Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Return of the Studio system in Indian Cinemas?

Indian cinema started as individual passion and slowly moved into a segment of family entrepreneurship.

People like HarishchandraSakharam Bhatwadekar who took up the helms of Indian documentary production in as early as 1890s,

 and later Hiralal Sen in Calcutta and Dadasaheb Phalke in Kolhapur who experimented a lot in theatre recording and mythico-social fiction films, were filmmakers who used their family, friends and servants as the crew and cast.

In that way, in the initial years, Indian filmmaking was modeled on the Hindu joint family structure, and not really as a capital venture.

As the idea and praxis of talkie slowly crept in, in the 1930s, a need for conglomeration was felt. 

The model of America was available as reference – the capitalist model of assembly system of manufacture. 

At that time, India was going through an unpredictable economic change.

On one side the rural self-sufficient economy was totally broken down as a result of a series of man-made famines, specially the ones in the wake of World War I and its aftermath. 

On the other, Gandhi’s call for self-promotion in the form of indigenous industries and products led to the emergence of a pro-active intelligent business class striving for a free India.

Film industry, at the hands of Phalke and his followers, was at best a flourishing cottage industry, without much promise of a continuous return. 

Some filmmakers such as Ardeshir Irani and Chunilal Munim tried for bank loans for their projects. 

But as a completely unorganized industry with vague footings, cinema posed a big risk to the prospective investors – the bank owners. 

Also the whole idea of filmmaking, especially by the Indians, was very unacceptable, if not an anathema, to the conservative British. 

As an upstart art form, cinema was not held high in the mind of the elite British class. 

With Gujarati and Parsee Banias as financiers or owners of the films, and technicians as well as actors coming from the lower classes, cinema had an ill-repute from the start.

With the advent of sound, similar problems were addresses in the United states by lateral and horizontal combinations in the industry space.

This means, five major studios, and the three minor in limited ways, started controlling production, distribution and exhibition of their movies. 

So, at no point, the control of the film was out of their hands.

In that way, any uncertainty of selling the film and showing it to a fullscale audience could be ruled out. 

Artists like screenwriters, Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, Music Composers and, last but not the least, actors became paid staff of the studio in question.

Similar need for connecting the film industry to modern capital was strongly felt in Bombay and Calcutta.

Studio system, as a full proof company structure, stepped in to remedy the bank’s lack of support and the problem of undercapitalization in the industry.

In a sensible way, that gave a certain legitimacy to the not so-elite essence if cinemas in India..

As a result of the studio system, state-of-the-art equipments could be brought and used now.

Also, technical experiments and innovations as well as experiments in ideas could occur. 

Playback system started in a Calcutta studio – New Theatres, much before Hollywood. 

Different colour processes, like Technicolor and Metrocolor, were tried out. 

New innovations from Hollywood were incorporated in the Indian studio films. 

And the first stars appeared.

The first trio of Indian cinema – Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand – were products of the studio system. 

However, as their career progressed, and as a major chunk of the audience equated the stars with their films (as many devout Indians still equate the character of Rama with the Epic Ramayana, much on the same note), studio system led to the era of stars. 

This was due to intake of large venture capital, in the form of black money (unaccountable money to evade taxes) during and at the end of World War II. 

Quite a few newcomers entered the industry as financiers/producers, and they were interested in making a portion of their money white, and not in a sustainable growth of the industry through a disciplined, charted out process, as taken by the studio owners.

Under all these pressures major studios like NewTheatres, Vassan Studios (later, Gemini Pictures), Bombay Talkies, Prabhat, Ranjit Movietones and a bunch of others either closed down or changed their operation from movie production to some other niche.

It was at this time, in some way, Indian government also stepped in to support film production, distribution and exhibition, through organizations like Films Division, NFDC, PSBT and other similar bodies, starting from 1950s. 

However, there used to be a pro-State propagandist stance in films produced and exhibited by the government. 

Cinema being the biggest machinery for hegemony in the post-independent years, especially for India’s largely illiterate population, only certain expressions of mind were to be allowed.

Mainstream cinemas of 60s and 70s, specially the Angry Young Man films, were silently supported by the government program of integration, subordination to the highest body in the society and, in a way, echoing the return of the prodigal son. 

In the 80s, the anger continued in endless repeats of the same theme – corruption, anger, inequality, underworld and romance – a mix of everything. Indian cinema was not at all genre based in these years. Terms such as masala movies and  Bollywood masala were coined keeping this phenomenon in mind.

Indian cinema became too parochial in a sense, in this period. Bollywood became the other name of Indian cinema, flanked by the alternate, art-house Indian new wave films most of which were never properly distributed or exhibited outside film festival circles and failed to pull a crowd. 

There was almost no variation in the mainstream themes. Although the other of the Indian cinemas – both non Bollywood mainstream, in some cases, and the parallel cinemas – had really interesting stories to offer, their presentation was mostly off-the-mark and boring to the uninitiated audience.

In the post-2000 scenario, due to easy access to the movies playable at home with better sound and picture quality, old theatres started dying out. 
But, interesting changes were happening in the Indian retail marketplace. 

Shopping malls began sprouting in all major cities across India. 

They offered a panoply of buying choices under the same roof, plus a cozy tour across designed spaces in the weekend, for the busy couple. 

For the young college goers, such malls became meeting joints – hub of activities. They were the new avatar of public square where all kinds of enjoyments and socialization were possible.

As the way to incorporate foreign venture capitals in Indian industries started opening, more American and European companies started coming to India for entertainment business collaboration. 

Companies like Reliance, Mahindra and Mahindra and even small niche companies like UTV started operating in a structured way reminiscent of 30s studios.

 As Bollywood became a burgeoning brand owing to the large expat groups in the Western world, many production-distribution companies like Pathé, Channel 4, Warner Bros, Disney and Fortissimo films started showing interest in collaborating with Indian entertainment companies. 

It was unimaginable even in 2000, that every week a host of Bollywood films could be commercially shown in theatres in Germany, Netherlands, France, America and of course the UK. 

However, exactly that is happening today, thanks to the new industry players like UTV, Reliance Mediaworks and Eros International, also known as the corporate.

So, how do these corporate differ from the previous single producer system in approach? 

The answer is simple – neatness of activities and a proper business orientation with domain knowledge. 

In the star system that ironically both promoted and ate the industry out for fifty years, films were produced by short-sighted businessmen who wanted a quick profit in exchange of their unaccountable money. 

Staleness of thought, and repetition of themes and fight and song devices, crept in very easily. The new corporate film houses changed this habit. 

The external habits like financial transparencies – checks replacing cash payments – changed. But more noticeable was the changes in stories and the way they were shot. 

It was impossible to imagine something like Ishqiya, or Band Baja Barat or the recent Delhi Belly, even few years back.

As the new players took over during the high period of globalization, models for sustainable growth were chalked out. 

The new corporate structures are based on modern American film studios. 

In a way, this is second coming of the old Studio system, with the difference that except for some stand alone corporate like YSR films, or PNC, the company is not family bound. 

Studio system in India was more like a feudal structure, while the new corporate model is more of capitalistic. 

However, any Indian company tends to be a mix of the two – with feudal and capitalistic overtones both. 

With fresh talents out of film schools joining these companies, reminiscent of past decade’s IT professionals, the current picture looks more pro-youth.

However, like any new thing, the corporate structure has some problems too. 

As some of the companies are under the impression that the entertainment works can be run just like any other business, they tend to undermine the free play of creativity and randomness. 

Now, creativity can be controlled, but can never be totally methodical. That would be similar to controlling the human psyche in a flowcharted manner. 

The mystery and beauty lies in this randomness and flashes of emerging pattern.

 The old studios understood this and gave birth to some of the most beautiful works from the Indian cinemas.

 The star system of the 50s made fixed patterns jut out most strongly, with the help of the star gods. People used to come to the theatre to get satiated, already knowing the story. 

That was a pleasure of a different kind, for an Indian audience that had a very limited choice for entertainment at their disposal.

The Indian audience of the new millennium, however, is smarter. 

They are consumers, much like their western siblings, with a variety of choices. 

With the advent of so many TV channels, websites, online gaming, social networking sites on phone, it is very difficult to keep the audience glued to the silver screen. 

So, an organized market research, market segmentation, vertical and horizontal combinations in the market are mandatory to survive today. 

With companies like Big Pictures buying or making theatre chains across India, and even in a country like the US, the return of the studio system in the new guise of the corporate is announced. 

It is for us, the new generation of film lovers, to see if that sustains.

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