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Independent to Studio: Hindi Cinema and the Corporate World

Sabrina Dhawan
February 19, 2009

Since its inception, the Indian film industry – primarily based in Mumbai – has been characterized by small, owner-run production houses. Producers usually direct their own films, and pass on their craft, expertise and contacts to their children. Despite their unadventurous content, Indian films have become increasingly lucrative – currently boasting an annual turnover of one billion dollars and a growth rate of 15 percent. In the last three years, this profitability has lured large corporate concerns to Bollywood, transforming its business and social culture while raising questions of how corporatization will affect film production and cinema in India.

Bollywood – a term rarely used by those who work there, but now a popular shorthand for all Hindi language films – has long been characterized by a certain free-wheeling chaos. Despite the fact that the first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra, was produced in 1913, and despite the fact that at between 300 to 800 films a year, India produces more films than any other country in the world, the government of India didn’t recognize filmmaking as an official industry until as recently as 2001. Before then, it was impossible for producers to get loans from banks or even insurance for their productions. As a result, producers often paid for their films out of their own pockets – a practice most American producers would consider absurdly risky – or obtained financing from less savory sources: The Bombay underworld notoriously held great sway in Bollywood for decades. The unruly aspects of film production weren’t just limited to its financing. In some cases, it would take years to shoot a film. Overbooked film stars would show up egregiously late on set (or not at all) without penalty, scripts were often rewritten on set depending on which actors showed up, contracts were verbal and often violated, and produced films had no guarantees of finding distribution. All of these factors combined to make Bollywood film production an extremely risky endeavor.

But in the last three years, powerhouses of the Indian corporate world such as Reliance, Mahindra and Mahindra, Eros International etc. have set up shop in Bollywood, as have American entertainment conglomerates like Fox, Disney, Warner Bros., and Sony (some in partnership with Indian companies). The Indian company UTV Motion Pictures has been producing films for longer, but has recently expanded nationally and internationally.

These corporations (referred to in Bollywood as “corporates”) have brought a certain measure of tidiness to Indian filmmaking, especially in terms of financial transparency. As Aalif Surti, Creative Head of Production for Fox-STAR Studios says, “Checks have replaced cash payments.” Alpana Mishra, Chief Operating Officer of UTV adds, “There is lot more discipline now. For example, we [corporations] don’t start before script is in place and contracts, etc. have been signed.” 

Like the new shopping malls of India, corporations offer a one-stop shop for film production. Corporate models, based on American studios, are built to support a film all the way from screenplay development through film distribution. Director Vishal Bharadwaj, whose credits include the critically-acclaimed hit Omkara, has worked with individual producers and corporations. For him, this aspect of corporations represents a step up. “Earlier you’d literally sit in a market where distributors from various states would watch your film and decide whether to buy it and at what price. It was extremely stressful. Corporates lift that burden from you. You don’t have to worry about marketing or distribution if they produce your film.”

But this shift has come at a price. Despite their high level of organization, corporations have been unable to replicate the intensive hands-on training inherent in family businesses. Under the old Bollywood model, filmmaking was learned by apprenticeship through years of working on film sets. This practice ensured that producers mastered every step of the enormously complex process of making a film, before producing their own. In contrast, the corporations brought in executives from other, non-film related backgrounds; most of whom were novices in feature film production. Shrishti Arya, producer of the independently-owned Rose Pictures, says that, “the explosion of corporates was really sudden, so the people they hired to do the job are largely people who have minimum experience. And these people are given power to green light movies, but on what basis?” Minnie Vaid, an executive at Mahindra and Mahindra’s, Mumbai Mantra adds, “I was told marketing a film is like marketing a detergent. But how can it be so? Each film, each Friday, comes with its unique sensibility and needs and has to be marketed as such. They think skills are transferable and some skills clearly are not!” Bharadwaj adds “The corporates had little production experience. They had a mandate to spend a certain amount of money and before the recession, anyone could make just about any film they wanted.”

In their eagerness to establish themselves as serious players, the neophyte executives announced big-budget movies and hired stars. This made a certain amount of business sense, as stars are a sure way to guarantee an audience and gain leverage in the industry.  As Surti says, “Stars get you a marquee title.” However, since the corporations lacked the personal relationships with stars that the older producers had cultivated for decades, even generations, they compensated for this by paying actors higher salaries. As a result, fees paid to A-list actors have doubled in just the last three years, with film production costs similarly spiraling upwards.

So what has this meant for independent producers who have to compete with the vast reserves of money and distribution networks of studios? Bharadwaj says that “independent producers have either been wiped out by the corporates or have teamed up with them, with very few exceptions.” Those exceptions are producers who make low-budget films, and thereby manage to survive independently.

Increasing expenditures can, of course, be vindicated by box office success. However, the vast majority of Indian films produced by corporations have failed at the box-office. Eros produced nineteen consecutive flops. Sony’s debut, Saawariya, failed commercially and critically, as did Warner Bros.’ Chandni Chowk to China. Arguably, even major American studios were inexperienced in making Indian films for Indian audiences. Vaid says, “There is no excel sheet success mantra that you can cleverly base empirical data on and guarantee a hit film. If this was the case, corporations should have been ringing in the moolah by now and by and large, they have lost.” As Mishra says, “a lot of people had big plans but didn’t know what they were doing.” As a result, the current global recession was felt even more deeply in Bollywood since more money had been invested in films than ever before. For now, even corporations have had to reconsider their business plans and models.

However, of late, there has been a great deal of inventiveness and experimentation in Bollywood in terms of story, style and sensibility. Have corporations contributed to this diversity of Indian cinema?  Mishra thinks so. She says that since “corporates have the wherewithal to make myriad films in one year, unlike individual producer-directors who can make one film in two years,” the output increases simply as an outcome of more movies being made. Surti adds that studios are more likely to take chances with content since “an independent producer who puts his life savings to produce a film, is a lot more risk averse than corporates who won’t go under if two films flop.” However, Surti and others note that other factors such as the rise of the urban audience, multiplex theaters, the evolution of the censor board, and changing cultural values whereby parents are more tolerant of their childrens’ unconventional choices of a career in the arts have contributed to this range of output. These factors, coupled with the emergence of a new generation that is extremely well-informed and has access to international cinema and film schools abroad, may also account for this diversity.

It remains to be seen how all these changes will pan out. As Surti says, “there are fifty doors and fifty keys; we just don’t know as of yet which key goes in which door.” Perhaps with time, film executives will master the creative process and creative talent will become more disciplined. If the Indian film industry has an advantage, it is that it can learn from the lessons of American studios that followed a similar path of mergers, acquisitions and corporatization in the 1970s that gave rise to the modern global media conglomerates. Perhaps not coincidentally, film connoisseurs also regard the 1970s as the last decade of great American films. Hopefully, some synthesis will be found that combines the organizational ability and fiscal models of the American studio system with the hands-on knowledge and relative creative freedom of the old Bollywood system.  If so, this may prove to be the most successful merger of all.

Sabrina Dhawan is a screenwriter who works in India and the United States. She is also the Area Head of Screenwriting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in the Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing. She wrote the screenplay for the 2002 film Monsoon Wedding
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India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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