Saturday, October 23, 2010

Shortcuts to Disaster

When was the last time an ‘inspired’ or should I say lifted (is stolen too strong a word?) film do well in India? Can anyone remember? I can’t think of a single one that’s done well in the last couple of years. While out and out chori hasn’t worked even the legit remakes have by and large been duds. Leave aside a few stray examples like ‘‘Don’ and ‘We Are Family’, both didn’t set the box office on fire or get any critical acclaim, most have been duds. ‘Wanted’ and ‘Ghajni’ seem to be the only real hits. But those were more star power driven than content driven. Why then does Mumbai’s film industry still trust in remaking/adapting films? Is it possible that nobody has done an analysis of money made vs money lost by such ventures? I think a study like this could surprise quite a few of these short cut seekers.

Why does Bollywood trust in remakes? It is an interesting question to ponder over even if you disregard my suggestion that there is no money or a good name to be made out of it. There could be many reasons but I suspect the primary reason would be a lack of confidence on the holy trinity’s (Producer, Director & Star) part in their own ability to read and judge a script. Reading a script is still an alien concept in Mumbai. Reading a script means being able to visualize what the words on paper are saying. Sadly, most directors, who are supposed to be able to decipher a script, are as at sea as the producer. This lack of confidence then flows and infects the only marketable commodity they have i.e. the ‘Star’, who are famous for being illiterate anyway. In such circumstances it is so much easier to just pick up a DVD and you have the recipe for a success.

Unfortunately life is not that simple.

Adaptations are tricky. It takes a writer of great ability and understanding to adapt a piece of work. It takes hard work to find, identify and then translate into contemporary language the moments that made the original. In cinema it gets even more complicated as a simple translation from English (or Korean or Spanish….) to Hindi is not the end of the job. Characters have to be reworked and cultural subtext has to be weaved into the narrative. Making it infinitely more complicated than it might seem. All of this goes beyond the simple task of translation as is undertaken by the producers and the hacks commissioned by them. And, as is well known, producers don’t spend too much money or time on a writer who has to ‘merely adapt’ as opposed to create original work.

So what motivation does the writer thus hired bring to the job? Do they get their hands dirty and dig deep? Clearly not it seems from the superficial tripe that passes for popular cinema in India. Directors, who are given the original DVD to work with similarly don’t get too involved in the script and look mostly for styling cues while making their magnum opus. So, good looking but sadly vacuous cinema gets produced. Neither audiences nor critics are impressed and producers are left wondering why they have a turd on their hands.

It is tempting to ask, it has been stated by a great number of acclaimed producers and directors, are there no Indian scripts or writers of merit? In fact this lament has become fashionable and appears regularly in interviews by producers and directors just before their adaption hits the screens. This is utter RUBBISH! These are feeble complaints from incompetent illiterates. The stench of their ineptitude would put Mumbai’s gutters to shame. To use an example from the business of publishing; is it conceivable that a publisher will publish material that is either stolen or re-written? When was the last time you heard a publisher say – Let’s rewrite Gone With the Wind? Why then remake films? The fact is that none of Bollywood’s production houses have put in position a system of reading and evaluating scripts. I will agree with the producer’s complaint that they are subjected to insane number of half baked/inept scripts sent in by untalented hopefuls. The nature of the business is such that it attracts a lot of not so great talent that bombards producers with material. But it is in the producer’s interest to set up a system to sift through this material. Prospecting and panning for gold is a good analogy. But you must believe there is gold in that pile of dirt.

I think there are a great many really good writers out there with many interesting stories. Stories they have lived with for years, stories that have been worked on and polished word by word. Writers who are hungry. Writers who belong to India’s gullies and mohallas. They share the pulse of India’s audiences. These writers and their stories are waiting to be discovered while Producer and Directors watch DVD’s and contemplate ripping them off.

A word of unsolicited advice for the holy trinity then; before you rip-off that DVD please walk around the graveyard, it is full of such unhappy ventures. Ventures that bankrupted bigger better names than you.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Films are made from the heart

As more and more ‘different’ films do well, both critically and financially, one thing is clear- the old think tanks (read gasbags) of the film industry don’t know what is what. The filmi dhandawalle – those unseen punters, those guys who buy and sell films and make projects are about as clueless as the next person. I would dare to say that they might even be more clueless as they have forgotten, maybe they never learnt, to see a film for its content. They only evaluate it in terms of the conventional logic handed down to them in the form of 2nd or 3rd hand knowledge.

The conventional logic of big name actors, masala entertainment (songs & dance, fights and stunts), big production values and big promotions doesn’t really work anymore though they are still the benchmark for buying and selling films. In the last few months I’ve met a set of bewildered old school guys who are looking to find a convenient logic in the way the business works today. As there are no fundamentals their logic floats around without an anchor. They rubbish anything they’ve not seen before. I’ve seen many small films written off at first- case in point is ‘PEEPLI LIVE’. I’ve heard it being called a documentary, a fringe film meant only for the film festivals, etc. Then all of a sudden when the film started to pick up steam and its promotions began to connect with audiences the same people started saying- it is Aamir’s magic, he is the badshah of promotions, etc. They completely missed one basic fact- that ‘PEEPLI LIVE’ looks interesting. Audiences are interested in it because it holds the promise of engagement, of entertainment. It doesn’t matter to the audience that this promise doesn’t come packaged with the usual masala or even big production values.

So, is there a lesson in all of this for the struggling filmmaker? A clear message I see is that films need to be made from the heart. This little message escapes most filmi businessmen. So, the next time a knowledgeable filmwalla tells you something about your script or your casting choices or your film, I would suggest listening to your own heart instead. At least there is a 50% chance of it being right.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ravi Baswani – RIP my friend

What one word would I choose to describe Raviji? Quickwitted? Generous? Talented? Arrogant? Eccentric? All these and more come to mind. But all of them together don’t do justice to him. ALIVE is the one word that I most associated with him.

When my producer Nikhil Panchamiya introduced me to Ravi Baswani and announced that he would be writing dialogues for my film I didn’t know what to make of it. I knew, was even a fan of his work as an actor, but dialogue? I wasn’t so sure. My first meeting started with me asking him how he’d like to be addressed. Being from the advertising business I found the ‘ji’ business of Bollywood tiresome. Also, as a first time director I didn’t want to start the project being either servile or impertinent. ‘Call me Ravi’ he said, dismissive of the need for any pre or postfixes. He had neither the time nor patience for such trivialities. In time I learnt to address him as Raviji not because it was expected off me but because I liked to.

Quick to find a laugh Raviji had a razor sharp wit. Having often borne the brunt of his wicked wit, I learnt that the only way to deal with him was to keep giving back as good as you got. Loud and raucous laughter amid passionate disagreements made an average day of working together.

I hit it off with him from the first day itself. One of the first things that worked for us was a passion for being punctual. In a business where time has a stretchable quality, he set very high standards. Arriving 5 minutes before a meeting, we would both sit on the stairs outside the producer’s office waiting for time to tick down while we cracked inane and sometimes insane jokes. Our laughter, I am sure, let those inside know that we had arrived much before we walked in the door. Working with him was a pleasure as he never said never. Rewrites and more rewrites were delivered by him even as he passionately argued and fought with me over each written word. The script was turned upside down and inside out as he expected the same work ethic from me the scriptwriter. His commitment to the project saw him work way past writing just dialogues. He became my unofficial script editor and a very loudly vocal critic. Our association continued into the postproduction stage as he would come to the dubbings as a guardian of his words and end up coaching actors and supervising every little nuance.

People who knew him would know that Raviji wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. To like him one needed a thicker skin than normal, luckily I have a rhino’s hide, as he was brutally honest (sometimes too honest and too brutal), opinionated and never afraid to express himself. Many would say Raviji wasn’t an easy guy to like. But a lot of people, like me, liked him for the very same qualities that made some people uncomfortable.

The last conversation I had with him was about 15 days back. Towards the end of the conversation he casually told me that his directorial debut was about to take wings. I knew it was a long cherished dream and to hear that he was about to embark on this journey made me very happy. I joked with him about writing dialogue for his script. He laughed and told me that if I wrote dialogue he would end up with a Punjabi film. As it turns out fate had other plans for him. I wish him peace where ever he is.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Harish Chandrachi Factory!

Saw the film last night and was impressed enough to write in my blog about it. It is a simple tale told simply. The script and acting are tight. Humor keeps the usual pitfalls of Indian cinema honest. It is indeed a film worth recommending to fellow cinema lovers. The DVD is available in shops please go buy it and support this film.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Mastang Mama trailer!

The first trailer of my film "Mastang Mama (50% Mast, 50% Tang)" released on Youtube today.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Are there simple answers to Mumbai traffic?

I have this dream often. I am sitting in a car and I need to use the loo. A couple of buttons and a cavity opens up in the car seat to reveal a functional toilet. For Mumbaites, who’ve spent lifetimes stuck in traffic, it would seem like the product innovation of the year. The other variation of this dream is in the form of people spending their entire lives in traffic. 1 BHK, 2 BHK being replaced by 1 Axel, 2 Axel American style RV’s. Property agents and auto salesmen merging into one hideously mutated species.

I’ve been, like the rest of the city, suffering what can at best be described as stupidity for too many years. Is there no way to smoothen traffic in the city? Is there no hope at all? Is, as the famous saying goes, the world going to end in a traffic jam? Actually there are a few very small things that could make a huge difference. And they are not all utopian dreams. They work in other countries.

Most of these observations are about clearing more vehicles through the same road surface. Speed is important! The quicker a vehicle passes through the sooner it will create space for the next vehicle. Yet, we find stupidity in basic planning. ‘Go slow’ or ’60-50-40’ sign boards are the epitome of this stupidity. Here are some small measures I can see with my two eyes.

1.Fix all crossings: It is amazing how many crossings are potholed or simply broken in suburban Mumbai. Traffic takes, on an average, three times longer to get across a crossing than it should because of the crawl every motorist has to indulge in to avoid their vehicles being totaled. Every left or right turn in Mumbai is a torture test for vehicles. I don’t see why that should be. It is simple engineering not some complex rocket science to fix a bend in the road. Oh, by the way, those paver blocks…can I suggest a few BMC engineers try using them to cover their back holes?

2.Keep crossings clear: It is simple really, if you know that traffic in front of you is backed up in such a way that you will stop bang in the middle of the crossing, you should stop before the crossing till you are sure the traffic in front has moved enough to let you cross. The number of pile ups we see because of everyone taking a crossing and then getting stuck in the middle is amazing. I’m not advocating that we all take the spirit of ‘pehle aap’ because that would indeed be utopian and I’m trying to dole out practical solutions. How frustrating is it to see an autowallah squirm like a worm and screw up traffic? It is a simple measure that works very well in a lot of countries.

3.Corner parking: Why must anyone park at a corner? Every corner in suburban Mumbai has autos parked in such a way that it creates a blind spot for anyone approaching that corner. Be it at a street intersection or at the corner of your building. These blind spots are everywhere. Unless you slow down to a crawl you run the risk of being in an accident. This slows speeds and once again fast approaches and exits are impossible.

4.‘60-50-40’ must be replaced by ‘80-80-80’: It is common sense that the speed of traffic is determined by the slowest moving vehicle. So what good is a 60Kmph speed limit for a car that is riding behind a truck that has a 40Kmph speed limit? I am sure the guy who had this brainwave died about 100 years back and no one in traffic management business has had the brains to work around this.

5. Rush hours for office goers: Office rush hours should be for officegoers and not for cars going to office. How many cars do we see travelling with one occupant? Or one driver driving one sahib? The concept of car-pooling has not worked because there is no incentive/disincentive on offer. In addition to enabling a web-based system of car pooling the BMC must think about disincentives to make car pooling attractive. Let me offer a simple disincentive- During office rush hours a car with less than 4 occupants should not be allowed to use the flyovers or the Worli Sealink. I know this will create a stink in the short term but in the long term it will yield amazing results. Also, why can’t there be a curb on trucks during office rush hours? Every other city in India has some time restrictions on trucks and their movements.

I am sure there are many other such small ideas that can contribute hugely to making our time in traffic less harrowing. And maybe I can go back to dreaming more normal sort of dreams.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why I won't watch 3D!

I watched my first 3D movie in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. It was not as impressive as I thought it would be. Technology has arrived and there no doubt that in time all films (or nearly all) will be made in 3D. The most irritating part of watching a 3D film are the smudgy glasses. For a long time I kept having to raise the glasses to see properly. Then it occurred to me that the glasses may be the culprit. When the lights came on, at the end of the film unfortunately, I realized just how dirty the glasses were. I am surprised some serious eye disease isn’t going around thanks to shared glasses. I think I have sworn off 3D for the time being. In time, when people have their own set of glasses, the system will settle into a pattern and will work for viewers like me. The other thing that needs to settle into a pattern is the need, or the lack of it, for filmmakers to showoff the 3D aspect. I am sure the 3D experience like the 5.1 surround sound needs time to set a protocol of what is acceptable and what is just plain loud.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Nonsense about Women’s quota bill

Having witnessed the moronic arguments about this bill I have to admit those against the bill do have a point. Their methods of expression might not be the best and their intentions can always be doubted, they are politicians after all, but they do point out serious shortcomings of the bill. Though I am completely against reservation of any kind, it has not worked for the last 60years and is never going to work, I will try to untangle this knot that everyone seems very keen on tying themselves into.

Here is my solution. No reservation in Parliament but reservations in parties instead. The parties can decide who they want to field and in which constituency as long as they have a total of 33% women candidates. Election Commission can monitor each party. It is simple and should make everyone happy. Including the electorate who at this time don’t seem to have a choice and are in imminent danger of being shafted. Let the onus of the reservation be on the parties. And, parties like SP and RJD can decide how many subsets they want to create. It will also mean that they will have to practice what they have only preached till now.
For us, the people, there will still be a semblance of merit.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Is Hindi Cinema Dying?

In college I used to bunk classes two or three times a week to go see films. The idea was not to see films because I was a cinema buff or because brilliant films were playing all the time. It was simply a convenient way to be cool, both physically and metaphorically. At Rs. 3.45 I could cut the boring economics class and spend the hot summer afternoon in the cool air conditioned comfort on padded seats watching some of the worst cinema ever made (I’m talking about the mid 80’s here). I wasn’t lucky (cool?) enough to have a girlfriend then but those who did enjoyed the outings even more. When was the last time you wandered into a movie hall to kill time or to get out of the summer sun or to spend quality time with your girlfriend or to dodge that lecture on Malthusian theory? Movie going has now evolved from a casual pastime to a serious well planned entertainment activity. Recent advent of Multiplexes has changed the pricing model in such a way that it almost requires a 5 year plan type approach to cinema viewing.

How, you might ask, does this lead me to conclude that Hindi Cinema is dying? In fact there are pointers to the contrary. There is enough and more evidence that ‘well made’ films are not only finding audiences, they are even going on to make unheard of money. ‘Three Idiots’ has been a phenomenon of a kind and its success would suggest the question is a little crazy. But, sadly there is a but, that is only an illusion if you are looking at the picture from the small film’s perspective.

‘Well Made’- is the key. Unfortunately that is not the complete truth.

‘Well Made’ big films will not just do well they will continue breaking records as we have seen in the recent past. As a general principal people have a need to go out of their homes to be entertained and the cinema hall experience will remain at the forefront fulfilling this need. As incomes grow so too will the number of people frequenting cinema halls and ‘Well Made’ big films will be rewarded richly. The cheer though will not be spread universally. ‘Well made’ small films, unfortunately, will not survive long enough to benefit from these added footfalls.

All Films are watched. A truth that doesn’t bring any joy to most filmmakers.

Regardless of genre or quality all films released in India are watched by all audiences. I know this a generalization but it is true to a very large extent. Appetite for films is definitely undiminished and newer methods of finding content are always being explored by audiences. Sadly, not all of that translates into revenues for the producers. Smaller films are suffering what I call the curse of pre-selection. In itself this is not unique. World over audiences make these choices. They choose to see some films in the movie hall, some in the confines of their homes through various channels like Pay-per-view or video rentals and some they choose to not see at all. But in the Indian market pre-selection manifests itself in the following way: Much before a film is released the audience has already made up their mind about whether or not they will be going to the cinema halls to watch it. The other films are watched on pirated platforms. In fact smaller films with a promise of being ‘Well Made’ are equally desirable as the big films. Rampant piracy, through the neighborhood CD walla or Internet, ensures the audience will watch and even appreciate the films but it will not translate into a sale of any kind that benefits the producers.

The Cinema Pricing Model is Killing.

On the face of it an expensive ticket means the films makers recover their investment quicker. In fact a lot of happiness in the industry during 2006-2007 was attributed to higher ticket prices and the absence of entertainment tax, most multiplexes were exempt from it, and more transparent accounting systems. In 2010 the game has changed in such a way that small films are struggling to find any takers. At 200 bucks a ticket the cinema experience is naturally tilted towards the big film. Most small films do not inspire that kind of spending. For that kind of money, the average cinema goers is not rich, the audience wants to be blown away by a larger than life event.

Word of mouth doesn’t work as well in India.

Unlike the western world, where small movies grow when they receive good word of mouth reviews (Slum Dog is an example of a film that started with a limited release and then grew with each passing week), in India a good film that has not been preselected for viewing in cinemas has already been viewed in a pirated form before the first week is over. So, a good word of mouth review works more to the pirates benefit than to the filmmakers.

Cinema is not like the music industry.

The music industry has been suffering the piracy curse and has still, however hobbled and tattered and torn, survived. Unfortunately films are not going to be able to survive the way the music industry has. Unlike music, which has a pretty introverted creative process, a film’s creative process needs hundreds of people’s, not to mention expensive equipment, contributions before it gets to a place where it is viewable. The other big difference is that music is an interactive experience. Live music, whether in a bar or at a concert, engages the audience in a way recorded music can’t. Films don’t have that aspect of interactivity to bail them out either.

First the small film will go down and then the whole industry.

Given that small films are doomed to be watched for their content on TV or computer screens they are as endangered a species as the Tiger.
And, as nobody seems to be sponsoring a save the ‘well made small film’ campaign yet and there are no reasons to believe that the copyright act and the agencies that enforce it are going to come up with effective ways of enforcement, they are in eminent danger of falling of the edge.
Demise of the small film in the short run may not be of major concern for the people outside the film fraternity, I am tempted to think that some of the players within the film world might applaud and may even lend a hand in pushing it off the edge, but it is possibly the end of the entire Hindi film business. The ‘well made’ small film serves as the talent supply chain. Most talent leaving aside the actors and producers, a lot of whom are parachuted directly into the big film, has to work its way up from the small film into the big film bracket. If this supply to the talent pool dries up it may well lead to the complete business shutting down.

There isn’t a lot that can be done, is there?

Two things must happen immediately if we are to stem the tide. Firstly; pricing models of multiplexes have to change. There is no way the small film will get audiences if movie hall tickets are priced similar to the big film. Recent agreements of revenue sharing between producers/distributors and exhibitors did touch on this subject but no headway has been made to address the situation. Unless the average ticket price for a small film isn’t reduced to about Rs. 50-70 its survival is going to be difficult. An immediate example is available in the success of regional language films. In the recent past they have been turning a profit due to their affordable pricing both in production as well as in exhibition. Secondly, and this one is very very oft repeated; piracy has to be curbed. Especially piracy in the form of internet downloads. Unless these two things happen really soon Hindi Cinema as we know it will find it difficult to survive.