Opinion: It’s Time Bollywood Gave Small-Budget Films The Respect They Deserve

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What is common to Aavesham, Premalu, Manjummel Boys, Aadujeevitham, Bramayugam, Aranmanai 4 and Hanu Man? All these South films were made on budgets ranging from Rs 10 to Rs 40 crore and were blockbusters, with some even collecting over Rs 100 crore. Though South does have big star flicks too, small- and medium-budget films have always been part of the industry’s oeuvre. They form its backbone, and they are what many filmmakers strive for. 

Cut to Bollywood, where after a revival of sorts in 2023, the industry is again seeing itself go kaput this year. Big Hindi films like Maidaan, Bade Miyan Chote Miyan and Chandu Champion fizzled at the box office, stunning filmmakers. On the other hand, medium-budget films like Munjya (Rs 30 crore), Article 370 (Rs 20 crore), Madgaon Express (Rs 30 crore) and Srikanth (Rs 45 crore) turned out to be hits.  Karan Johar and Guneet Monga’s recent release, Kill, made at just Rs 25 crore, is also performing very well at the box office, despite the Kalki 2898 AD juggernaut

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Even so, the risk appetite for most producers remains intact as they sign on A-listers and make big-budget, lavish (Rs 80 crore and above) films. But is the box office giving them the desired results? Sadly, no.

What The Audience Wants

It’s no secret that the Hindi film industry has been going through a tough time this year. Many producers and corporates have seriously started introspecting on what needs to change.

In a recent interview, producer and director Karan Johar said that with shifting audience tastes and high filmmaking costs due to inflation, the Hindi film industry and filmmakers must stop chasing trends and write fresh stories that are culturally rooted. «Firstly, the audiences’ tastes have become very definitive. They want a certain kind of cinema. And if you (as a maker) want to do a certain number, then your film has to perform at A, B, and C centres. Multiplexes alone will not suffice. Simultaneously, the cost of filmmaking has increased. There has been inflation. There are about 10 viable actors in Hindi cinema, and they are all asking for the sun, moon, and earth. And then your film doesn’t do the numbers. Those movie stars asking for Rs 35 crore are opening to Rs 3.5 crore. How’s that math working? How do you manage all these? Yet, you have to keep making movies and creating content because you also have to feed your organisation. So, there’s a lot of drama, and the syntax of our cinema has not found its feet,» he said in the interview.

Can’t Just Dismiss Spectacle Cinema

Of the 1,000-odd movies that are released in India each year (across various film industries), most are small- and medium-budget ones. Spectacle movies number just around 12. While they are important for the Hindi film industry and contribute a significant portion to the box office each year, smaller films are also needed to provide a continuous flow of content to distributors and keep the business going. Plus, the risks for the producer are much lower — smaller and mid-budget films are known to give major returns on investment. Thus, a producer needs to be strategic not just in terms of the number of films he finances each year, but also the budgets.

While scale may matter, substance does too. Where the South film industries are scoring sixes after sixes is content. Small and mid-budget flicks give more room to filmmakers and writers to experiment and be more creative with new themes, genres and storylines. Content-driven films do bring the audience to theatres, as seen across states in India.

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This phenomenon was new neither to the South film industry nor to Bollywood. But over the past several decades, Hindi film producers slowly started looking the other way as they felt such films weren’t able to draw enough people to theatres. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the burst of OTT platforms changed the game altogether in India.

The Economics Of The Film Industry

Director Gauravv Chawla, who’s known for Adhura and Baazaar, says, «Tentpoles will always be present and should be. As an industry, we need those big films. But these are few and far between because of the time and scale it takes to mount them and the risks of getting them just right. What has been heartening this year is the number of medium-budget films that have performed well at the box office. This used to be the case pre-pandemic too. We need to make sure we build on this audience appreciation by creating more films where content is the star, be it comedy, drama, supernatural or romance. The steadier the flow of these films, the better it will be for all — makers, exhibitors, distributors and audiences.»

From a film distributor’s point of view, it can be said that both big films and small films have been doing well at the box office. Akshaye Rathi, a film exhibitor and distributor, says, «I think it’s important for all sorts of movies to be made. As much as Laapataa Ladies and 12th Fail have done well, these are very niche successes in terms of their geographical impact. These are movies that have done well in 15-20 large cities. For the entire exhibition sector of the country to sustain, you need big-ticket films or tentpole blockbusters like Gadar, Animal, Pathaan and Jawan to set the box office on fire across the length and breadth of the country. Only that will allow the exhibition sector of the country to sustain well. Simultaneously, it’s important for mid-segment and small-budget movies to fill the gap and keep the scorecard ticking between the tentpoles.»

A Healthy Mix

Ultimately, filmmakers in the Hindi industry feel that a mix of movies across genres — and across budgets — is what is needed to keep the audience happy. As Rathi puts it, the more the Hindi film industry churns out just large-scale, big-ticket actioners, the more fatigued the audience will get. Badly made films will not help the industry either. «We need all sorts of genres and styles of film-making to coexist so that there’s something in the cinemas at any given point of time for every audience category,» he adds.

The Hollywood in the 2000s had witnessed a similar situation. Studios had been consolidating budgets to make blockbuster films, and consequently, the number of smaller films reduced drastically on studio ledgers. In 2013, predicting the end of this cycle, director Steven Spielberg warned makers of an ‘implosion’. «There’s going to be an implosion where three or four, or maybe even half a dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm,» he said. Hollywood ultimately went through an upheaval at the time. Of late, that cycle has re-emerged after COVID-19 as Hollywood studios bat for big blockbusters and mid-range films are premiered directly on OTT platforms.

The bottom line is that movie theatres can’t survive on blockbusters alone, whether it is Hollywood or Bollywood. Perhaps, it is time for the Hindi film industry to rethink its model.

(The author is a senior entertainment journalist and film critic)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author