One of the most interesting transitions in the world of commercial Bombay cinema over the past few years has been the experimentation with low-budget and offbeat films. While lavish nationalist-diasporic films that the likes of Karan Johar, Yash Chopra, and Subhash Ghai churn out are the ones that seem to define “Bollywood,” especially for viewers and critics outside India, films like Omkara, Dor, and Johnny Gaddar have drawn audiences, critical acclaim and, importantly, made money at the box office. To be sure, films like these would have been unimaginable in the commercial sector a decade ago.
Writing in the Mint (link), Gouri Shah takes stock of this development and argues that these low-budget films have succeeded primarily because of the shift from single-screen to multiplex theatres as the mode of exhibition in urban India (and to a lesser extent, in smaller cities and towns). Shah also writes that recent successes have prompted large production houses to set up separate divisions to focus exclusively on low-budget films with new talent across the board.
Subhash Ghai’s Mukta Arts Ltd has set up two divisions—Mukta Searchlight Films, which handles small budget films, and Malpix Films, which will launch its first Marathi film, Kaande Pohe, soon. UTV Motion Pictures Plc. has Spot Boy Motion Pictures and UTV Classics, while Percept Picture Co. recently set up Cause Cinema, which will look at projects with socially relevant themes as well as corporate films. Yash Raj Films Pvt. Ltd is also planning to set up a separate division that will focus on small budget projects or independent films, according to people in the industry familiar with the developments.
I agree, for the most part, that this is very much a “multiplex effect.” As Aparna Sharma explained in her Seminar piece, in addition to flexible scheduling that allows multiplexes to accomodate films of varying lengths, low budget films are lucrative for a multiplex because the number of viewers they bring in translates into “a greater, more competitive marginal value” (more here).
At the same time, it is difficult to overlook the fact that an “indie” filmmaker has little hope of getting his/her film into a multiplex unless s/he is working with a large banner like UTV, Mukta Arts, or Yashraj Films. My Brother Nikhil (Onir, 2005), the film that, in many ways, started this trend, would not have worked without Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra’s patronage. To get a sense of how critical this patronage is, all you have to do is take a quick look at the films that NFDC, the government of India enterprise that defines “good cinema,” has produced over the past few years – not only are they predominantly in regional languages like Marathi, Kannada, and Tamil, none of them made it into a multiplex.