TOPS GLOBALLY. FLOPS LOCALLY.by Monojit Lahiri May 12 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 44 secs
Monojit Lahiri explores why films, which receive acclaim at International film festivals are unable to convert their critical success abroad into box office numbers domestically.
As a film commentator, I constantly receive feedback and info about how many of our Indie films like Miss Lovely, Quissa, Lunchbox, Masaan, Titli, Foundry, Aligarh, Parched, Love you Sonia, No Fathers in Kashmir amongst others have been so overwhelmingly feted in major film festivals abroad - Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, Marrakesh, London, Locarno, Busan - but once released at home, tragically vanish in a flash or at best, attract minimum attention. What is the reason for this amazing dissonance in the viewing experiences of the two audiences?
Why, after raves in the West, are these films so humiliatingly and systematically ignored and dismissed in their own country? In a nation of one billion plus, are the culturally informed, evolved and sophisticated so frighteningly minimal that these little celebrated gems at respected platforms have really no place or scope to display their wares?
Is Mera Bharat Mahan the land that produces the largest number of films on planet earth, so bereft of good taste, cultural diversity or artistic pluralism and so oversaturated with mainstream entertainment-driven, starlit packages that anything out-of-the-box doesn’t have a hope in hell of mass-audience connect?
One of Bollywood most gifted actors, Konkona Sen Sharma, renowned for flicks such as Page 3, Wake up Sid, Omkara, Mr & Mrs. Iyer, Talwar, Lipstick Under My Burkha and now a respected award-winning director with A Death in the Gunj - fires the first salvo and cites three solid reasons.
“One, the global festival circuit is single-mindedly focussed on serious cinema - cinema that makes a difference, has something to say and does it in an idiom that goes beyond language and region, cinema that scripts an emotional vocabulary that is easy to understand and decode by lovers of quality cinema. I am not sure the same perspective, mind-set or sensibility is at work when it is released here among our audience. Our movie-going masses view cinema as entertainment with a capital E, popular, simplistic, easy-to-consume-and-digest fare. The festival brand of cinema thus doesn’t fit into their frame. Next, the trade, too, the distributor exhibitor combine, are least interested in films that don’t celebrate the entertainment quotient, are non-starry and non-formulaic. For the sake of tokenism, they may pick up some films but will invariably offer impossible time-slots - 9 AM, 11 PM etc. Lastly, there is only that much promotion that these small budget producers can afford, so in these days of publicity and media carpet-bombing from the bigger camps, target audience-connect gets badly affected.”
Veteran film director Shyam Benegal agrees. “The entire viewing experience powered by interest and knowledge in these two constituencies are poles apart. The whole idea of what cinema stands for as both the youngest and most vibrant art form and medium of expression is wildly disparate. Our mass audience, bred and buttered on mainstream, have little time, patience, understanding, interest or knowledge about anything that is off their radar… and global raves from revered film festivals mean zilch to them. Admittedly, there were a slew of interesting off-beat, non-formulaic films that were successful, but all of these had definite populist and audience-friendly components factored into their narratives.”
Benegal, like many other evolved filmmakers, believes that the only way such films will be appreciated by the masses is when cinema appreciation as a subject in school is inducted, so that from an early age the idea of quality cinema is ingrained in them.
Another brilliant filmmaker, Ketan Mehta (famed for Holi, Mirch Masala, Rang Rasiya, Manjhi, etc) has his own take. “It is both tragic and disappointing that despite being the largest producer of motion pictures on earth, our name and prestige in world cinema is so negligible. Worse, how filmmakers who choose to tread the path less travelled, continue to struggle to get their films funded, distributed and exhibited at home.”
Mehta speaks of our appalling screen-to-audience ratio, high ticket prices, insane marketing budgets for blitzing promos of blockbuster films, but most passionately about the government’s total lack of both knowledge and interest in the power of cinema. He says, “Why can’t India, like Korea and tons of other small countries, support small budget films with funding and infrastructure like easily viable dedicated auditoriums for their screening, reasonable ticket prices, excellent projection facilities, good publicity for audience connect? In a country of a billion plus population, I can’t believe that we don’t have enough audiences, curious, educated, interested, evolved, to patronise Indie films”.
The last words, however, must belong to the devil’s advocate, Mr. Kill Joy, who refuses to divulge his name, despite being part of Bollywood for ages. He believes that too much fuss is made by these “arty, self-indulgent and self-absorbed individualists who refuse to see the big picture. They insist on making these personalised, dense, dark, esoteric, entertainment-free stuff that is more festival-friendly than mass-audience-friendly. They are like export quality goods designed solely for foreign markets. They are not made for local consumption because their construct doesn’t sync with the movie-going masses’ taste or sensibilities, an audience-base riddled with problems, stress and struggles galore is hardly likely to do cartwheels witnessing grim cinema with constant hard close-ups of the terrifying human condition! They want liberating, lowbrow, escapist, feel-good, non-complicated fare…no wonder they want to escape from these heavy-duty, art-house, meaningful films with war-cries like Bhago and Bachao!”
However, in closing one should add here that there is a new reality, which has emerged in recent years - of the OTT/Streaming platforms. They are now garnering good numbers for quality cinema as well, and at times better than what the Bollywood mass-driven cinema is able to get for them. Quality cinema of India now captivates eyeballs from all over the world on these platforms and it is not necessarily dependent on the appreciation of Indian audiences alone. After the festival circuit, and after amassing critical acclaim, ‘good cinema’ is beginning to appeal commercially to streaming platforms. The challenge here is greater for Bollywood fare, because if it does not do well at the box-office, it is dud for the Amazon’s and Netflix’s of the world.
It’s time for lazy marketers, who do precious little and waste a lot of money because the stars carry the entire burden of success and failure on their own shoulders, to wake up and smell the coffee. Because, before long Indian ‘good quality cinema’ will have viewers from across the globe on streaming platforms, whereas Indian ‘song and dance fare’ will be restricted to its own territory in India.