12 critical structures of Bhojpuri Cinema

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During the interviews with film professionals, it became clear that when talking of Bhojpuri film industry, references to Hindi cinema [and even Tamil, Telugu or Bangla cinemas] are unavoidable. Understandably, these comparisons permit us to position the Bhojpuri industry vis a vis the rest and bring out its unique or salient features. This section on the structure of the Bhojpuri industry can be seen in terms of a series of subheadings.

1.Scale

When questioned about the uniqueness of the Bhojpuri film industry almost all the interviewees failed to mention any significant differences between Bollywood and Bhojpuri. And yet, the question of scale turned out to be one of the most significant pointers through the conversations. Bhojpuri films are made with what may seem ridiculously low budgets when compared to Hindi films. Reluctant to mention their own latest figures precisely, most of the interviewees arrived at a crore and a half as the magical figure. In the late 1990s, the great hit ‗Sasura Bada Paisewala‘ was made with a budget of 40 lakh rupees. Since then the figures have been inflating. Nevertheless, as one film director mentioned, a Bhojpuri film can complete its entire schedule with the money that a single Hindi film set would consume. It is because of the factor of scale alone that the Bollywood industry looks upon Bhojpuri cinema as an opportunity. When questioned about the ‗risk‘ factor, the professionals claimed almost unanimously that Bhojpuri productions carry exactly as much risk as Hindi films. This view went contrary to the assumptions in the media that Bhojpuri films, as if, guarantee success or something close to it. In fact, several professionals claimed that the stampede in the industry during the period 2004-2006, which resulted in the making of 76 films in 2006 was caused precisely by a deluded market sentiment, an exuberance that has since been curbed. The agreed figure for 2008 stands 42. If one were to take the number of films under production at this point which goes above 80, the situation in 2009 would seem as fluid and unpredictable as ever.

The turnover of the Bhojpuri industry in 2008 is pegged at 100 crores but many interviewees were of the view that it is just a notional figure. One of the interviewees asserted that 100 crores are quoted just to round off figures. But broadly, there seemed to be a consensus over a scale of 50-100 crores between 2000 and 2008. Interviewees were neither concerned with nor knowledgeable about the earliest years [1998-1999] of the upturn in Bhojpuri cinema.

2. Revenues and distribution network

The following are the main producers and distributors of Bhojpuri films: Producers: Madhusudan Mehta, Chandrashekhar Rao, Sandeep Mehta, Jeetesh Dubey, Abhay Sinha, Alok Singh, Sunil Bubna, Ank Media

Similarly,

the list of distributors is as follows: Dr Sunil Kumar, Abhay Sinha Lala, Damani Harbans, Bittu Rajesh, Pappu Pradip Bhaiya, Ramakant Navtej, Balaji Films.

The above list has been compiled after some sorting of a bigger list culled from different sources. This is important as in the past few years a number of Hindi producers and stray businessmen made inroads into Bhojpuri territory and are commonly labeled as ‘transients’.

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3. Contribution from territories/segments in the revenue

The two major issues discussed with the professionals was that of revenue contributions from different parts of the country, the main purpose of which was to get a comparative view of ticket sales in bigger cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Jaipur on the one hand and smaller centers back home such as Patna and Benaras and other smaller district towns in Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. On the whole it seems that in the 1990s, Mumbai and other migratory centers contributed the greater part of the revenues. By 2008, this has changed – the major chunk of revenues now comes from Bihar instead, with contributions from Uttar Pradesh, Bengal and Nepal. This statistic is of crucial sociological significance and will be analyzed at a suitable point in the report. On the basis of several conversations, the researcher was able to construct a model revenue account, as close an approximation as possible, which is as follows: Given the crude assumption that a film ended up with returns of 1 crore, this is what the average breakdown will look like.

Bihar ————————– —————————-40 lakhs

Mumbai [including Pune, Aurangabad etc.] ———- 20 lakhs

Delhi and Uttar Pradesh———————————– 10 lakhs

Satellite rights ———————————————–15 lakhs

Audio/video sales ——————————————-13 lakhs

Nepal ————————————————–2 lakhs

These figures were arrived by discussing the detailed budgets of three films made since 2005, the names of which interviewees refused to reveal. But in all three, a similar pattern was seen. It deserves to be reiterated that during the late 1990s and early 2000s, the figures for Bihar and Mumbai were roughly the reverse, namely whereas Bihar contributed 20% of the revenues, 40% came from Mumbai.

The above table was prepared after a great deal of trepidation as trade figures quoted in the industry are invariably part of the promotional exercise – one of the producers illustrated this point by specifically mentioning the case of a recent release ‘E Bhauji ke sister‘, which is supposed to have returns from Bihar ranging between 15-95 lakhs. Such imprecision must be unique to the entertainment industry. The editor of ‘Bhojpuri City‘, the only trade journal devoted to Bhojpuri cinema follows the practice of publishing data supplied by the producers and avoids second hand data even when they see glaring discrepancies in it.

4. Distribution and its hiccups

Very much like Hindi cinema the business structure of Bhojpuri industry may be represented through the following chain:

Producer – Star – distributor – exhibitor

The above diagram of course reflects the entire financial cycle a film project must go through. It has been used here, however to analyze the state of the power structure within the industry.

5. Revenue sharing between the producer and the distributor

From various conversations it emerged that there are three main models of revenue sharing in practice. The individuals concerned had different preferences and practices but the list below comprises all possible practices prevalent in the industry at this stage. Before listing down the practices/conventions however it needs to be mentioned that a majority of interviewees expressed their opinion that till recently [1990s], the producer/production house was the main powerhouse in the supply chain and the ultimate authority lay with him rather than the distributor. The industry regime, according to them has changed in a basic sense, in that the distributor has become the chief arbiter in the industry. Such an opinion has to be taken with a pinch of salt of course. There is no way to confirm if this shift has been as drastic as reported by the professionals. The distributor‘s have their own sob stories to do mainly with low ticket prices in single screen theatres willing to show Bhojpuri films. Additionally, they also complain about their lack of control on the sales reports from the box office. The crises faced by the single screen exhibitors are of course more universal and better known. The financial arrangement between the producer and the distributors are of the following types, put in phrases used in the trade:

a. sharing basis

b. minimum guarantee

c. fixed rental

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6. An instance of vitiated producer-distributor economics

In more than one interview an informal aspect of film economy cropped up that deserves close attention. It seems that when a film project runs into trouble, the project managers at times approach a distributor for finance, thereby incorporating him in the production process. This may allow a project to be complete but the accounting system gets terribly muddied in the process, giving the distributor extra muscle despite a low but critical investment in the project. This typically happens to director driven projects when the original financiers are unable to keep up their commitments over time. It seems that during the years 2000-2007, such occurrences were rather common, leading to uncompleted projects and canned films which never saw the light of the day. Such instances are to be distinguished from strategic tie-ups between the producer and the distributor which have an altogether different function and role in the Bhojpuri film industry.

7. The star syndrome; financial implications

The Bhojpuri producers worry a lot about their control over the distribution process. Nearly equally worrying is the star syndrome, which has created a crisis of gigantic proportions in Hindi cinema and is now dogging Bhojpuri as well. The three main stars of Bhojpuri, Manoj Tiwari, Ravikishen, and Nirahua Yadav charge close to 30-40 lakhs per film. These figures do not match the budgets of early 2000 when an average Bhojpuri film got made for 50-80 lakhs. The recent years have seen a massive inflation of budgets entirely due to star fees, and the doubling or tripling of budgets does not reflect in the production value of the product. Several professionals complained that this will soon lead to an impasse. Sandwiched between the distribution problems and increasing star fees, Bhojpuri cinema may run into an economic deadend.

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8. Nature of the audience as seen by the trade

It is interesting to note the variance among the producer-distributor on the one hand and the directors on the other when questions were asked about their opinion of the audience. The businessmen clearly saw the Bhojpuri audience as the type that is not willing to pay for multiplex tickets. The directors on the other hand felt that the audience of Bhojpuri cinema will not be satisfied with substitutes. In other words Bhojpuri cinema already has a loyal audience which will not go back to Hindi films except on an occasional basis. As we know the ticket issue alone is not enough to explain the Bhojpuri phenomenon. The smaller towns after all still run Hindi and even dubbed Hollywood films in single screen theatres. But in the producer‘s rudimentary sociology this rough and ready formula is accepted as adequate.

9. Whither Uttar Pradesh?

Both in terms of hard figures and cultural sociology, Uttar Pradesh cannot be clubbed with Bihar as a market for Bhojpuri films. eastern Uttar Pradesh is often seen as part of what may be called ‗purabia‘ culture along with Bihar and is also regarded as the senior sibling, if anything, owing to the fact that Benaras/Allahabad form the cultural capital of this region. When it comes to Bhojpuri films however, UP is left far behind. Faced with his puzzle, a director with family origins in Azamgarh blamed the shades of difference between the various sub-dialects of Bhojpuri. But this is only partially applicable, as speakers of dialects such as Magahi and Maithili in Bihar have embraced Bhojpuri with much zeal despite a tradition of rivalry between the dialects. It seems that cities like Benaras, Gorakhpur, Balia, and Allahabad do not give Bhojpuri films a good run at all. In fact distributors club Uttar Pradesh along with Delhi in their calculations. This is interesting as data from the market, but even more interesting from the viewpoint of political sociology and could bear with further investigation.

10. Tensions between Patna and Bombay: view from Bombay and Patna

 

There are several dimensions to the issue of Bhojpuri‘s presence in Bollywood. During the earlier phase of the project, the researcher was able to get a good idea of how things are seen from Patna. The opinion among the Bombay based professionals on the other hand often came out as quite contradictory, which is interesting in itself. The following passages aim to juxtapose some of the tensions and contradictions.

a. The common view in the press and among the middle class in Bihar is that Bhojpuri cinema‘s main trait is their singular devotion to vulgarity and obscenity, whatever that may mean. In Bombay, the perception was that vulgarity is a bad business proposition. It may help the ticket sales for a few days at the most but will soon repel the audience.

b. The critics in Bihar feel that Bhojpuri cinema based in Bombay can never do justice to the Bhojpuri culture. Clearly, they seem to forget that Hindi cinema is not based in the Hindi heartland either. The perception in Bombay is that Bhojpuri films address the concerns of the rural Bihari. At least one producer pointed out that Bhojpuri films being completely unlike Hindi films of today are more like the Hindi films of the 1970s.

c. The perception in Bihar is that Bhojpuri industry is fundamentally exploitative in that Bombay film industry scoops away from the Bihar cinema halls. The Bombay producer‘s complaint is that he is not allowed proper control over the Bihar market. This tension seems to have become severe over time as Bhojpuri films have found in the Bihar territory its main revenue source.

d. The perception in Bihar is that the Bhojpuri film industry is largely manned by professionals including actors who are not from Bihar. Many Bombay professionals agree with the perception but don‘t see any irony in it. According to them, this is how some of the regional film projects work out. There is a constant coming and going between Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Kolkata. Some of the Mumbai professionals however did assert that even they find it inconvenient to operate from Mumbai given the intricacies of the distribution process.

e. Most of all, the perception in Bihar is that the Bhojpuri industry is churning out imitations of Bollywood in all its aspects. The perception in Mumbai is altogether different – they find it startling that people cannot see the obvious hiatus between the Hindi and the Bhojpuri products. They argue that the concerned audience has a clear preference for Bhojpuri only because of the uniqueness of the Bhojpuri format. Clearly, these discrepancies are relevant for any researcher in the field, the fact being that the Mumbai-Patna discrepancies listed above are not the only ones and there is still the question of how the media-middle class nexus looks at Bhojpuri films and how its loyal audience sees it.

11. Bihar as the centre of cinema industry

During the year 2007-2008, a major controversy arose between the Bombay film star Mithun Chakravarty and the Patna based distributor Dr Sunil Kumar. Although reasons behind the controversy were purely financial and contractual in nature, the details of which are not relevant here. Sides got taken and very soon there was media hype about the need to start a film city in Bihar. Bhojpuri actors from Mumbai with some support from the government in Bihar made a series of statements about a new initiative to bring Bhojpuri cinema home, so to say, to its own soil. However, almost every member spoken to after some questioning agreed that the entire plan is unfeasible. The reason producers prefer Mumbai is that for reasons of both technology and personnel. Even shooting in Bihar is prone to serious production mishaps. What plays against this risk is of course the ready availability and cheapness of the locations, not to mention the value of local colour. Increasingly, as the security situation in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh improves, more units may find it convenient to shoot a large part of the films in the region. But the trade off between ready availability of equipments, repairs and maintenance, and personnel and the relative inexpensiveness of locations will continue to remain a basic issue.

12. Requirements of Ideal Budget/business model for Bhojpuri cinema

Not all the persons interviewed were able to quote concrete figures, but conversations with a group of director/financier/producer threw up the following figures.

a. The top stars should charge no more than 15 lakhs for a film

b. This will keep the budget of the film to 1-1.5 crores

c. The recent revival of Marathi and Bangla cinemas has proved that low star budgets [up to 5 lakhs] make regional cinema viable even ‘on the table‘

d. If the distributors are willing to share the publicity costs, the entire production process becomes free of creases and hiccups.

e. Given these scales, unless a product is of glaringly low quality, recovery of investment should not be a problem, beyond which lies the story of high profits.

f. Finally, the budget of a Bhojpuri film should not exceed 2 crores which is where the risk of serious losses begins. Ideally the budget should be between 80 lakhs – 1.5 crores. Given the size of the Bhojpuri market, these figures make sense while doing business ‘over the table‘.

g. Bhojpuri cinema should not follow the model of Hindi films and add extra expenses such as big sets. Such extravagance goes waste as it is not in accordance with audience taste. Past experiences seems to have taught everyone a lesson that only a huge hit will save a producer/distributor from losses if he invests more than two crores.

–By Ratnakar Tripathy, ADRI, Patna

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