One of the oldest sayings in the movie business is that it’s never the film that fails, it’s the budget that does. And film industries all over the world, especially Hollywood and Bollywood which make movies for the maximum numbers possible, are strewn with the carcasses of films that spiralled so madly out of financial control that they were dead before arrival, the empty seats in theatres on the opening day being just the last nail in the coffin.
We don’t really have to look too hard to find such a film. Two weeks back, the glossy period actioner Shamshera, produced by Yash Raj Films and headlined by Ranbir Kapoor, crashed dismally at the box office. It wasn’t as if it enjoyed a buzzy first weekend and then petered out gradually like so many films do: The audience just didn’t show up from day one. Reports that the film had to be pulled out of screens on the opening day were not just shocking, but almost unprecedented.
In 2009, the same producer and star had come together to make Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year. Written by Jaideep Sahni and directed by Shimit Amin, both shining stars of the Yash Raj stable, it gave us a salesman who lives and learns life lessons in a film which is sharp and satiric and surprising. It is Ranbir’s best performance, and, creatively speaking, a burnished feather in the Yash Raj cap. The film tanked, but it is one for the ages, making its way into best film lists year after year.
You could argue that a box office failure is a box office failure, but not all movies die unsung. Some live on in our hearts, regardless of what their collections were, and Rocket Singh is one of those. Clearly, it was ahead of its time, and maybe its sombre end-notes didn’t really work for viewers weaned on films that came with a clear-cut, pre-digested message in their tail. Its failure drove Yash Raj back towards the tropes-and-cliche laden masala movies which, ironically enough, the audience had begun turning its back on around the same time. Shamshera, which cobbles together elements from many of YRF’s own films, with Kapoor present in nearly every scene and playing the double role of father and son, is nothing but stale, regurgitated masala which comes roaring out from under its spectacle and scale.
It’s not just the debacle of Shamshera, a film that was meant to pull Bollywood out of its current doldrums, that has the film industry reeling. Before this, it was the Akshay Kumar-starrer Samrat Prithviraj, another YRF film, which also reported empty theatres after the first week. And yet another Kumar-helmed film, Bachchhan Paandey sank without a trace, earlier this year.
Just what is going on? While a handful of films from the South, Pushpa: The Rise, RRR, and KGF: Chapter 2, have done great business all over the country in their dubbed and subtitled versions, much-anticipated Bollywood films have fallen by the wayside. There are many ways to parse these failures, but amongst the biggest bugbears that beset Bollywood is the star fee, which weighs heavy on the film’s budget. By all accounts, the salary of even the biggest stars in the South Indian film industries is balanced with the rest of the production costs, never letting it go askew. In Bollywood, it is the other way round: Good intentions and lousy budgets seem to be joined at the hip.
For many years now, Bollywood has been talking about how creating great “content” is the only way to go, but for a film to be mounted without a star seems almost impossible. And that star comes with a fat fee. Speaking off the record, one of Bollywood’s biggest producers had told me that an A list male star fee (always the men, the female stars are still struggling for pay parity) is nearly half of the film’s cost, which is why so many of these stars have started their own production companies, in order to get their own fee off the table. Only they can afford to hire themselves.
He need not have been so circumspect. The scourge of the star fee has always been an open secret in an industry so heavily dependent on getting a face to green-light their projects that nothing else seems to matter, and especially not the most important element that can make or break a film: The writing.
There is no other way to say it: Bollywood is crashing and burning. The only way to roll back from this disastrous scenario is to institute a few urgent course corrections. First off, slash that unconscionably high star fee, go back to the drawing board, and spend all that left-over money to pay those who can write. If you listen to those who have been trying to break into Bollywood with their scripts, you hear dispiriting tales of don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you, and radio silence after. How long will it take for the so-called stars of today who have no way to justify their fees in the face of a missing audience to realise that the real star is the writer?
Give me a Rocket Singh over a Shamshera, any day.