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Monday, Jun 30, 2003

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Box-office bonanza

Shubhra Gupta

After a series of films such as Sur and Kaante that received cold receptions at the box office, Pritish Nandy Communications finally strikes the right chord with Jhankaar Beats.

A still from the film, Jhankaar Beats.

With Jhankaar Beats, Pritish Nandy Communications (PNC) has finally hit the right notes. Helmed by first-timer Sujoy Ghosh, the film is fresh and funny, its characters are flesh and blood and as they invite you to partake in their lives, you can see flashes of yourself in them.

PNC was started ten years ago as a content provider for TV by multi-media man Pritish Nandy, the journalist who rapidly became as much of a celebrity, as the people he interviewed for his magazine, Illustrated Weekly. Nandy was among the first of the top editors, to recognise the potential reach of a new medium by beginning his signature show on Doordarshan (he switched from print to TV much before it became the norm; this was way before the satellite channels arrived in India). Fourteen shows of different formats and lengths later, PNC gravitated towards the movies.

Its first foray, in January 2001, was the Rahul Rawail-directed, Kajol-starrer Kuch Khatti Kuch Meethi, followed by The Mystic Masseur, Bollywood Calling, Kaante and Sur. Except for Kaante, in which PNC was a part producer with the director and a US-based investor, and which got one of the biggest openings in Bollywood before petering out, and The Mystic Masseur which hasn't got a theatrical release in India, its other movies have had a mixed reception at the box-office.

Nagesh Kukunoor's low-budget spoof on the Mumbai film industry recovered its money, but Kuch Khatti was a non-starter, as was last summer's Sur which was hyped as a breakout musical odyssey, but tanked in the first week itself. Sur was a bad movie (tacky direction, and wooden acting, save from pop star Lucky Ali) with nice music. Jhankaar Beats, on the other hand, has much more to commend itself on, apart from its foot-tapping music. There's a sense of place, good lines, and a refreshingly non-moronic humorous streak, as opposed to the standard loud Bollywood tracks.

"I would say that with Jhankaar Beats we have entered our second phase," says Siddhartha Das, PNC COO. "These past two-and-a-half years, we have been in a learning phase in terms of creating and marketing film content," he adds. Unlike the newer corporates in the entertainment industry, PNC has been around for much longer, but its "natural progression" from TV to movies is only a couple of years old, and that's where it is on the same platform as the others, in terms of gauging the market, and figuring what works in these ferocious multi-tasking, multi-media times.

"Just like any other consumer product, now you have to carry out a market segmentation exercise," says Das. What a corporate like PNC brings to the table is the ability to segment the market, and match a potential project to its budget and its market.

"We are very clear that Jhankaar Beats is for a restricted audience, so we are releasing it selectively, in about 20 cities," he says, "unlike Sur in which we did the exact opposite, with a big print order, and a huge publicity campaign."

When you start small, you can grow a movie, but if you go all-India, and it fails at one centre, there are more than even chances that it will spiral into a complete collapse. This is what happened with Sur, even though, says Das, it is a personal favourite. The audience was not ready for the debut of a middle-aged performer, and overall, the market was at its lowest ebb. What he does not add is the fact that director Tanuja Chandra, was not quite the right choice, considering her previous dismal track record at the box office.

But like good corporates, mistakes are quickly targeted and learned from. "Till now, we've had some sort of success, and some sort of failure," admits Das, "but it is important to experiment, and checkout new ideas." Now that the market is heading from the unorganised to the organised, slowly but surely, only those products will work, which have a distinctive voice and are commercially viable.

Like the other corporates who have entered the chaotic world of moviemaking, two things drive the people at PNC. Projects backed by the Big Idea. And the compulsion to do well in the market. In the end, says Das, we have to make money for our shareholders.

Given that the creative team is talking to a number of aspirants in a single day, what are the criteria they employ to freeze on a particular project? The way Das tells it, PNC is accessible to people who make the effort to call and meet them, and the conviction they bring with them is key.

That's the way Ghosh won approval for his Jhankaar Beats, and the way Anant Balani got the go-ahead for Mumbai Matinee, PNC's next offering. The latter came to Das, in lieu of Nandy who got busy elsewhere, and at the end of the half-hour narration of his idea, they were laughing so hard that they had tears in their eyes. "Our doors are always open to new talent," he says, "just as we are ready to organise the funding, some from our own equity base, and some from our investors, who are interested in green lighting interesting products."

Clearly, the failure of Sur is now a chapter that's firmly behind them, with a clutch of upcoming movies. PNC aspires towards making 6-8 movies a year, starting from small-budget (Rs 3-5 crore) multiplex movies, to medium-budget ones (Rs 10-15 crore), to the big budget bonanzas (Rs 25-30 crore).

Apart from its urban comedies, targeting the same audience as that of Jhankaar Beats, there is talk, getting firmer by the day that PNC is coming up with a lavish remake of the Guru Dutt classic, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam that should be its first big, big movie.

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