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A slew of recent successes has set the Gujarati film industry on the path to revival

The Gujarati film industry has hit ‘reboot’, and not a moment too soon. Smack in the throes of change, the turnaround happened quite by chance, with a handful of movies clicking at the box office like never before.

This is great news for an industry that has produced many talented professionals in the past. Starting with the first Gujarati films ever made Narsinh Mehta, in 1932, the industry started to flourish only around the 1960s. Sadly, those golden years didn’t last long and, by the 1980s, the industry began to slide.

It’s been a long wait but things started to finally look up in 2015, when the industry started to consistently churn out commercially successful films. These included Bey Yaar, Saptapadii, Happy Family Pvt Ltd, Aapne To Dhirubhai, Romance Complicated, Gujjubhai The Great and Chhello Divas. The success of these films provided a good impetus and Gujarati filmmakers suddenly started to feel upbeat.

So why the turnaround? Filmmakers finally realised that content needed an overhaul and began to urbanise their stories while also infusing fresh energy in the form of young actors, directors and producers. The year 2015 saw 12 to 15 Gujarati films releasing and that total has risen to around 30, if you count the films that will release till the end of this year.

Another impetus came from the Gujarat government, which has announced new policies that will offer assistance to producers, to the tune of `5 lakh to `50 lakh.

With the industry booming and records being broken both in Gujarat and overseas, everyone is jumping onto the bandwagon, including Hindi film producers and distributors. Why, some are even calling this a ‘golden era’.

Abhishek Jain, who directed Kevi Rite Jaish and Bey Yaar, is all set with his next film. As a producer, his next is Wrong Side Raju, along with Phantom Films. He is very happy with the way the audience has reacted to the revival. “I think these are the best times for the Gujarati film industry because a lot of different kinds of films are being made. In the next five years, we will see films that are rich in content and a lot of fresh talent coming in.”

This fresh talent, he elaborates, includes producers and distributors as well as professional producers and corporate houses. “I foresee our industry becoming a mature industry, which will tap different revenue models. In the next few years, the Gujarati film industry will become an established industry just like the Marathi film industry.”

On content and the tastes and preferences of the audience, Jain remarks, “We know there is an audience that is willing to pay for a Gujarati film. The audience should get something out of a film, whether entertainment or engagement or even an experience. It is not only the government support that our industry gets but also support from the media, exhibitors and the audience. I consider these the four pillars of our industry.”

Jain confides that he took a leap of faith with Wrong Side Raju. “The idea was to present something that the Gujarati audience had never seen before. Second, I wanted to bring new talent on board for cinema and production, and lastly, I wanted to have a Bollywood production house backing the director and backing us, to take our film to another level and to take Gujarati cinema to another level.”

Things really took off when Phantom agreed to be a part of this film. “They are the ones who have been empowering filmmakers even when it comes to Hindi films.” In keeping with that trend, Wrong Side Raju is the company’s first Gujarati film. Says Vikas Bahl of Phantom Films, “I have always wondered why there isn’t a strong Gujarati film industry because they love entertainment, their culture, their language, their food. So there’s every reason for there to be a demand for strong regional cinema for that audience. We tried to ensure that the region gets its cinema and we just wanted to be a part of it.”

Director Krishnadev Yagnik, whose Gujarati film Chhello Divas’s Hindi remake Days Of Tafree is set to release soon, says the Gujarati industry is making strong strides. “This isn’t a bubble; change is definitely here to stay. But, as is the case with any film industry, good films that are marketed and released properly tend to find their audience. A well-made film that is not marketed and released adequately will not hit this mark and that applies to the Gujarati industry too.”

Yagnik points out that the number of Gujarati releases has increased manifold and filmmakers have begun to offer good content to the right kind of audience. “Even the Hindi film industry is taking notice of our films now,” he remarks.

He is thrilled that the government is supporting the industry. “For instance, while we were shooting for Chhello Divas, we didn’t have to pay for locations in many places in Ahemedabad. I want to add that the film not only did well in India but also in many overseas markets like Australia, where it ran to full houses for three weeks out of four. It is important to make a film on a right budget, especially Gujarati films, to assure returns. A first-time producer should recover his money so that he is motivated to make more films.”

Director Ishaan Randeria of Gujjubhai The Great points out that many established Hindi production houses are venturing into the Gujarati space, and this will further spur growth in the industry. “We have around 100 films under production and I foresee the next five years to be driven by quality films rather than quantity, which is not the case right now. I am working on a sequel to Gujjubhai The Great and, in today’s times, it is important to focus on pre-production too. Our films are made to cater to the young audience, which was not how it was before.”

According to Murli Chhatwani, who distributed Chhello Divas. Earlier, he had distributed Bey Yaar and Kevi Rite Jaish, which he says set benchmarks in Gujarati cinema. “Earlier, substandard films were being made which were low on budget and quality. But these films have ushered in the trend of urban-centric films.”

The distributor adds, “Then came Gujjubhai The Great, which screened at a large number of cinemas and whose growth was phenomenal. This set the ball rolling, after which came Chhello Divas, which broke records. It started with 83 cinemas and around 175 shows each day. The film grew so much that it went to 275 shows and, in the fourth week, 400 cinemas and 1,000 shows.

“We created a record by earning a net of over `17 crore, of which more than 96 per cent came from Gujarat and Mumbai. These four films are practically responsible for the 70 films that are under production. In the next four months, at least 15 films will release,” he says.

It seems professionalism, producers with a nose for business and a structured release slate is what will determine the fate of the Gujarati industry. This year, Gujarati producers have not only come up with a comprehensive line-up of releases, but much like the Hindi film industry, they have also made sure they are spacing out their releases so that one film doesn’t eat into the other’s business.

With Phantom Films producing Gujarati film Wrong Side Raju and Hindi producers like Rashmi Sharma and Anand Pandit plunging into this fast-growing industry, Gujarati cinema seems set for a great run. Producer Anand Pandit remarks, “Change is coming in but it will take some time for the Gujarati industry to make a mark. Despite super successful films like Chhelo Divas, Bey Yaar andGujjubhai The Great doing great business, we need at least 10 films that are high on content every year. This means we need a lot of creative writers and good directors who will commit themselves to this task. If that happens, we will see a dramatic and lasting change in the next 10 years. Gujarati theatre is thriving and slowly they will move to films.”

Mikhil Musale, director of the upcoming film Wrong Side Raju divulges, “Abhishek Jain and I started our production company in 2010, doing ads and trying to make our presence in Gujarat. The idea was to make a decent Gujarati film and our first film was Kevi Rite Jaish, which released in 2012 and did decent business. It was a good turning point as no one else was making Gujarati films then and it was largely the only release of the year.”

Two years later, Be Yaar released alongside a handful of other releases, and 2015 saw the release of Chhelo Divas, Gujjubhai The Great and a few more. When Chhelo Divas did tremendous business, people sat up and took notice and decided to invest in the Gujarati industry. This was followed by the Gujarat government announcing subsidies for the industry earlier this year.

Musale says, “We need to make quality films rather than focus on quantity. Movie-goers in Gujarat are willing to watch Gujarati cinema. But the industry has so far served up comedy, light-hearted romance and youth-centric films. I hope our film Wrong Side Raju, which is a serious thriller, brings a change in genre and we get to watch various genres in Gujarati cinema. It’s a great phase to be in, especially for a filmmaker like me who is attempting to make his first film. You can almost feel a strong wave from both sides – the audience and filmmakers.”

The renewed interest in Gujarati cinema is bringing in greater investments and the budgets are growing. “Budgets are increasing in size, from just a crore to more than `2.5-3 crore. Some films are even shooting overseas. Producers and distributors are definitely seeing potential in this industry. As a result, there are films being remade from Marathi to Gujarati and Kannada to Gujarati. The best example is Chhello Divas being remade in Hindi just 10 months after its release,” says distributor Murli Chhatwani.

“In the next two to three years, we will see a good 50 films releasing each year, with good production values, high content, good directors and actors. Now satellite rights, overseas release and digital rights are still evolving. Once these aspects firm up, they will also start contributing to revenues,” he points out.

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