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Bengal Boom

From the golden era of Satyajit Ray to a phase of commercial and masala films and more recently the co-existence of art and commerce, the Bangla film industry has undergone a sea of change over the last few years. Prominent producer, distributor and exhibitor Mahendra Soni, Executive Director, Shree Venkatesh Films, takes us through this transition

Overview on Bengali Films

There was a time when directors like Satyajit Ray were revered. World class quality films were being churned out of Bengal then. After that, the industry transitioned into the Uttam Kumar zone, where thanks to the actor, everything seemed to be working for Bengali movies and it was considered to be the golden period for the industry. I don’t think we will ever be able to achieve the growth we experienced then. The major difference that set this phase apart was that it experienced huge box-office numbers. These numbers were not so huge even during Ray’s period.

Uttam Kumar’s death was a huge blow to cine-goers as well as filmmakers in Bengal. After his death, it almost seemed as if the industry had plunged into depression. Nothing was working at cinema halls. Filmmakers tried all kinds of formulas to woo the audience back but it was all in vain.

Turning Point

It was directors like Anjan Chaudhury and Swapan da (Swapan Saha) who brought the audience back with their so-called massy and drama-based films, which cost less and did well in suburban theatres. Anjan Chaudhury gave us films like Shatru and Swapan da was a master of the Bangladeshi kind of films which had rural appeal. He single handedly held the industry for almost five years and at one point in time he was making (directing) 12 films a year including some super hit films like Jhinuk Mala, Baba Keno Chakar. That trend again stuck around for five to six years.

We launched our company in 1995 and made our first film with Swapan da titled Bhai Amar Bhai. We made about four to five films in a couple of years with him and then we felt it would not take us through the next decade and needed to improve on the quality and production value.

Introducing CinemaScope

The industry experienced its first change in the year 2000 with the film Sasurbari Zindabad directed by Haranath Chakraborty and featuring Prosenjit and Rituparna Sengupta in the lead. That was the first film that we made in CinemaScope. Soon, CinemaScope became a regular feature in Bengali films. The film had a Bollywoodesque feel. The audience saw the difference in the quality and it became a huge hit. We followed it up with a big action film Pratibad with the same team, and it became a super hit. The audience was back and we thought its time to put in more money and offer different subjects. During that time itself, we saw some super hit South Indian films and thought why not start remaking some of them as their success was already proven.

In 2002, we launched actor Jeet in the film Sathi, which became the biggest blockbuster of all time. Audiences started coming back to theatres and we managed to fight video piracy during that time.

In 2005, we also launched another actor, Dev, in a film called I Love You, which was a South remake and has now also been remade in Bollywood as Ramaiya Vastavaiya. For our creative satisfaction, we also produced films like Chokher Bali and Raincoat. But we didn’t produce these films in a very sustained manner since there was no money coming in from them. So we were just doing one or two odd films like these and they were being made by us mainly for festivals, or to get us critical acclaim.

Around 2010, Srijit Mukherjee made Autograph which was another transition that the industry experienced. It was an eye-opener and we found a strong foothold in multiplexes patronised by youngsters in Bengal. We are now calling these films the ‘urban mainstream’ genre.

Earlier, Bengal used to make only two kinds of films – art-house and mass films. We were very worried at the time about multiplexes opening up and the number of single screens crashing. So we needed to make films the audience would pay Rs 100 plus per ticket to watch but we were not finding the right ideas for these films.

Feluda was one film which taught us that if we made films on the lines of a literary character or the subject of a book, we would find takers among the urban audience too. That film drew the kind of numbers from multiplexes we never expected. It was the first time after many years when we saw a ray of hope in intelligent cinema. We backed another film from Srijit in Baishe Srabon and then another Feluda which we did on a bigger scale and released across many more cinemas.

Soon, we got a taste of urban mainstream films. And from there, today we are standing tall with one of the best films of the decade ever made in Bengal titled Chander Pahar. We made this film on a budget of  Rs 15 crore and it has done business of close to Rs 9 crore in just two weeks of its release.

In our journey from Autograph to Chander Pahar, we realised that there is an audience for good Bengali films too, and that there is an audience beyond the suburbs. If you offer a good product, you can even stand up to films like Dhoom 3! So right from Autograph, Baishe Srabon, Feluda and Goynar Baksho, even key directors started making important films.

With films like these, the industry is definitely changing and we need to keep experimenting. Also, it doesn’t mean that mass films won’t work. Both genres, like a Dhoom or a Krrish, and intelligent, off-beat cinema can co-exist. But if you are making commercial films, they need to keep getting bigger and better.

There is an opportunity for all kinds of films to survive. There are many single-screen and multiplexes coming up and that means the audience is hungry for more. So going forward, I see a very bright future.

Hindi films in Bengal

With regard to Hindi films in Bengal, I want to emphasise that at that time, the business model was very different. When we said ‘Bengal’, we were not referring to one territory. We had Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Orissa, the Andamans and Nepal, with Kolkata as the hub. So a distributor would get one Hindi film and run it for year or so. That model had its ups and downs.

Today, the market in Bengal can be called a ‘four film’ market for Hindi films in single-screens. Only four to five films – like Krrish 3, Dhoom 3, Aashiqui 2 and Grand Masti have done well all across. Most of other Hindi films across 50 per cent of their release chain (single screen) don’t even cover digital cost. Though revenues of good Hindi films in multiplexes have gone up by many folds it is only films like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani that have fared extremely well in multiplexes.

Exhibition business in Bengal

Watching films at the cinema was always an integral part of culture in Bengal. What is happening in the exhibition business right now is that the single-screen count has dropped drastically. So, it’s no more a question of a good or a bad film; if you really want to watch a film, it has to be an ‘experience’.

For India, right now, we are on the cusp of a major lifestyle change. Before watching a film, people first log on to Facebook or Twitter or YouTube and spend the rest of the day or month talking about that film. Writing status messages or tweeting about the film also helps people get new friends, ‘likes’ and ‘followers’. Now-a-days, the idea of an outing includes going out shopping or going out for dinner with friends not so much about watching a film at a cinema hall. But if theatres are improved, more and more people will start going to the cinema as an ‘outing’.

I think this is the right time for cinema. I remember back in 2005 when I was asked, ‘Kya hoga iss industry ka?’ I don’t think it’s a question mark at all right now. It’s all about how are you making a film; what kind of film are you making; is your film interesting enough? You can make any kind of film as there is no formula which works, as such. No one can say ‘yeh banao toh chalega, or yeh banao toh nahi chalega’. Also, anyone can deliver a hit film just as veterans like Subhash Ghai can go wrong.

It’s not that spending power has increased; it’s just that the value of three hours of entertainment and umpteen hours of chat subjects has become important. It’s no longer a question of ticket prices. It’s good content that matters. Spending Rs 900 on a ticket at Wadala IMAX is a one-off case but when you are talking about the audience and the average ticket price of Rs 100-150, I don’t think ticket prices is an issue at all. It’s more about the value of the film.

People go to watch a film with friends or family, chat about it over dinner, go berserk with it on social media, and then everyone becomes a ‘reviewer’. There’s so much you can do with a Rs 150 ticket! The exhibition business certainly has tremendous scope.

Five years ago, people used to watch three films a year on the big screen. Now I think the average has gone up to five or six, which is a huge jump. So the urge to watch a film has increased, but it has to be marketed and promoted well so that people want to watch it.

Film Marketing and Promotion

Earlier, film promotion was limited to newspaper and TV ads. Now, PR is a very big deal. Most people want the star or the director to come out and say that they have been associated with the film for the last one year or so; that they have given their best and explain why they have given their best. This message is being put out very well through social media, and people will watch a film only if there is good word-of-mouth.

The game is now only of the first three days of a film’s release so we have to go all out. Promotional strategies have become hugely important and are being executed as they are in Bollywood. But our budgets for promotions are smaller and while they promote films six to eight weeks before a film’s release, we promote them four weeks before the release date.

Distribution

The overseas market is a big challenge for us. We are opening Chander Pahar in a big way in the US. The business of our films can grow exponentially if we capture the overseas market too. One of our major problems will be solved if the Bangladesh market is sorted. It is very important that that market opens up for us like Pakistan has opened up for Hollywood. Once that happens, we can compete with any film and budgets will soar.

Bengali films have had a history of travelling to festivals and we still have many Bengali films travelling to festivals but the content has to be new. There was a time when festivals were not accepting Bengali films, but this year two Bangla films won awards at IFFI. The Best Director Award to Kaushik Ganguli was given for one of our films, and Centenary Film of the Year went to Meghe Dhaka Tara.

Internationally, there is a lot of respect for Bengali cinema and we are doing great stuff and stories which have never been told before. That’s why people are sitting up and taking notice of our films.

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