Pollywood or Punjabi cinema had a rather humble beginning in Lahore, in 1928, with the silent film Daughter Of Today. Humble or not, it has been an intrinsic part of Indian cinema ever since. And though it is still considered a poor cousin of Bollywood, the Punjabi film industry is becoming increasingly popular not only in the North but also among the Indian diaspora overseas. Reigning superstar of Punjab Gippy Grewal takes us through the highs and lows and explains why Punjabi cinema is only going to get stronger, and better…
BOLLYWOOD IN POLLYWOOD
Initial Punjabi cinema saw an influx of Bollywood artistes and films that were culturally rich. People like Prithviraj Kapoor, IS Johar, Balraj Sahni, Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna featured in many Punjabi films. Good movies like Chann Pardesi were made, which starred Raj Babbar, Amrish Puri and Om Puri and won a National Award. But there were only a handful of theatres at the time, and these films were not topping the collections charts. They were loved by the audiences, but were being watched mainly on television. So, by the 1980s, many actors had stopped signing Punjabi films. Quality began to decline. What followed was a dull period for the industry.
THE LOUD ’90S
Then came a period when Punjabi films started getting extra-loud. Many still feel this was not a great period either, for Punjabi cinema. But I think that filmein aisi banti hai, jaisi log demand karte hain. The fact that these films worked at first, and were drawing audiences, encouraged filmmakers to make more such films. If you watch them today, they might seem a little odd, but in those days they were all the rage.
By 2000, Punjabi films started getting better again. This was around the time I was thinking of becoming an actor. Manmohanji (Singh) burst onto the scene with a film called Jee Ayan Nu, with singer-turned-actor Harbhajan Mann. It was the first time a Punjabi film had been given such a massive canvas. Punjabis were impressed. It was a very successful film that did good business overseas too.
This was a turning point in the revival of Punjabi cinema. More films were made and actors like Harbhajan Mann and Jimmy Sheirgill took the industry forward. More filmmakers entered the scene and made some good cinema. And once again, people from Bollywood were willing to make films in Punjab. Movies started getting better; budgets started getting bigger. The overseas market expanded. Trained actors entered the industry, youngsters came in with the drive to make it grow. And that helped the industry a lot.
I debuted in 2010, in Mel Karade Rabba. Diljit (Dosanjh) debuted the following year. There were other new artistes, the market expanded and the industry grew by leaps and bounds. It is still growing. There are many good films being made.
REGIONAL LINES ARE BLURRING
I remember a period between 2000 and 2005 when the films were good, business had started picking up fast, and yet Bollywood actors were still saying no to Punjabi cinema. ‘Nahin yaar, regional nahin karni hai.’ That was the attitude.
But now, if your film is good, anyone will be willing to do it. You see, the lines are blurring between cinemas and it is becoming more united as Indian cinema. I meet people all over who say, ‘Oh, we’ve seen your films’. Recently, I was at the Delhi airport and my boys spotted Irrfan Khan. I wanted to meet him and say hello because I am a fan of his work. But there were too many people trying to click pictures with him, so I let it go and took a seat in the lounge. Later, we bumped into each other and he said, “Gippy I saw your film – Carry On Jatta – and I really liked it.”
Punjabi films have made an impact in Mumbai too. I meet a lot of people here now who have been exposed to Punjabi cinema. Our films never used to have this kind of reach. When we met people, even actors, we had to explain to them who we were and what kinds of films we made.
We are growing daily, I would say. The fact that we’re discussing Punjabi industry is proof of that. And as we grow, and as such interviews are done, there will be more awareness about Punjabi films.
Even our market is growing. When my film Manje Bistre was released, I got the usual four or five cinemas in Mumbai. But the film did so well that the next Friday about eight or nine cinemas were added in the city, which had never happened before. And all the shows were sold out. That really gave us a boost. It told us that if we do a proper release here, backed by a proper promotional strategy, our films will work in this market too.
MOVIE MARKETING STRATEGIES
In the past too, people used to market their films, but the strategies have changed drastically. In Bollywood, even if a film is made on a budget of `5 crore, one spends another `5 crore on P&A. In Punjab, one spends only `1 crore, even if the film was made on a budget of `15 crore. Tabhi hum kehte the, ‘Badi film hai, yeh 1 crore mein release hojayegi’. But now we are spending more on P&A.
Manje Bistre was marketed across India. We made a big noise here in Mumbai; we had huge promotions overseas. And it got its returns too.
Even my next film, which is based on the life of Subedar Joginder Singh, has been announced here in Mumbai, and has a national marketing strategy. The idea is that people should know that this is a big Punjabi film releasing on this day. So as film budgets grow, the Punjabi industry is not shying away from spending on marketing campaigns either.
There’s a stronger distribution focus overseas too. Earlier, if a film was being released in Canada, uske chaar print lagte the across the country. Big cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Ontario and Calgary would get one print each. Now we have seven or eight prints going to each city, especially big ones like Vancouver. Overall there are about 22 to 25 prints being sent over. Across Canada and the US, there were about 75 prints of Manje Bistre.
Earlier we also used to just put the films up randomly anywhere.
Now we know where our audience is and we target our releases accordingly, marketing our films in those areas, on television and radio, in the newspapers etc.
THE CHANGING AUDIENCE
Overall, whether here in Punjab or over there in Bollywood, our thinking is that the audience has changed. But the fact is that the audience is the same – all they need is a good film. And a film can only be either good or bad, there is never an in-between. My first film didn’t work. It was a good film but it was in a slightly weird zone, a remake of Shutter. People thought, “Gippy ki film nahi chali’. After that came Manje Bistre and it was really big. People want good films. Yes, advertising and marketing helps, but when do you hit the bull’s eye? When your advertising is backed by a good product.
A good marketing strategy can boost your opening. But if your film is bad, no matter how much you market it, it will not work. Yes, earlier the audience went to the cinema for certain stars, but let’s not forget that that was a time with fewer superstars and fewer films being made. Now there are so many stars and movies that the audience is choosy even with them. Even my family today will decide whether to see a film or not based on the promo.
The Punjabi film industry is not only growing in terms of content and reach, we are also technically stronger today. I feel there is no big difference now between ours and Bollywood’s standards. Punjabi cinema has the same equipment and technical know-how. The only difference is that, because of our budgets, we make films in 35 or 40 days, while people in Bollywood take longer to make their films. I made Ardaas in 22 days and Manje Bistre in 21, and there were six songs in that film. Yes, big films like Krrish and Dhoom, which have lots of action and need VFX, take time. But when you are making simple films, it can be done soon. Someone was telling me that even A Wednesday was shot quickly and I have seen that film many times and it is such a fantastic film.
THE SINGING ACTORS
The trend of singers turning actors is huge in Punjab, especially post-revival. Right now there is me, Diljit Doshanjh; before us there was Gurudas Mann, Harbhajan Mann. There are just a handful of actors who are not singers, like Jimmy Sheirgill. O f course, not all singers-turned-actors made it big. There were many who didn’t. But this trend grew primarily because the singers already had an audience, a fan following. So instead of a newcomer, filmmakers thought, why not take a singer, who is already established, in a sense.
The music video scene is still very huge in Punjab. The Punjabi music industry is a rare one that is thriving. Even in Mumbai, you won’t see singers release as many singles and albums. When we shoot singles in Punjabi, we spend `70 lakh, `75 lakh. Every day, one or two new songs are released, with great videos. Because of this craze, singers get priority in Punjabi cinema.
A lot of bad films have got good openings, in fact, because of the artistes in them, even though their performances weren’t good either. Producers know that Friday ko inke fan dekhne toh zaroor jayenge, so many singers are being launched as heroes. Even I am launching a few, and they are even getting training in acting now.
I have read that the Punjab government is setting up a film city and film school in Mohali, but I live in Mohali and I have not seen anything happening on that front. It was recently announced, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see when it will be implemented. My production house didn’t get any intimation about it, nor did I get any information as an artiste.
The Punjab government has done one good thing for the industry, and that is making all Punjabi films tax-free. I think there should also be a rule that at least one Punjabi film is in theatres at all times. Given the rate at which our industry is making movies… ek aadh picture toh rehti hi hai har hafte. Yes, it’s not fair to block one screen if no one is watching the film, but such efforts can help the industry in the long run.
Making movies tax-free was a wise decision. A film city would also be a good thing because private studios have already come up. Earlier, we had to come to Mumbai for everything – equipment, cameras. We don’t need to do that now. There are so many cameras in the market today, for instance, and we get all of them here in Punjab. We have studios here that do our DI (digital intermediate) work as well.
We still lack the technicians to do the kind of DI work we want for our films. So unn cheezon ki maara maari chal rahi hai. A film school will help grow more talent for the industry.
WHAT THE INDUSTRY LACKS
The industry doesn’t have enough good actors and actresses. New talent doesn’t want to join. So when you are doing a film, it becomes very difficult, ki yaar kisko le. I sometimes feel some of our films flop because there are no new people in them. How often will you watch the same person onscreen? And one person can’t play all the characters.
In Bollywood, there are many genres and a lot of new talent coming in all the time. There is variety. We need the same thing if our industry is to grow. We need more women, particularly, to join our industry.
Directors are also very few. People don’t give new directors a chance; and the same old guys get so much work that they just shuttle from one film to another. Direction is a tough job; it determines the whole outcome of the project. And yet in Punjab I see directors making three and four films a year.
It makes me wonder how they do it. I did Ardaas dedh saal ago. After that I stated writing another film. I often think, ‘Oh I should work with this director or that director’, but he is already doing a film and soon after that he is going on the floors with another. In fact, actors can still do films back-to-back, but directors doing that doesn’t really benefit the films.
I also feel youngsters should stop seeing regional cinema as a second option. Average films do so much
better here and even down South. It’s not fair that they should only turn to Punjabi projects when they’re not getting work in Bollywood. Besides, today you can work in both industries. Akshay Paaji, despite doing so well in Bollywood, did a Punjabi film with me.
We need good actors in Punjab. As people get more used to watching Punjabi films, jyaada bhi kam lag raha hai. So we need Punjabi youngsters to come join the industry and make it bigger than it is now.
REGIONS OF GROWTH
I feel Delhi ke alava, hum iss taraf bhi aa jate hai, Mumbai etc. We are going to grow everywhere. In Europe, for example, there are plenty of Punjabis, and plenty of scope for the Punjabi film market to grow. Dubai doesn’t have a huge market, but one needs to work towards building a presence over there. When we do shows in Dubai, we get a tremendous response. That has not translated to our movies yet, but fan toh fan hai. Agar show dekhne aaya toh meri movie bhi dekhne jayenge, provided my film is good.
I also feel America ki gross badhni chahiye. America has lots of Punjabis but somehow they are not putting that much trust in Punjabi films. Manje Bistre was the first film received so well over there.
America mein Punjabi ki population jyada hai but it is all scattered. And those who watch Hindi films are yet to start watching Punjabi films regularly. There are two reasons for that. One being that Canada has a very powerful Punjabi media. When we go there we have to go to so many places – so many radio stations and TV channels. In America, there is not much media presence for the community. Wahan pe Punjabi newspapers nahin hai, log kam hai. So USA is one market that we need to target properly, if we want the industry to grow internationally.
The UK market is a little strange. Films you think will work there, don’t; and the ones you don’t expect to work, click. Ardaas ka gross was less than Manje Bistre’s everywhere else, as it was a social film, but in the UK it did very well. I thought Manje Bistre would do very well there, but it didn’t.
I think artistes can help each other grow their markets. Punjab, Canada and Australia are good markets for us already. But the US and UK need more dedicated promotions and collaborations with local artistes. The way Aamir came to Punjab and we did surrogate promotions for his Hindi film, Dhoom 3. What we did was we interviewed each other. My film, Jatt James Bond, was being released and his Dhoom was too, so I asked him questions about Dhoom – why did you do the film, why did you choose a bike, etc. And he asked me questions like what is Jatt James Bond all about. When the two of us came together, the audience became five times what it would have been with just one. It helped both our films.
If we do exercises like that with artistes in the UK, US and other regions, we could help each other grow. I think this should happen not just with the Punjabi industry but with all our film industries, to make cinema more universal. But everyone needs to think like this; unity is important.
Future toh bohut achha hai industry ka. I think the fastest growing film industry today is the Punjabi industry. And one big reason is that there is a major difference between the languages of the South Indian film industries, the Bengali film industry and Hindi. Whereas there is not much difference between Hindi and Punjabi.
People who don’t know Hindi are watching Hindi films in Punjab, and vice-versa. So it’s easier for us to grow. Already, Hindi cinema audiences are aware of our films and are watching them. They know the Punjabi artistes. Now people are like, ‘Arre, yeh Gippy ki film hain, suna hai yeh acchi picture hai, toh yeh ajeeb si Hindi film dekhne se achcha hai yeh hi picture dekh le’. Now that that change has started, I feel we will grow even faster.
Our budgets are also growing. See, the fee for Punjabi artistes is very high. Manje Bistre jaisi film Gippy ke bigar banaya hota toh woh 3 to 3.25 crore ki film hai. The biopic on Subedar Joginder Singh… bahut jamake film kar rahe hain. It’s a big film… 15 to 16 crores, so our target is to take it close to `100 cr. If we make films like this, then audiences will definitely watch.
Our presence in the international market is also strong. People across the globe know about Punjabi cinema and its artistes and that is adding to the growth of the industry. For instance, I never went to Lucknow till I started doing Lucknow Central, and when I visited for the promotions of that film I realised that I have many fans in Lucknow. At the press conference, I was the first one jiske liye line lagi thi photon ke liye. These were hardcore fans who waited for hours with their kids. I thought, yeh jyada Farhan Bhai ke liye honge kyuki unki national audience hai, but woh Punjabi wale the – typical. Toh Punjabi har jage pe baithein hain. And then we have songs to our credit. Even those who are not Punjabi listen to Punjabi songs. So that particular audience is connected with us. Given all these facts, I would say the future for the Punjabi film industry is very bright.
– As told to Shweta Kulkarni