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Yes, But...

A couple of months after I became editor of Filmfare, I decided I had to unravel the mystery behind what was called, simply, the ‘trade’. I thought, foolishly, that I was ready for a briefing and a senior colleague offered to give me a crash course in the financial mechanics of buying and selling films. I was warned somewhat nonchalantly, though, “It’s a little complicated.”

A couple of hours later, I learnt how complicated.

It was easy enough to get the hang of the principles behind basics like ‘table profit’, ‘MG’ (minimum guarantee) and ‘commission basis’. But once we delved beneath the surface and the theories, there unspooled a world of intricate dealings and layers that made me do a mental backflip each time I figured I had it figured out.

And every question I asked seemed to elicit an answer that went, ‘Yes, but...’
“Didn’t ABC film make a good profit?” “Yes, its producer did, but the exhibitors didn’t.”
“Didn’t XYZ film flop?” “Yes, the producer lost money but the distributor kept his head above water.”

Or, I’d remark, “So I hear that moneybags producer hasn’t yet recovered his money on his latest blockbuster…”
Only to be told, “Naah, he’s made a neat profit; he inflated the budget to show a loss.”
“Er, why?”
“Income tax… the underworld…”
“Ah, yes, of course,” I would murmur as knowledgeably as I could.

Well-heeled producers weren’t the only ones fudging figures, I learnt. Practically everyone down the line did it, right down to the small-time operator in a village who packed in one-and-a-half times the number of people he should have in his dilapidated cinema hall —  and kept it quiet, of course.

Not surprisingly, every time a producer went to town with the collections of his latest hit, one section of the gang of trade analysts would scoff at them, another would defend them.

On the other hand, it was difficult to get any producer, director or actor to admit to a flop unless the film in question was a complete washout. “It may have not done too well in Mumbai, but it was a hit in Nizam/Punjab/B and C centres,” they would protest. “Here, I’ll show you the collections,” they would add, whipping out their cellphones.

However, the truth was that neither of us had incontrovertible, certified figures one way or the other, so that was that.
(Here, I have to add that Ram Gopal Varma was the only producer/director who I came across who would own up to a flop in week 1. “I might as well say it before others do,” he once told me.)

Some four years after my crash course, I got a call from a leading Hollywood trade magazine that was eyeing the Indian market; those were the days when ‘corporatisation’ was the buzzword.  We met at a trendy Bandra pub, where they asked me what I thought of an Indian edition of their publication. ‘I wouldn’t if I were you,” I told them. They didn’t.
I take no (dis)credit whatsoever for their hasty retreat; I must have been one of many who poured ice-cold water on their plans, for pretty much the same reasons that I did.

Of course, tinkering with figures is prevalent in practically every industry In India (Satyam, anyone?). And the film industry does have its share of above-board producers and units, in the big-budget and especially, the small-budget categories, where passion is more plentiful than moolah. Besides, operations have certainly become more transparent in the last 10 years or so, I’m told.

I am no longer in the thick of it, but I notice that not much has changed when I scan the Friday movie advertisements with ‘blockbuster’ and ‘superhit’ stamped all over the page. I smile when I see full-page newspaper ads with the latest collections splashed across them… and hear about the trade pundits pouncing on them.

And I often wonder, how does (Box Office India) cope?
(Shashi Baliga was
Editor, Filmfare, from 2002 to 2006)

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