According to the latest FICCI-EY report, the Indian film segment grew by 27% in 2017. The top 50 films contributed approximately 97.75% of the total net box office collection. The box office collections of the top 50 films grew by 11.60%. There are several factors that are responsible for this growth. The factors include overseas theatrical releases, particularly in China, growth in satellite rights values and domestic box office collection. All sub-segments, with the exception of home video recorded an increase and the film segment and reached Rs. 156 billion in 2017.
The FICCI-EY report says, “While the overall growth in films is promising, it is not a linear business and depends heavily on the number and type of releases. In 2017, growth was narrow – it was due to select movies like Bahubaali and Dangal driving growth in both domestic and international markets.”
Failure of realistic cinema at the Indian box office
Despite the commercial success of mainstream cinema, parallel or alternate cinema has failed to make a mark in the box office over the years in India. The parallel films are critically acclaimed, win several national and international awards but fail to perform commercially.
Parallel cinema was inspired by cinematic movements like the Italian Neo-realism, French New Wave and Japanese New Wave and took off in West Bengal in the 1950s under the leadership of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. This type of cinema is known for its serious content, realism and naturalism, symbolic elements with a keen eye on the socio-political climate of the times.
In a country like India, a majority of the cinema viewing audience watches a film only for the sake of being entertained. The concept of entertainment has been well and truly established by the film fraternity of India. Anything that deviates a little from this routine makes the audience apprehensive and the producers nervous. Several films win critical acclaims but are not successful in the domestic box office. For instance, Parched (2015), a film revolving around the atrocities against women in a desert village of Rajasthan earned several critical accolades but was a box office failure. Again Masaan (2015) which won two awards at the Cannes Film Festival, managed to recover only Rs. 4 crore from the domestic box office out of its budget of Rs. 8 crore. Chotoder Chobi (2015), a Bengali film was critically acclaimed but was again a box office failure.
Reasons for the commercial failure of realistic cinema
One of the primary reasons for the failure of realistic films at the box office is the audience themselves. For example, if a person sees a lot of terrible things in his or her life or around, he would not want to watch the same thing on screen. This is where escapism comes into play. People want to step into a world that is unlike the world they live in. So, Salman Khan beating a score of bad guys appeals more than the plight of women in a small village of Rajasthan. Thus, there is a lot of wish fulfilments that these formula films provide.
Another factor is a general lack of perspective among the audience. In case of a director like Anurag Kashyap, one has to be a little aware about him, his background etc. to really appreciate the films he makes. It can be argued that one does not need to research before watching a film. However, unless one has some knowledge about what one is watching, one may not understand it fully. Even though one can watch a film without knowing it, a lot of viewers end up putting their own expectations on the film based on a pre-conceived notion.
Film personalities on the distinction between commercial and realistic cinema
In an interview, Malayali film-maker, Adoor Gopalakrishnan said, “Parallel cinema is a journalistic term used by our press to describe any film that is out of ordinary. In fact, there do not exist any parallel cinema anywhere else in the world. There are popular commercial films as well as worthwhile artistically relevant films produced in many countries. The audience or their film industries do not separate one from the other. That is why globally, films winning awards either at national or international competitions also become successful at the box office.”
Shyam Benegal and Anurag Kashyap also echo Gopalakrishnan’s opinion. In the fourth Subhas Ghoshal Foundation Lecture held in Mumbai on September 6, 2005, Benegal had said, “It’s unfortunate that critics have given meaningful films the ludicrous label of parallel cinema.” While talking about the differentiating factor between art films and commercial cinema, Benegal said, “Popular Hindi cinema works towards getting a predictable response from the audience. It can’t afford to be disturbing or to shake any fondly held views, attitudes and beliefs.”
Anurag Kashyap takes a step forward and blames Bollywood for the inability of the Indian audience to cope up with reality. “Indian films have this obsession with hygienic clean places, even though the country’s not so clean”, says Kashyap. He continues, ‘They’re either shot in the studios or shot in London, in America, in Switzerland – clean places. Everywhere except India.” By contrast, Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) was determined to show the India not seen in the movies.
Film personalities on why they participate in realist cinema
In spite of several adversities which include funding, promotion, exhibition among others, realistic films are still produced in India in all languages. While discussing about her film, A Death in the Gunj (2016), at a session of the Kolkata Literary Meet 2018, national-award winning actor Konkona Sen Sharma said that she loves to participate in a film where the subject interests her. She recalls several films where she acted despite knowing that she would not get handsome remuneration and the films may be commercial failures, as she liked the content of the films.
National award-winning film maker, Kaushik Ganguly, in a recent interview, explained the producer’s interest in producing films that may be a box office failure but may earn critical acclamations with a simple analogy. “The owners of big production houses ride in very expensive cars. Now, suppose they are going to Dharmatala. They will also reach Dharmatala in their expensive cars. I will also reach the same Dharmatala in my Swift Desire. Thus, the destination remains the same. So why does he buy such an expensive car? Does the car produce money? No. It offers a very low mileage. But it is a status symbol. Similarly, a film which has earned several national and international awards and has been critically acclaimed is like a status symbol for the producer. A producer can showcase the fact that he has an award-winning film under his banner. Money cannot buy this honour.”