Outside the spotlight
The glitz of Bollywood hides many less glamorous realities that must be unveiled for a truer picture of the $3 billion industry and the half a million souls it employs
There's no denying that cinema, especially Hindi cinema, has a tremendous influence on contemporary Indian culture. Bollywood is arguably one of India's most well-known brands globally. Having spent five decades in showbiz, I am often asked some common questions at various forums, international conferences, social media and familial get-togethers. Let me try and answer a few of these questions.
Why do Bollywood films not win Oscars? First, we must understand the Academy Award, the official name of an Oscar is an award given by a few thousand (7,000-odd) members of the American Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Only recently, a couple of non-American artistes and a few technicians have been included in the voters' list of the academy. We must remember until China emerged for a select number of Hollywood films, 70 per cent of the revenue of a Hollywood film came from their domestic market. Hence, all awards and promotions were largely US-centric.
Academy members, the bulk of whom were retired artistes and technicians, were largely ignorant of global cinema. Condescendingly, they gave out one award for best foreign film every year. A lot of canvassing and trade marketing and PR happens before nominations and winners are announced. Indian filmmakers don't have either adequate skill or money for this promotion.
Besides, there is no substantive financial fallout by winning this award. For some, it's a mere ego massage. At the end of the day, I don't see much difference between a Filmfare award and an Oscar as neither impact the box office returns of a film and both involve a lot of lobbying and PR. Oscars and similar awards cannot even ensure the people involved get work because of these awards. Of late, our media has gone on a hyperdrive every award season, egged on by an equally ignorant bunch of social media ninjas.
Today, almost every organisation from your neighbourhood club to leading media houses run dozens of award shows where the only criterion for such awards is either to attract TV audiences or sell advertising. In most cases, strange categories of awards are created to "honour" every and anyone who attracts eyeballs. Many get paid to receive awards in person or at least some assured media coverage in lieu of being honoured. Our insecure creative fraternity collects these poorly designed trophies by the bagful, some TV media coverage, followed by indulging in some mutual back-slapping of these made-for-TV shows and the accompanying red carpet and after-parties, often in borrowed outfits.
Some organisations like IIFA and IFA are actually running a thriving business on the basis of these shows and awards. Similarly, while dozens of Indian films are screened in film festivals regularly, few win prizes at major festivals like Cannes or Berlin. The reasons are again akin to the Indian performance at the Oscars. Since there is hardly any economic payback (except an occasional lunchbox or two) not enough time and effort are invested in the festival circuit. There is very little government support in this regard. If some younger filmmakers are carving a niche for themselves, it is only their talent and spunk which is responsible for their success. Media and audiences confuse red carpet appearances with a festival presence. The same set of half a dozen critics keep writing their obscure columns, read only by few filmmakers and cineastes.
Another question I am often asked is why don't 'good' films get screen time or are not even released in many cases? Again, the answer is simple. A cinema theatre is a part of a business and not some film society promoting good cinema. When they have an oversupply of films every week, they obviously select those films which will have maximum footfalls. Why should they be responsible for either safeguarding 'art' or give an opportunity to new talent at the cost of a haemorrhaging their own bottom-line? For true cinephiles, there are enough film festivals where such films can be viewed. Besides, several film clubs and institutions hold regular screenings of award-winning and off-beat cinema in dozens of towns and cities. I watch almost 30-40 such films at said screenings.
We must remember that India is hugely under-screened country. With a population of over 1,300 million cinema lovers and production of 2,000 films and just 9,000 screens, it becomes obvious that half of the films will never get released as the cinemas can't accommodate them. Since there is no embargo or qualification on producing films, all and sundry jump into film making, many with no talent and others with no resources. The result is several disgruntled filmmakers, writers, artists and technicians and, of course, a small section of the audience. Leading the chorus of how unfair multiplex chains are is a group of film critics, cineastes and some cultural interlopers. Let's not forget, since the beginning of cinema in India over a century ago, many a talented and brave people have fought against odds and not only succeeded but even made landmark films in spite of lesser cinemas.
A third question one is often asked is about the personal lives of stars. Fueled by a surfeit of gossip, slander in media (traditional and social) and 'insider information', most people believe that all of us in showbiz are on some 24x7 party. The assumption is most of us are debauched, immoral, irresponsible and uneducated purveyors of lust, lucre and lubricity. I am often accosted by strangers and friends alike, wanting to know about some young star's purported love affair.
For many film folks especially, stars have nothing to do apart from sleeping around. Much to the disdain of my inquisitors, I have to disappoint them by my plain-speaking denial of the existence of any such El Dorado in showbiz and the many modern myths that are nothing but fertile imagination hard at work. Less than .1 per cent of film professionals can even afford a luxurious lifestyle. Even the very few who do make millions do it at a considerable cost of losing their privacy, family life and even simple pleasures like eating out or going for a walk. A lot of the time is spent working in trying conditions for hours in grime and greasepaint. Even looking good all the time is a painful task. Stars today are under a severe fitness regime and often are under strict dietary restrictions. Filming long hours, sometimes in remote locations, is not an easy life.
It is assumed, largely based on hearsay and stray misdemeanours, that all film people are promiscuous. There is great exploitation and gender inequality. Of course, there is but perhaps far less than in other occupations. Nowadays, most production houses and all studios practice a healthy work environment and discrimination on caste, creed, language, religion and sex is discouraged.
Today, there is a greater awareness and observance of copyright and seldom are writers, technicians, artists, musicians and other creative professionals denied their credit. A $ three billion industry, employing over half a million people, is definitely not what people imagine. Behind tinsel and glamour, and neon lights, there is struggle, ignominy and loneliness.
The writer is a filmmaker, author and a media guru. Views expressed are strictly personal