The only thing we know about the film business is that we know nothing. This quote summarises our knowledge of the movie business very well. Given the havoc created by the pandemic with the shutting of theatres and rapid shift of audiences to streaming platforms, this book tries to understand what’s going on. It couldn’t have been timed better.
Now that the film Pathaan has grossed over Rs 1,000 crore at the box office, the world seems to be divided into those who have seen it and those who haven’t. If you ask people why the film is such a success, you’ll get answers ranging from fans are thirsting for an SRK comeback film for over four years, his sheer enigma, admiration for his character and resolve as he handled the much-publicised personal incidents in his life, the absolute lack of promotion of the film creating an expectation, the Salman Khan cameo, the stunning VFX action sequences, the star-studded cast, a victory of the seculars, etc.. If the film had not worked, people would simply have put it down to the audience - Yeh public hai, yeh sab jaanti hai!
The fact is that in hindsight, one can attempt to put together a bunch of reasons why a film worked with the audiences, but the truth is no one really knows why. In general, audiences have never known the real numbers a film makes at the box office and their decision to see a film may have been due to various factors including marketing, or their own need to see a film on a certain day or driven by recommendations from friends or social media.
While a lot of money keeps getting poured into film making, both by producers and by the seemingly cash rich content distribution platforms, there is no particular method of understanding the machinations of the film business or how the money will be recovered.
In such a context, Lata Jha’s book Bollywood, Box Office and Beyond is an interesting journey through the behind-the-scenes workings of this industry. Lata manages to declutter some of the myths in the impossible maze of the world of film production and finance.
The film industry is often touted as a business of passion and while corporates and big Hollywood Studios keep attempting to organise it by bringing method and accountability, it remains an industry largely dependent on gut and instinct to create magic and deliver a return on investment. Lata peppers the book with data and anecdotes of how various films have fared at the box office including how producers look for an assurance of revenues from multiple streams.
Lata has scoured through years of her film journalistic learnings and put together a summary of all that one wants to know about how the movies are made and how they make money. For an insider, reading it is like a revision of all one knows, but to an outsider, it’s a wonderful insight into the business of films. Writing about themes that are working, Lata cites an interesting example - she says that between 2014 and 2019, from ‘After Modi to Onset of Pandemic era’, Bollywood has produced 37 nationalist and patriotic themed movies of which 24 have made a return on investment for their producers. There are 14 more movies in the works to be released in the run up to the 2024 general elections.
The book is divided into four clear sections on how films are financed and made, how they are exhibited and how they make money. As a post pandemic book, it also outlines in a full chapter how streaming has become a serious play after the virus disrupted our lives. That makes for a very relevant, contemporary reading.
Lata puts out all the assumptions and facts without taking sides in the current debate on why Bollywood is struggling, including the experience of watching a Tamil film in a packed cinema hall in Gurugram. She has also sourced a lot of data from reports and validated them with many interviews with people in the business to draw inferences on what’s wrong with Hindi films. She cites the examples of massively successful recent regional movies like Pushpa, Kantara, RRR and KGF all of which stick to the ‘Hero’ template and features a downtrodden person who has been dealt with injustice and fights back to seek revenge. Bollywood, Lata says, has forgotten this formula and now makes urban films for a niche, smaller audience. Of course, this was all true till Pathaan steamrolled into the box office and blew away all theatrical collection records and changed the narrative again. But then does one swallow make a summer?
Read the book for its richness of data and its sincere and honest attempt to simplify an industry that has defied comprehension.
One of the first books I had read about the film business was Mark Litwak’s ‘Risky Business’ which was about how to navigate your way as an independent film producer. Lata’s book adds a very good Indian perspective to the workings of the world’s most prolific film industry. After over 100 years of making films in India, we finally have a book on the business side of it!
(The reviewer is Founder & CEO, 91 Film Studios)
About the Book
Bollywood, Box Office and Beyond : The Evolving Business of Indian Cinema
248 pages; ₹267