Hum Aapke Hain Kaun: 5 Degrees of Separation

It is nearly a century since the first film was made in India (Raja Harishchandra in 1913). Last weekend, I watched the Marathi film, Raja Harishchandranchi Factory (2009) and read up a bit on the moolah trends associated with Indian filmmaking. The website boxofficeindia gives collection figures for films since 1940 and while the data is not uniform across the entire period, one can deduce the earnings trend of the top grossing film per year since 1940. I plotted net revenue collections of the number 1 film per year since 1940 and came up with the following chart (click to enlarge)

Initially, the success of a film was determined by longevity as opposed to revenue. Have you ever tuned in to those lazy Sunday radio programs where they interview some senior film artiste (director, cinematographer, musician, playback singer, actor, etc) where the favourite songs of the person being interviewed are played. The guest on the show almost invariably mentions something that sounds like “woh picture ki to golden jubilee huyi thi“… Nowadays there is total front loading of revenue around the initial days following the film’s release. Front loading of revenue also reduces the bleed which a long running film may suffer due to piracy.

A couple of points stand out from the chart: the lost decade of the 80’s and the phenomenon that was Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. HAHK, in short, transformed the whole process of making money from films in India. While it may not be as dramatically causal as a single film being responsible for moving the industry into a higher orbit but the film certainly gave enough reasons for uncles and aunties, grannies and veiled bahus to venture out into the dingy, single screen, paan stained cinema houses across the country. HAHK and Jurassic Park (both released in 1994) gave reasons for movie watching to become a family experience in India. Jurassic Park was timed very well as it got in just as the Government (in 1992) ended the National Film Development Center’s monopoly over film import into India. Jurassic Park’s technical sophistry, which was never before seen (or heard) in Indian movie theatres, forced theatre owners to upgrade their demonstration equipment. HAHK’s pull ensured that the hygiene and comfort levels of movie theatres in India improved dramatically – going to movies was no longer taboo. I was in my late school years in Ranchi during this time and I do remember that no one – absolutely no one among my parents’ milieu used to visit theatres. Or even in modest Jalgaon. Imagine what a social phenomenon it must have been for a product to come along which got four generations of a family into a lice and bed-bug infested theatre to watch HAHK! We had reaffirmed our resolve not to watch any movies in theatres but just this one exception. That promise got quickly broken as the theatres (in Jalgaon) plowed back some of their profits and improved their property. Maine Pyaar Kiya, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Titanic were testaments of those broken promises. While that is what happened with my extended family, it may very well be the case across most Indian families. Such feel good, family oriented movies expanded the market – big banner production houses started releasing a large number of prints. A 2nd tier city used to get the prints in the 3rd of 4th week but now even a remote village gets to see Bodyguard on day 1. And now that the entire family is walking in to a cineplex on weekends, ticket prices are also very high on the weekends. That is how we entered the 21st century.

Now we see films rapidly busting the Rs. 100 crore mark with regular precision – while it does sound very prosaic and formula driven, there are two external factors which may be at the root of this ‘leg up’ which the industry is enjoying at the box office. The rapid urbanization of India would certainly be the first – with the share of services income continuously rising, more and more people are coming to towns. Spending nuclear money on weekends in malls is becoming quite a habit. The other reason for the recent increase in film earnings is also the gradually increasing size of the Indian NRI diaspora. Overseas earnings are a very high (and growing) proportion of a film’s revenues these days – the INR:USD and INR:GBP exchange rate translates into high takings even if the number of viewers abroad are much lesser than that in India. While India gets trounced on most parameters when compared to China, there is one comparator where the Chinese should see red: Indians overseas remain far more loyal and patronize Indian cinema far more than the degree of adoption by overseas Chinese to flicks orginating from Hong Kong.

Finally, I have a prediction to make. Taking clue from the other mass obsession of Indians – cricket – and noting the declining length of popular formats of the game (test matches to one-dayers to T20), it may very well be possible that Indian films (musicals as they are sometimes categorized by foreign audiences) may shrink their run times from the current 150 – 180 minutes. Makes immense commercial sense as well since more shows can be packed into a weekend.

Personally, I feel that the product quality (as judged by the strength of the storyline) has, on an average, waned considerably during the last 70 years, but since the purpose of cinema is to entertain first and enlighten later, who cares about the content of films beyond a point? If someone talks of enlightening entertainment or entertaining enlightenment then all I can say is that the film – The Three Idiots is a true black swan of our times.

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