When Box Office India asked me to write a piece on my understanding of the Indian film industry, I was surprised. The canvas is so broad and the subject so complex, that 700 words do not suffice to navigate through this maze of an industry. I have been writing on and tracking the Indian film industry for over a dozen years and have been fortunate to do so at a time when it has seen the most remarkable changes, professionalism and taken giant strides globally. It has given writers like me, my colleagues featured alongside, as well as the media, copious amounts of material to sink our teeth into.
Today, even as Bollywood is globally understood as the brand of cinema produced in India, this country is becoming a nurturing ground for world class talent. And while stars and few directors dominate media and mind-space, I am not referring to either, but to the amazing pool of talented technicians that make even mediocre movies from those of questionable ability look good. It’s the cinematographers, editors, stunt directors, composers, costume designers, production designers etc that invest in training, recognise the value of experience, are committed to hard work and excellence that we should acknowledge. Armed with craft and state-of-the-art equipment, Indian technicians are on par with their counterparts globally.
Not only this, but foreign-trained technicians now see India as a fertile ground for employment and a place to gain experience. It is not uncommon these days to spot a foreign name in the credits of big budget Bollywood films. This shows that cinema can lead to a healthy exchange of ideas and qualified talent can only enhance quality work and build bridges.
While this is an upside, on the downside, writers are still short-changed, stories are still plagiarised, ‘inspired by’ is a much-abused term and insufficient credence is given to originality. It is so much easier to rip-off scenes from popular and less popular Hollywood and European films, paste them together and pass them off as a ‘script’ by just throwing in an ensemble cast of glamorous stars and a few foreign locations. If the industry has achieved legitimacy, professionalised and expanded on one hand, on the other, with the surfeit of funds and cinema halls, mediocrity has become an accepted mantra. Mediocrity, which grossly takes the audience for granted and celebrates a genre called ‘leave your brains at home’.
This brings us to a gaping and deep gap in the industry, one that allows dangerous manipulation and spread of misinformation -- and that is the need for a neutral, independent agency that tracks box office collections. A few trade papers, like Box Office India, take the initiative and pains to embark on their own data collection exercise, but this system is not flawless.
In the absence of a neutral monitoring body, producers and distributors are at liberty to announce (often inflated) collection figures on the Monday after the opening Friday. But they omit to mention their source, that the figure is gross and not net of print, advertising and production costs. With the explosion of media, which has hired young, enthusiastic journalists hungry for news and desperate to fill up blank pages and airtime, these producers find enough takers who will lap up their declarations without questioning or applying any logic. This is supported by a frightening practice of media houses aligning with producers to promote their films and offering covert sops to bring in advertising revenue. This can sometimes include a guaranteed complimentary review of their film.
In all this commerce, money-making and celebration of mediocrity, the audience’s ignorance is taken advantage of. Most who read this paper, will be aware of all of these issues. And accept them. Journalists are aware of them too. Let’s hope an independent monitoring and box office data collation agency is formed soon so that the corruption that is seeping in to the film industry does not begin to rot it and that the brains of audiences can go to the movies with them.
(Udita Jhunjhunwala is an entertainment writer and editor for leading Indian and International publications, a published author and movie critic based in Mumbai)