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Monday, Sep 16, 2002

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Why Bollywood is a box-office flop

Prabhat Kumar

BOLLYWOOD, the world's largest film industry, has been facing a crisis for more than a decade. Since the 1992 Mumbai bomb blasts, Bollywood's links with the underworld have proved a constant source of trouble.

The murder in broad daylight of Gulshan Kumar, the fatal attacks on the lives of some directors/producers, and the constant threats to some actors and actresses have all exposed the industry's vulnerability.

Various investigating agencies maintain dossiers on the links between Bollywood and the underworld, much of which remains to be probed.

The industry loses about Rs 300-500 crore a year, which needs to be funded from outside sources. Therefore, the generous contributions from the underworld come in handy.

But Bollywood's problems actually go much deeper than they appear on the surface.

Since the early 1990s, more than 80 per cent of Bollywood films have been failing at the box-office, because the industry seems to have got its business model wrong.

Its recently acquired industry status, which makes it eligible for bank funding, is unlikely to help much. Here is why.Till the early 1980s, Bollywood was seen as the champion of middle-class aspirations and a force to reckon with, in the changing face of India. Recruits to the industry came from small places. A relatively open competition for fresh talent and recruits from the Pune Film Institute made the industry lively.

Youngsters, many of whom were on their own, could not have imagined succeeding in the film industry, but for the open culture prevailing there, creating hopes among thousands of other young aspirants.

Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra, who joined the ranks from the competition stream, had hits after hits, because the common moviegoer identified himself with them.

Similarly, faces from the institute, including Jaya Bhaduri, Danny Dengzongpa and Radha Saluja, all of whom came from unknown backgrounds, contributed to the growth of the industry. Amitabh Bachhan too had to struggle hard.

Clapping was not just for the villain, but also for the man who had risen from a small-town in Bihar.

For the youth of India, Bollywood thus represented an institution where anybody could make it big, and no pedigree required.

Go back a generation, and Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Waheeda Rehman and their peers, who enthralled the industry, came from humble backgrounds. (The only exception, perhaps, was the Kapoor clan, which had an acting lineage.)

Viewers watching movies, therefore, could immediately connect with the protagonists on the screen.

Bollywood, however, started stagnating in the late 1980s. The Pune film institute was closed, sounding the death-knell to middle-class aspirations. The vacuum was easily filled by the sons and daughters of the stars of previous generations. Few came on their own merits.

These stars somehow had to be made successful. Each one got dozen-odd chances to prove themselves, something not available to other newcomers. (Even when they failed, they cornered millions in ad money.)

Thus emerged the need for liberal financing from the underworld, which had the capacity to keep investing in the failed projects with such star-casts.

This was also the time when the price a star could command skyrocketed, even when few of their films were commercially successful.

Status quo is the reigning philosophy in Bollywood, which lies in tatters and represents truly what has gone wrong with the country in the last two decades.

Art is the mirror of society, so goes the saying. And one can see the true picture of our society in its mirror image in the film industry.

Most of the lead actors and actresses are there because of their parents' connections and influences. There is a small outsider's quota, though, for some beauty queens. Many in the media promote these star-casts hard, yet the industry has been rapidly declining. The fault, as mentioned earlier, lies with the business model.Outsiders with talent and ambition now hardly have any opportunity to enter the industry. Why would banks invest in such projects when the results are known in advance?

Not even risk-taking venture funds, which otherwise invest with the idea of reaping sufficient reward in one out of ten investments, are willing to put in their money.

The underworld, therefore, has slowly taken the industry in its grip.Hawala money and locally raised resources through extortion come in handy to finance films. To evaluate the results of the business model of the film industry, contrast this situation with the game of cricket.

What would be the fate of the Indian cricket team, if it were packed with the progenies of Gavaskar, Vishwanath, Bedi, Prasanna, Borde and Mankad? Few of these star-sons have actually found space in the team.

In any open system, not more than 10-15 per cent can ever find place on the basis of pedigree. The other reason for Bollywood's failure lies in the poor understanding of customers' demand that is, a marketing failure.

Films are no longer a family affair to watch. The stories no longer tell what the viewers demand and want to see, and there is an overall mental stagnation at the level of script-writers. Bollywood has thus erected a wall that does not exist in any other industry in India or abroad.

Select individuals/families riding on the back of the mafia have taken the industry by the horns. No film industry anywhere in the world approximates to this archaic and stagnant model in current times.

Where do those without pedigree go? Should there be a US-style anti trust action against the industry and their cohorts? Young artists perhaps can try their luck at Hollywood.

A recent news report reads: "Job Openings in Hollywood: Heroes Wanted.

The action film is changing, and so are its he-men. They are multicultural and smart, still hunky but also moody."

In crisis, lies an opportunity. Does Hollywood beckon talented Indian artists?

(The author is Additional Commissioner of Customs and Excise. His views are personal. He can be reached at

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