Monday, January 16, 2006

Who can compete with Karwa Chauth?

Bombay cinema going global has helped low-budget “indie” filmmakers, is a common refrain these days. “Going global” points not only to production practices and marketing techniques that consciously address audience worldwide, but also the emergence of multiplexes in urban India. And if not for multiplexes, and the multiplex audience, a film like My Brother Nikhil (MBN) would never have done as well as it did. Even 6 or 7 years back, a film like MBN would not have stood any chance against big-budget tear-jerkers with lavish song-and-dance routines and the inevitable karwa chauth sequence.

But how much of this is industry myth/logic? I had an opportunity to interview Onir, the director who financed, made, and marketed MBN, and here are some things I learned from him.

To begin with, the “multiplex audience” is a catch-all term that explains little. Audiences that watch films in multiplexes are diverse – not only do they vary (taste, spending power, etc.) from one region of the country to another, they vary within the same city. In Mumbai, for instance, MBN did very well in Bandra but sunk without a trace in Ghatkopar.

Second, promos work only for the opening weekend and maybe a few days after the opening. Into the second week, a film’s fortunes depend pretty much on word-of-mouth advertising. And when a film like MBN isn’t running house-full by the second week, exhibitors immediately pull it out of prime evening slots and give it an afternoon spot. Who, as Onir asked, would skip work and watch a film like MBN in the middle of the afternoon? In other words, if you don’t have a big banner supporting you, you cannot hold on to the best spots and screens in a multiplex.

Third, films like MBN have always done well in the international cinema circuit. But over the last decade, with “Bollywood” entering this space aggressively, a film like MBN now has to compete with a Veer Zaara.

Fourth – NRI audiences. Again, a very diverse audience is often stereotyped as one that watches Indian cinema for nostalgia value and little else. So films like Tango Charlie get released in theatres in the US and UK, but MBN or Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi struggles to find an exhibitor.

And finally, NRI conservatism. After a screening in Chicago, one woman asked, “what kind of message is this U-certified film giving to Indian youngsters? And why did you make a film on homosexuality and AIDS when you know that AIDS affects more heterosexuals in India?” Onir went on a 11-city tour of the US, and says close to 80% of the audience was non-Indian. And the one screening that was held in a very desi venue – the Naz cinema hall in LA, only 30-odd people turned up.

AIDS and gay rights versus the karwa chauth genre. Right. That's fair.