Sunday, August 22, 2010


A lot has been written about how Aamir Khan's marketing savvy has turned a low budget art house mockumentary into a commercial hit. "Peepli Live" got an opening like no other film of that kind of budget, genre and cast ever got, and the numbers offered for music right, satellite right and other ancillary rights have already made this a profitable venture many times over. This is irrespective of the merit of the film which already had a seal of quality in the minds of art house audience by virtue of its selection at the Sundance film festival. That notwithstanding, the final product was artistically a bit disappointing even for those who like this kind of cinema, myself included. The first half of the film was exciting, innovative and well paced and the interval point when frame freezes on the wacky Natha family with two goats in their arms, all of us who had gone to see the film looked at each other and gave it a thumbs up. Even though the media brouhaha for the sake of TRPs has been a subject of many films in the past, including highly under-rated, Aziz Mirza's "Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani"; the rural setting and believable performances by the actors made "Peepli Live" feel fresh as a political satire. However, second half of the film dragged on without any new insights and the wrap up of the film was quite clumsy.
Prior to the release of the film, we saw Aamir on every TV channel doing talk shows, reality shows, playing drums with Indian Ocean, playing dholak with Raghuveer singing 'Mahengayee Dayan' with a folk troupe etc., hyping the movie to an extent that for the weekend of Friday August 13,2010; it became the film to watch and most other commercial films stayed away from that release date. Aamir had the marketing savvy but more important he had the clout as a brand to be able to carry out his marketing plan in all these various media. If anybody else had produced this film, it would have been nearly impossible to get this kind of visibility even though they may have the savvy to plan a campaign like this. Implementing this ambitious media hype needed the clout which few people have in this industry. Aamir has, over time, built a brand brick by brick, and his association with a project already gives it a quality seal of approval. His "Taare Zamin Pe" followed by "Three Idiots" consolidated that association of quality even though he was only an actor in the second one. Now that "Dhobi Ghat" has been selected for showcasing at the Toronto Film Festival, this image of Aamir 's name associated with quality cinema ( Niche or Mass) is likely to continue.
Great marketing ideas will only remain ideas on paper, if one doesn't have the clout to get them implemented. On the other hand clout alone doesn't guarantee marketing savvy. You need both to be able to qualify as the man with the midas touch, as Aamir is now called.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hindsight is 20/20

Haven't written any thing for last several weeks. Lots of things I want to talk about but haven't been able to organize my thoughts. Mind wanders.
Saw RAJNEETI , RAAVAN, and KITES in LA and read the reviews on the net. People form opinions quickly on the basis of other people's opinions and it starts to build like a tidal wave either taking what is in its wake to the crest or to the bottom. It seems now a days no one is interested in looking at what works in a film, only what doesn't. Specially people from the film industry. As the saying goes, "Hindsight is 20/20".
Here is my hindsight:
RAAVAN is a very difficult film to execute. Its visuals, atmosphere, production design, and score are really impressive, totally appropriate to the story Mani Ratnam was trying to tell. The film's screenplay, as is obvious from the title itself, is a clever modern day adaptation of Ramayana. Where it falters is that for any kidnap story to work, at least in the beginning, the audience must be afraid of the victim's jeopardy. In Raavan, in spite of good performances by Aishwarya and Abhishek, Aishwarya's character never seems to be in any kind of danger because of the screen couples real life relationship. That out-of-the box casting actually becomes the film's undoing. If Abhishek had played Ram instead of Raavan, the real life relationship perhaps would have helped the film. I bet everyone connected with the film wanted to avoid cliche'd casting but sometimes one has to remember that cliche's become cliche's because they work.
In India, where media makes headline news of personal lives of brand name actors, their on screen characters are overshadowed by audiences perception of their off screen persona. Difference between a Star and an Actor is because of this perception. An actor moulds himself or herself into the character, where as star moulds the character into himself or herself. It is not the star's fault. It is the fault of audience expectation created by media hype which makes a brand name star out of someone who given a chance could perhaps be a finely nuanced actor. This stardom is a boon as well as a bane for the actor. Boon because his/her popularity soars and so does his/her marketability and price, bane because the actor now is trapped by his/her stardom. His/her craft is not appreciated, personality is.
Even though, Raavan is supposed to be an allegory (a figurative interpretation of a mythological tale), the character of Hanuman, played by Govinda in the film is treated too literally by making him jump from trees to trees. If that was the intention, then he should have also burnt Raavan's Lanka as Hanuman did.
RAJNEETI on the other hand was a fine mix of an allegory of Mahabharat liberally blended with the best american gangster flick, The Godfather. It is a mix that worked very well until Ranbir's Arjun picks up the gun and shoots down Ajay Devgun's Karan at the goading of Nana Patekar's Krishna. Here it jumped from being a figurative adaptation to a literal translation.
In any case, one allegory was made a hit by the audience and the other was not. One rode the tidal wave of public opinion, other sank to the bottom.
KITES failure to fly high both in India and Internationally in spite of a re-edit (referred to as Re-mix) by Bret Ratner has sent shockwaves among all including me who have been waving the flag of cross-over cinema for years, awaiting that one hit which will sweep both India's movie audience and American moviegoers off their feet collectively. Not in pockets but en masse. In spite of great looks and fine chemistry shared by the leads, and some spectacular stunts, the film failed to appeal to the audience in both countries, making one wonder that is their such a thing as a "Crossover film" and if it is there, can it be 'designed' or is it merely a stroke of luck when it happens, as in the case of Crouching Tiger or Life is beautiful?
On international cinema front, saw two beautiful films on the flight from LA to Hong Kong: LOVELY BONES and BROTHER. One is a strange mixture of crime thriller with fantasy of afterlife, realized beautifully as a film under the direction of brilliant Peter Jackson, and the other is a high voltage realistic drama of two brothers, one considered good and the other bad and how life and circumstances make them trade places. The film's screenplay was filled with poignant scenes, heart rending performances with right degree of restrain by all principal actors and an emotional climax beautifully orchestrated by Jim Sheridan. I also saw a third film called VALENTINE'S DAY which is a fine example of the current screenplay fad in Hollywood: multiple stories linked by a theme in which the paths of their individual protagonists eventually converge in the climax.
Have been reading an interesting book on screenplay writing talking about Vertical thinking and Lateral thinking. Screenplay of LOVELY BONES was a textbook example of lateral thinking. BROTHER was more Vertical. Perhaps my training at IIT made me more of a Vertical thinker. Have to work on the lateral side.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Why do people invest in films?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak about the Business Of Bollywood in front of a very distinguished gathering of entrepreneurs, industrialists, eminent doctors and other professionals at the Taj in Colaba. Someone asked a very pertinent question. In spite of the fact that week after week one reads about films flopping at the box office and the statistics are that ten out of hundred films released in a year barely do better than covering their cost, why do people invest in movies?
My answer was that it is the lure of the 3G spectrum: GLAMOUR, GLORY and GAMBLE, that attracts investment in movies. One can make a lot of money in transportation business or running a steel mill but that doesn't give them a brush with GLAMOUR. You announce one film as a producer and there is a continuous stream of young, beautiful people armed with portfolios carrying pictures of their toned up bodies, visiting your office looking for that elusive break.
Now comes the GLORY part. You can be the most accomplished structural engineer or a nuclear scientist with a Ph.D, but other than your fellow workers no one else will even know your name. You produce one Desh Drohi and everyone comes to know who Kamaal Khan is.
Then comes the thrill of the GAMBLE. Once you have made enough money in another business that you can afford to lose some, you come to the movie business for throwing your dice hoping that it may hit the jackpot. It is the same reason one goes to a casino, knowing fully well that the odds are against you.
Every new producer comes with the hope of making their '3 idiots' but more often than not there is only one idiot and we all know who that is. Even then, drawn by the lure of the 3Gs, year after year new entrants come in this Show Business ( as BR Chopra once wisely said, ' it is all Show and no Business' ) providing job opportunities for thousands of technicians and a cushy, privileged life style for the stars, making this industry a honeytrap in which once you check in you can't check out.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Evaluation of a Film's Quality

Two films of mine are opening in theatres in India within this week. One called APARTMENT, already opened yesterday with very little advertising, and one called CHASE, is opening on 29th with a robust marketing campaign. The one with little marketing is a psycho-thriller made at a modest budget with financial constraints but no creative interference from the producer and one with robust marketing is an action thriller made with generous budget but total creative interference by producer in the post production stage.
The film critics have not been very kind to the psycho-thriller and without the advertising support it needed to get the people to go to the theatres and judge for themselves, its box-office prospects appear rather bleak. I still stand by that film because creatively it represents my vision. Therefore, I am ready to accept the brick-bats with the bouquets.
The other one will open its cards next thursday so we don't know what the film critics will have to say until then, but because of the marketing effort, it atleast stands a chance to get better opening numbers in spite of the simultaneous release of a multi-star cast big budget, big banner film. I am not standing by that film because creatively, after the post-production tempering by the producer, it no longer represents my vision. It may get better reviews and better box-office but my conscience will not allow me to accept those bouquets and I will still stand by what my creative objections have been. In spite of them, I wish the film to do well.

I have ofcourse tried to get hold of all the reviews of APARTMENT and understand what the critics found lacking in the film. First accusation was that it is a rip off of Single White Female. Thematically both films deal with a psycho room mate. So does Pacific Heights (Psycho tenant), Crush (Psycho landlady) and I am sure research will unearth many such films in the psycho-thriller genre. Does that mean with out reference to others, in itself the story doesn't work? No critic analysed the script on its own merit and show what didn't work with in the framework of contemporary urban living in India. Critics use adjectives like run-of-the mill thriller. What does that exactly mean? Aren't all genre films run-of-the mill? Other criticism is it is linear and predictable. Since when linear story telling has become bad story telling. Aren't stories supposed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end? Since time immemorial stories have been narrated in this manner. Isn't that linear? Why has non-linearity for the sake of non-linearity become a virtue instead of a gimmic? Why does suspense have to be unpredictable? It is not a whodunit kind of mystery. Almost all stories in genres other than mystery are predictable. The fun is not in where are you going but how are you getting there. If that journey is engaging and suspenseful, that should be good enough.
One critic brought reference to the 1960 Billy Wilder film 'The Apartment' and said it is not even a distant relative. It is not even trying to be. Just because it has the same title 50 years apart in a different country and different language, the critic brings it up in a completely irrelevant context. Calling it a poor apology for soft core pornography is even more befuddling as there is no gratuitous nudity in this film and censors gave it an A certificate without any cut.
It is easy to call anything sappy, amateurish, bland and average without having to explain why. Rather than regurgitating the story, coming up with some fancy derogatory adjectives and no responsibilty to enlighten why specifically something doesn't work, the reviewers don't do anything else. If as a film maker, I wanted to learn something concrete from this feedback and improve my story telling skills for the future, I get no insights. All I have is one person's opinion which is unsubstantiated but important because of the platform on which it is expressed. This media platform has the power to give 'quality evaluation stars' for a film because of which it doesn't even get a fair chance to be judged by the target audience for whom it was made.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


It has been a while since I sat down to write my thoughts. Various topics cross my mind. FICCI/Frames recently concluded its three day entertainment industry conference in Mumbai. There were big names on the panel (e.g. Karan Johar, Nandita Das, Javed Akhtar, Kamlesh Pande, Vidya Balan, Vijay Krishna Acharya, Siddtharth Roy Kapur, Vijay Singh to name a few) and lofty topics for discussion (e.g. Will Indian Film's Cross Over?, Relevance of Film Reviews to Box Office performance, Big Budget Flops - What ails the film industry, Future of entertainment in the next decade etcetra). Opening keynote address was by Shahrukh Khan, closing was by Ashok Amritraj. Political leaders like Ashok Chavan opened the conference and Ambika Soni closed it. Lots of eager delegates and wannabe film makers ran around from one venue to another getting an opportunity to meet and greet people like Yash Chopra and Ramesh Sippy. All very nice. But at the end of the day did I learn anything new?

I learnt that Shahrukh doesn't think there is any such thing as a cross-over film. There is comedy film, horror film, action film, romantic film but no such genre as cross-over film. Karan said flippantly once a film crosses it is over. In my opinion, cross-over is not a genre. If a film reaches an audience beyond its intended target audience as defined by the parameters of the film's setting, culture and language; it becomes a cross-over film. By that definition, Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali was a cross-over film in US, Raj Kapoor's Awara was a cross-over film in Russia, Rajnikant's Dancing Maharaja was a cross-over film in Japan, Mother India was a cross-over film in Peru. None of those film makers had designed their films to reach this unexpected audience. B.Subhash was himself surprised that Disco Dancer became a hit in Russia.

Most of the time when business seminars talk about cross-over cinema, they look at the possibility of increased market size by broadening the demographics. Degree of market penetration in non traditional market will determine added volume of business. Therefore, when a chinese film, Crouching Tiger does more than 100 million in US market or an italian film, Life is Beautiful wins an oscar and respectable US Box-office the trade calls them cross-over films. However, what is important to remember is that while making the film the film maker didn't try to make it audience friendly to an american audience by following norms of american cinema. As a matter of fact more deep rooted the film is to it's story's milieu and culture, more universal its appeal becomes. Iranian cinema, Spanish cinema, Brazilian cinema are examples of this. Their filmmakers tell their stories in their language and still find a niche audience outside of their traditional markets. My own experience of travelling to different film festivals with BAWANDAR which was mostly narrated in marwari language because of its story set in the backdrop of rural rajasthan is testimony to this. German women watching the film in Oslo were crying at the plight of a low caste women in Jhanjheu village. Many film producer's come to me to make a film set in India, in english language, so that it will have a cross-over appeal. As a matter of fact that will probably completely destroy its cross-over potential.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

His name is Khan, Shahrukh Khan

It was september 2001 when I was in Karachi for the first international film festival of Pakistan with my film Bawandar (Sandstorm). My very hospitable hosts had assigned me a 'handler' to show me around. I was shown the landmark areas such as Clifton ( their sea front, like Marine Drive), Dawood Ibrahim's sprawling mansion, Sindh Club, the various markets, Onyx shops and the roads, streets and bylanes of that beautiful city. At the end of the tour, my handler was keen to know my impressions of her city and was specially curious about how it compared to Mumbai. "Isn't Karachi a better city than Mumbai?", she asked. There was a sense of pride in her question, because we had travelled rather smoothly during our sight-seeing tour where as she had heard Mumbai was very crowded, dirty and it's roads were always congested with traffic jams. I said to her that she was right. Mumbai was indeed congested and traffic snarls were arduous, especially around where I lived. Every tuesday in my area, the devotees visiting Siddhivinayak temple caused a traffic jam. Every wednesday, Mahim Church nearby had a special service causing a traffic jam and every friday, the dargah at the end of the road had Namaazis offering their Jumma Prayers resulting in another traffic jam. Inspite of these inconveniences, most of the time, mumbaikars, respecting everyone's faith, patiently sat in their cars as it crawled through these bottlenecks.

In three days that I was in Karachi travelling through its streets, I didn't come across any temples or churches (I am sure token ones are there somewhere); nor did I come across any non-muslim name on any hoardings, street signs, shops, buses, or any public place. I said to her that in Mumbai you will find many cross roads where you have a Noor Mohammad's Biryani Restaurant on one corner, Ram Bharose pure vegetarian Hindu Hotel on another corner, Marshall Braganza's Bakery on a third corner and a Shere Punjab Dhaba on a fourth corner.

I asked her, if you look at a garden which has flowers only of one colour, and another which has flowers of many colours, which is a better garden? One is monochromatic and boring and the other is colorful and vibrant. She got my point and sheepishly muttered that at the time of partition, her country's leaders chose to make it the Islamic republic of Pakistan where as your country's leaders chose to make it secular. It wasn't her fault as she was not even born at that time. She was right. My chest filled with pride, when I explained that because of those principles and because we chose to follow a path of democracy inspite of all its pitfalls, we have created a nation where even though its largest population segment is Hindu, its biggest movie stars are Muslim. We have had Muslim president, Muslim captain of country's cricket team, and most influential leader of our country was born abroad in a Christian family.

That day in September 2001, in a strange sort of a way I felt superior to my handler, because I felt I was fortunate enough to be standing on a moral high ground. That ground beneath my feet has been eroding in subsequent years, I am afraid. That humbled handler in Karachi now must be cocking a snook at me because of the turn of events in Mumbai in the last few days. What was that you said? Secular!!

Not when you have some bigoted politicians maligning the name of a man whose popularity and talent has made 'Bollywood' a household word in every corner of the globe. The man, whose name in Germany sold out in five seconds flat, every advance ticket of the screening of his latest movie, the same one which goons in Mumbai were trying to stop by threatening movie goers and vandalizing cinema halls in the name of patriotism. In North America, Europe, South America, Asia, Australia, Africa , one has to see it to believe the kind of hysteria this star's presence creates not only among people of Indian origin but of all races and colors.

Inspite of his achievements, this cultural ambassador of our country, has his head firmly on his patriotic shoulders unlike those bloated egos with no achievements to speak of, asking for his apology. His name is Khan, and he is no terrorist, but those trying to intimidate, vandalise, threaten and disrupt the life of a secular Mumbaikar who wants to see his movie, certainly are.

Monday, February 8, 2010

APARTMENT: A Contemporary Urban Thriller

Everyday, thousands of young men and women pour into this megalopolis called Mumbai, looking for survival, growth, fortune and fame. This influx has created a space crunch, causing the real estate prices to sky rocket. In order to be able to afford a roof over their head, these new entrants to the city are forced to share their most intimate spaces with complete strangers. Guys and girls are sharing an apartment either with members of the same sex or opposite sex. This is most common in northern suburbs like Andheri, Lokhandwala, Oshiwara and Malad where Call centers, Airlines and Media Industries are situated. These industries attract a vast majority of youngsters in their workforce. These youngsters end up living together, dividing up the rent, cost of food and the daily chores. The frenetic pace of life the city demands does not give them time to do due diligence on backgrounds of those who they are sharing their roof with. That coupled with a cavalier attitude of youth towards caution makes youngsters choose their roommates primarily on the basis of outward appearance.
My new film APARTMENT is a cautionary tale about the perils of judging a book by its cover.
Story is narrated as a thriller set in a contemporary urban environment, with characters played by a talented ensemble cast of Neetu Chandra, Tanushree Dutta, Rohit Roy and Anupam Kher with excellent musical score by young chip of the old block, Bappa Lahiri.
All those who have ever lived away from the secure environment of their family, sharing their living spaces with total strangers will identify with the tag line : 'Rent at your own risk'.
Watch out for APARTMENT which opens nationwide in late March. You can visit for more details.