Thursday, December 29, 2011

Nothing dirty about this picture

(First published in The Pioneer dated December 29, 2011)


In recent days, some ‘intellectuals’ have been critical of the coverage given by the print and the electronic media to the death of Bollywood icon Dev Anand. Their grouse has been that the film world does not deserve the attention that it has been getting, largely because it is not a ‘priority’ subject for the millions of people who have many other more pressing concerns that the media needs to highlight. There is no dispute with the contention that the issues that matter to the vast majority of the people in the country do not get the mileage they should, and this anomaly has to be corrected.

But the criticism unleashed by the ‘intellectuals’ has to do with more than just that. It reflects a disdain for the film industry that the ‘cerebral-minded’ nourish, and that attitude is as archaic as the notion of naachne-gaanewale log being a distraction to a society which is engaged in more meaningful pursuits. It’s as if performing arts is not ‘art’ if it happens to be films.

The Indian film industry cannot be written off in such disparaging terms, and those who do so are either unaware of or do not wish to acknowledge its contribution to the economic growth of the country. Films are no more a motley collection of fancy dramatists wearing flashy clothes and crooning to mushy sentimental songs given music by a bunch of tabalchis and harmonium players hiding behind bushes while the shots are taken. The film industry is a robustly growing economic activity that encompasses a huge swathe of the working population. The glowing tributes paid to the likes of Dev Anand —and earlier in the year to Shammi Kapoor — reflect the importance of the industry as much as they hail these charismatic personalities.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry in collaboration with KPMG has been keenly following the growth of the Indian entertainment industry — of which films is a major component — for some years now. Its latest study, FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2011, demonstrates just why films and those connected with it cannot be any longer dismissed as, at best more style than substance, and at worst a wasteful activity.

According to the report, the Indian film industry was estimated at a whopping Rs 83.3 billion in 2010. While this reflected a decline in revenue by close to seven per cent over 2009 figures, it was still enormous. Moreover, the growth in 2011 has been estimated at over nine per cent, which incidentally is far more than the close to seven per cent GDP growth the country is expected to register. This alone should make the Indian film industry the doyen of business.

But there’s more it promises to offer: According to the FICCI-KPMG report, the growth is estimated to touch 9.6 per cent — something that the Union Government would give its right arm to achieve for the country — and reach revenues of Rs 133.5 billion. The gargantuan economic activity in turn provides direct and indirect employment to several tens of thousands of people across the country, the estimate of which is not even possible to quantify in accurate terms.

While the Government struggles to raise finances for meaningful projects and continues to either throw or prepare to throw the little it has down the drain on economically nonsensical projects such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the proposed National Food Security Bill, the film industry has shown the way to rationalise costs and improve the lot of its stakeholders. The report points out that in 2009, the total cost of making a film averaged at Rs 650 million. This was pruned down to Rs 580 million in 2010, by effecting cuts in ‘total talent cost’ that predominantly comprises the amounts paid to the director and the star-cast of the film. The talent cost was brought down to Rs 270 million from the earlier Rs 350 million. Does this not hold a lesson for the Government — and for all those ‘intellectuals’ who speak of better management of financial resources to improve the lot of the masses — on cost reductions for the benefit of the stakeholders? Can the film personalities be then termed as those engaged in frivolous activities which do not impact the lot of the people?

The film industry has shown the way to innovation, which has been lacking in a Government that is clueless on how to adapt to changing circumstances, and certainly missing in the thoughts of the ‘intellectuals’ who cannot see anything beyond their parochial capacities. Realising that costs of production have been rising and the imperative to reach the largest number of audiences at the shortest possible time becoming ever more critical, the film industry has reinvented the art of marketing films.

It has begun aggressively using the cable and satellite route to reach out to the people rather than merely depending on releases of films in single-screen and multiplex theatres. Riding on this fresh idea, the C & S market grew at a scorching pace of 33 per cent. The FICCI-KPMG report says that films may now be specifically made to be released exclusively through the C & S route. The impact of these innovative ideas on the market and on the growth of employment in the sector cannot be over-emphasised.

The key drivers of this growth of the Indian film industry are increasing urbanisation and a rising middle class population — none of which can be considered as evil or avoidable. The largest beneficiary of, and contributor to, this growth have been Hindi films, of which people like Dev Anand had been — and will continue to be even after his death — an inalienable part. The Hindi film industry contributed as much as 78 per cent of the total domestic box officer collections in 2010. As many as 139 Hindi films were made during the year, and while most of them did not do too well, they nevertheless contributed to the economy through the employment opportunities they generated in many forms across the country.

Apart from contributing significantly in business terms, the Hindi film industry has been an ambassador of social good. There are few sectors in the country — politics certainly not being among them — where secularism is practiced as honestly as it is in this industry.

It is amazing that critics have been glossing over this vital truth, although they do not mind rubbing shoulders with politicians who spread disharmony in the name of caste and religion. The antics of a Lalu Prasad Yadav are hailed as a fight for ‘social justice’, whereas the path-breaking performance of Dev Anand in Guide is dismissed as nothing more than silver screen heroics. The film’s message has no weight.

It’s time that critics of the film industry see the complete picture. Or, may be, they should see The Dirty Picture — to understand how marvellously Hindi films have evolved economically and connected contextually with the people.

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