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Can the Hindi film industry be “modernised”?

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"Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi" brings cheer to exhibitors after six months.

According to the widely-circulated Indian business newspaper Economic Times, the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (Dir: Aditya Chopra) has bailed out the Indian exhibition sector. The last film to have given the sector cheer was the August release of Singh is Kinng (Dir: Anees Bazmee). It is impossible to obtain accurate and reliable data on the Indian exhibition sector, but if we go by reports in the business and economic newspapers we get the picture that all is not well with the industry. Discussions about Hindi cinema post-90s is filled with the buzz word — corporatisation. Let us call it modernisation, given the history of discourse about its “backward” or “not-yet” nature. The Economic Times reports sums up the problem of modernisation well:

SRK’s film RNBDJ’s success was critical to exhibitors in an otherwise disappointing year that saw their annual revenue growth come down to single digits, compared to over 15% last year. The 1,400-screens multiplex industry in the country has been battling a series of flops this year, primarily because of bad fare dished out by Bollywood. Depressed consumer sentiments and a runaway success of Indian Premier League too didn’t help win back audiences to theatres (Economic Times, read online here).

The Hindu Business Line, another business newspaper, reported a slump in the industry owing to the credit crunch. The big spenders Reliance Big Entertainment, Mukta Arts, UTV Software Communications, and Studio 18 had lost between 50-80 per cent of their market capitalisation, seriously affecting their ability to fund promotions. Old hands such as  Mahesh Bhatt point to the problems of reformation of the capitalism that has been the basis of the Indian film industry.

Producer-director Mr Mahesh Bhatt said corporations that entered the motion picture business had little knowledge of the industry. “They approved astronomical payments to artistes for which they got no commensurate returns. There has to be some sanity in budgeting for films. Due to the slowdown, the industry will be cut in size, the honeymoon phase between corporate houses and artistes will be over, and there will unavoidable correction,” he said (Hindu Businessline, read online here).

Madhava Prasad’s thesis on the Hindi film industry is particularly instructive as it points to the relationship between the disaggregated nature of the Hindi film and the rentier nature of the capital funded it. For example, funding was ad-hoc and supplied by various distributors who had a say in the content of the film. So the fragmented nature of the film reflected the nature of the capital itself. Along with this is the complex relationship between the audience and the film. Given the nature of the film (the fragmented form to cater to various distribution markets), the audience are intimate with a historical film form that to the outsider appears irrational and lacking cohesion. This has now become the dominant text that cannot be wished away. How would a new managerial class driven by demand-supply economics and scientific management techniques handle this text. In the past, the intimate relationship between the filmmaker and distributors determined the filmic text. Perhaps the reason why certain filmmakers and older outfits such as Yash Raj have been able to tap the market is precisely due to their intimate and historical knowledge of audience tastes.

Organisation with access to funds through banks, market, or private equity may have entered the market but are struggling to deal with what constitutes a success.

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