani although one of the distributors of Silsiilaay confided in me, “Your film made money. I took it for the overseas territory. So, I don’t know what Bhagnani’s problem is.” Inevitably, he added, “Shah Rukh’s guest appearance helped.” “Oh, nice to hear,”  I responded and have left it at that.

With the artificial-chequered commercial record to my name, clearly to be funded by a corporate or an independent financier-or-producer would amount to expending negative energy.

Who after all is to judge my script’s content or that of any filmmaker’s? I have been subjected to an overseas-returned corporate honcho who put up his feet on his desk and hissed, “Chal suna teri script. I have half an hour before my next meeting.” Oddly I felt like a Pakeezah being asked to perform at a kotha. “No thank you,” I riposted, quit the office, and have lived happily ever after.

No point. There’s nothing like take, it’s only give-give-give at the corporates as well as the scant few remaining ‘good ole’ film production offices.

Are you surprised then, that in actual fact, stars are king, and content is nothing more than hogwash?

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)

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