Cinema sells its soul to the BO
June 23 2015 11:30 PM

SUPER HIT: When Jurassic World grossed a huge amount worldwide on its first weekend, the media, including that in India, went to town with it. And, not surprisingly the movie did splendidly not just in South India but also in the rest of the country during its first fortnight.

By Gautaman Bhaskaran

Many years ago, I wrote that the Nicole Kidman starrer Moulin Rouge was a film without a soul. I had found it too shallow with just about every frame flitting by before you could count three. The director seemed to be in a tearing hurry to rush through his narrative, and there was really no time to savour a scene. It was a frustratingly disappointing watch.
Now, the men of the medium are beginning to talk about the soul of cinema, though in a somewhat different context. One of them is Bollywood actor-director-producer Karan Johar, who in an interview with The Hindu on Sunday, rued the fact that the “soul of cinema was being sold to the boxoffice”. Indeed, how very true.
Sadly, boxoffice numbers have become the barometer to judge a movie. Believe it or not, there are people who buy a ticket for a film only if it has a spectacular opening. They wait for a day, at best, to find out what the trade pundits have to say about a movie’s inaugural day collections before deciding to watch — or not — that picture.
Some theatre owners in Chennai tell me that the sale of tickets for a film picks up on a Saturday morning if websites or that day’s newspapers declare that the movie concerned has had an impressive Friday collection.
Mukesh Mehta, who distributed the dinosaur Irrfan Khan starrer, Jurassic World, in parts of South India, avers that the opening day trend has become a major factor in determining how well a film does in the following days. When Jurassic World grossed a huge amount worldwide on its first weekend, the media, including that in India, went to town with it. And, not surprisingly the movie did splendidly not just in South India but also in the rest of the country during its first fortnight.
That the figures may have been fudged — as is the case with so many other things in India (remember how the tiger numbers were manipulated) — is an issue that most people appear not to care.
In such a scenario, it also matters little to the ticket paying public what reviewers write. It is money, real or imagined, that talks. So, Johar is bang on when he speaks about the soul of cinema being sold to the boxoffice. And these days in India, everybody is keen to know whether a film would make Rs100 crores. The Rs100-crore club is a huge status symbol.
Johar was upset when someone asked him prior to the release of his Bombay Talkies if it would make Rs100 crores. He was shocked that one could even expect an ensemble of short movies to make that kind of money.
He feels that his latest, Bombay Velvet, which fared poorly, was a victim of this boxoffice obsession. In a nation like India, where cinema is an obsessive pastime, the number of film portals and websites is unimaginably large. No other country has as many. So on a Friday night (the day movies normally open in India) at 11:30pm, one can sit on a computer and get boxoffice figures with the click of a button. Not just these, but also hundreds of comments and views on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. Right or wrong, everyone has a view that he or she must share with the entire world. And, no one wants to lose any time. The comment has to be aired at once.
The head of the Cannes Film Festival, Thierry Fremaux, rued precisely about this a few weeks ago.
During an interview with the French cinema industry journal, Le Film Francais, he lamented the fact that this year’s 68th edition of the Festival (which ended on May 24) was adversely impacted by social networks.
“It was the first real ‘Twitter festival’ where everyone decided to say whatever happened to pass through their heads,” Fremaux regretted. “This created a permanent race against the clock between journalists and amateur neo-critics.... Writing a review, is about formulating and putting down a thought, and can’t be summarised in 140 characters written as soon as the credits have stopped rolling. In Cannes, I am not sure the social networks did any good for the general spirit.”
In even more harsher words, he quipped that the degree of fantasy which Cannes arouses is not a licence to write any old thing.
Frémaux’s comments echoed what the new President of the Festival, Pierre Lescure, had told the media a few days earlier. He was angry with journalists who were freely tweeting during Press screenings — which was distracting, to say the least. This was highly annoying in a Festival which had for many, many years been able to maintain etiquette and respect for public space.
Lescure said that this need to accelerate and for instantaneity led to hasty judgments, and such erring on the part of critics was doing no good to the media they were representing.
But is the media bothered at all?
Last year at the Venice Film Festival, the legendary movie critic, Derek Malcolm, who is all of 84 years old, told me that it was ridiculous that the newspaper he worked for then was asking him to file a 300-word review of a film within 20 minutes of the credits rolling in! He said other critics from major newspapers were also being asked to file 200 words of “their first impressions” of a movie within 10 minutes of the curtain coming down. The result is not hard to guess. The reviews are often inaccurate and sans a sense of balance. After all in such a mad race, where is the time to check facts or present a valued judgment.
Given all this — boxoffice madness included — what suffers most is cinema, and often good cinema.
I have often wondered why a good film crashes, while a rank bad one does extremely well. The answer to this perhaps lies in the hype that is generated around a movie — with liberal doses of
boxoffice figures, true or false, fed into websites.
But, ultimately, a good work cannot be put down. Have you ever wondered why one remembers some films even years after you have watched them, while you just forget some others soon after the curtain falls. This is because some movies have a soul whose content is king. Producer Ismail Merchant — who along with James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, made such great classics as Shakespearewallah, Bombay Talkies, Heat and Dust, Howards End, The Remains Of A Day and A Room With A View — once told me that a good film must tell a good story, and engagingly so. Otherwise, it would be bereft of a soul.
I could not agree more with this. Why do I still remember Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Mughal-e-Azam, Guide, Tere Mera Sapne, Teesri Manzil, Nayagan and many of Ray’s creations, many of Aravindan’s and many of K Balachander’s?
They had great plots which were woven into riveting scripts that came alive through fine performances. In short, each of these movies had a soul. The boxoffice jingle was not heard here. They did not matter. It was not commerce that pushed these films to scintillating heights. It was content. It was art. It was soul.

* Gautaman Bhaskaran has been
writing on Indian and world cinema for over three decades and may be e-mailed at [email protected]

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