Why has my local multiplex not shown new Hindi movies recently?
Beginning April 4, Indian multiplex cinema owners began a strike against Hindi film producers. The multiplexes refused to screen any new releases pending the outcome of a dispute over revenue from new releases. Since no new movies were released in India, producers would not risk releasing the movies outside and forgoing the large home market for new releases. As a result, theaters across the world were able to screen only a small fraction of the normal number of new titles.
What were they harping about?
Money. Historically, film producers (think Yash Raj and Rajshri Studios, amongst others), take home about two-thirds of the revenue from a Bollywood blockbuster’s first few weeks of theatrical run. The multiplex owners were demanding a 50-50 split. They have been suffering the double-whammy of a slew of big-budget duds (8×10 Tasveer, Aa Dekhen Zara, 99) and the global recession.
Who were the major players?
India has roughly 9,000 cinema halls. Of these, about 1,350 screens(15%) are part of multiplex, multi-screen, mostly urban chains. Multiplexes charge as much as 10 times on average for a price of admission compared to single-screen cinemas. Therefore film revenues generated by multiplexes generate a whopping two-thirds of Indian domestic box-office grosses. The producers are represented by all big banner studios whose A-list movies are released across the globe the same time as their films’ Mumbai release.
What is at stake?
Bollywood’s annual revenue in 2009 is estimated to be about $1.9 billion and expected to double by 2012. During the strike the Hindi film industry, collectively known as Bollywood, lost approximately $60 million.
Have there been other strikes in Bollywood?
Yes, but not to this extent. A smaller strike by stagehands in late 2008 highlighted the income disparity between marquee names and the technicians, extras and junior artists who often work multiple shifts to make ends meet. An average stage hand makes about $10 a day. Akshay Kumar, on the other hand, gets paid about $10 million per movie.
So who “won” from the most recent strike?
A 14-hour marathon negotiation between the multiplexes and the studios ended with the film exhibitors coming out on top with an agreement that will give them the following revenue split: Opening week: 50%, second week: 57%, third week: 63%, fourth week: 70%.
Another clause gives an upside to the producers if the movie does well and more revenue to the multiplexes if the film does poor business. Producers also have more flexibility now to screen in specific locations of their choice instead of a blanket arrangement with multiplex chains.
Should the average filmgoer care?
Most experts agree that the effects of the recent strike will be short-lived. Indians buy about 4 billion film tickets per year (yes, that is billion with a “b”)—the highest of any country in the world. Given the general health of the Indian economy, the immediate recouping from this strike may take no more than 3 to 5 months. What is far more worrisome than the effects of this strike is the endemic problem of the “P” word—piracy.
The big-budget movies should start trickling in now at your local multiplex and in the meantime, there are many small, overlooked movies to savor.
Dust and Dacoits
Revisiting a film classic may be just the remedy for Hindi movie withdrawal symptoms.
MERA GAON MERA DESH (1971). Director: Raj Khosla. Players: Dharmendra, Asha Parekh, Vinod Khanna, Jayant, Music: Laxmikant Pyarelal. Available on DVD (Shermaroo).
If Hindi movies from the 1960s can be summarized by escapist sumptuous romances (think Sangam, Ganga Jamuna, Aradhana), the 1970s surely signaled the arrival of a new chapter in filmmaking. With India’s military reputation solidified by the 1971 victory over Pakistan, Indian filmmakers began experimenting with pseudo-realism, grittier dialogs, and ever-edgier dramas. Veteran filmmaker Raj Khosla (C.I.D., Who Kaun Thi?, Do Raaste) turned in the first, and many would argue, the finest, “desi western” in a film wave that swept the globe after the immense success of Hollywood’s “spaghetti westerns” in the late 1960s.
Successfully transplanting the classic lone-gun motif to the Indian hinterland, Mera Gaon Mera Desh still exemplifies the perfect calibration of top notch acting, unbridled heroism, great action sequences and a stunning musical score.
Retired cop Jaswant Singh (Jayant) convinces Ajit (Dharmendra) to give up a life of crime and taking up farming in his village. Ajit moves in with Jaswant and soon falls in love with the village belle Anju (Parekh). Fed up with the constant harassment of a gang of dacoits who keep raiding the village at whim, Ajit decides to take on Jabbar Singh (Khanna), the dreaded dacoit gang leader. The tightly edited village-raid sequences, seen from the eyes of the horseback gang-members, was path-breaking for a Hindi film. When the vastly outnumbered Ajit sets out to get help from the meek villagers, the camera gazes towards empty gullies and dark hallways menacingly. Unseen faces peer out of dimly outlined windows which get slammed in Ajit’s face to seal the helplessness in Ajit’s ordeal. Laxmikant Pyarelal’s soundtrack featured some of the most popular tunes of the era, like the magnificent Lata-Rafi duet “Kuch kehta hai sawan,” and Mangeshkar’s sexy, nihilistic dance number “Maar diya jaye.”
The similarities between Mera Gaon Mera Desh and the mega-hit Sholay, which was released 4 years later, are uncanny. Aside from small time crooks being given a chance at personal redemption by agreeing to help a hapless village in both films, there is also Dharmendra’s Ajit character combining elements of what later became the Dharmendra and Bachchan characters in Sholay. The flick of a coin that Dharmendra uses here to decide a course of action was also used in Sholay. And of course there’s J(G?)abbar Singh.
As a pioneering entry in realism, Mera Gaon Mera Desh walks upright even today.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.