10 Nov 2016
Mumbai Film Festival Gets its Act Together while Bollywood Struggles
Following turbulent times over recent years, the Mumbai Film Festival seems to have found its feet, although the wider Indian film industry seems to be floundering, with profits down and increased competition from the digital sector.
Ever since coming under new management and securing new sponsors, the Mumbai Film Festival has become a far more glamorous affair, complete with red carpet events attended by the leading Bollywood stars. At the same time, the festival organisers have worked hard to not alienate its core audience of cinephiles and film buffs, many of whom tend to not to be all that impressed by the Bollywood glitterati. Festivals, though, need to be funded and stars bring in sponsorship.
The event has now appointed Kiran Rao, a highly influential filmmaker, as Chairperson, while Anupama Chopra, the well-known critic and journalist, has signed up as Festival Director. This, in turn, has helped secure funding from Reliance Jio, the telecoms giant, and Star India, the Mumbai-based, Murdoch-owned broadcaster.
This year, the Festival kicked off with a star-studded opening ceremony at Mumbai's recently-restored Royal Opera House, followed by a reception at Antilia, the US$1 billion residence of Mukesh Ambani, the Founder of Reliance Jio. It was all a far cry from two years ago when the Festival was on the verge of cancellation due to a lack of funding. In the end, it was only a last-minute crowdfunding campaign that allowed it to go ahead.
Ironically, though, while this year's event seemed the most stable for a good while, Bollywood itself appears to be in turmoil. Back in August, it emerged that Disney UTV, one of the local industry's largest studios, is withdrawing from Hindi-language film production on at least a temporary basis. The move follows a number of big-budget flops for the studio, most notably Abhishek Kapoor's Fitoor and Ashutosh Gowariker's Mohenjo Daro.
A few weeks later, Balaji Telefilms, another major studio, announced the closure of its own film unit. Again, this was down to a number of spectacular misfires, including Azhar, A Flying Jatt and Great Grand Masti.
When pressed as to the root of the problem, a number of local film executives have maintained that spiralling costs, especially when it comes to hiring A-list talent, are now plaguing the industry. In addition, the larger studios – those owned by ether Hollywood or Indian conglomerates – have been over-paying in order to acquire big-budget projects from third-party producers, many of which are often hastily packaged with an undue emphasis on big-name directors and stars.
Addressing this issue, Dina Dattani, an industry lawyer and producer involved with a number projects in the UK, US and India, said: "Talent fees are out of sync with the reality on the ground, particularly with regard to A-list stars. Given the limited number of screens in India, the maximum amount you could recoup from even the widest big budget releases are not going to deliver the kind of returns needed to make such a model sustainable."
At the same time, the problem has been exacerbated by the fact that Indian audiences are now far more selective about just what they'll go to see. This is seen as a direct consequence of the rise of such social-media platforms as Twitter and Facebook, which now have the power to make or break a film as soon as it's released.
Highlighting the potency of these word-of-mouth assessments, Tanuj Garg, former Chief Executive of Mumbai's Balaji Motion Pictures, said: "With the proliferation of social media, peer reviews can travel at an alarming pace. The fate of your film can be decided on the evening it opens.
"Audiences are increasingly ruthless. When they watch a trailer or see a poster, they instantly make up their minds about whether they want to see something or not. The only time they make an exception is when they hear fantastic word-of-mouth, which is now the single-most powerful medium determining box office success."
Both Dattani and Garg are also only too keenly aware that Indian audiences now have many more alternatives to watching films in a cinema, thanks to the launch of several new TV channels and the arrival of an array of digital platforms, including Hotstar, Sony LIV, VOOT, Spuul and India's own take on Netflix. Complicating matters still further, Amazon Prime Video is also spending heavily on Indian-language film and TV content ahead of its official launch in India later this year.
While India still has a number of star-driven hits – most notably, just about anything featuring Salman Khan, Bollywood's most bankable star – a string of other big-budget films has crashed and burned at the Indian box office in the past two years. According to KMPG's annual report on the sector, revenues for Hindi-language films were flat in 2015, with only six of the top 10 films crossing the billion rupee (US$15 million) benchmark, compared to nine in 2014.
As a result, Bollywood has been looking to diversify, releasing a series of mid-budget films that focus on strong content and storylines rather than big stars. This year, this has seen Indian audiences embrace smaller and more story-driven films, such as Viacom 18 Motion Pictures' Airlift and Fox Star Studios' Neerja and Kapoor & Sons. Although these films don't bring in the huge numbers of a Salman Khan release, they have proven more profitable in terms of ROI than many bigger-budget films.
A number of the more progressive companies are also starting to realise that they need to cater to younger audiences, many of whom are accessing a wide range of both local and international content online. Emphasising the importance of targetting this particular group, Rohit Khattar, Founder of the Cinestaan Film Company, a Mumbai-based start-up, said: "We need to make films that resonate with a young audience – more than 50% of India's population is under the age of 25.
"As this may mean making films that are at odds with our sensibilities, we need to find writers and directors who know how to address this particular audience rather than to simply chase big stars."
Indeed, some of the most interesting content to have come out of India of late has not been in the form of movies or TV dramas. Instead, it has been web series or short films primarily made for digital release. This has seen such productions as Ladies Room, 6 Pack Band and Permanent Roommates explore themes that have included women's rights, transgenderism and sex before marriage, many of which are rarely tackled head on in Indian films or TV programmes. Acknowledging the clear upside of such digital content, Garg said: "The internet is uncensored and young people want to watch content that pushes the envelope."
With this trend fairly hard to ignore, this year the Mumbai Film Festival dedicated an entire day to screening a number of web series on the big screen. This was accompanied by several panel discussions addressing the creative and business aspects of web series production.
Soaking at one such panel, Sumeet Vyas, a web series actor and writer, said: "In the past, content related to young people was made by really old people, many of whom mistakenly believed they knew how young people think, live together and party. By contrast, the creative teams behind web series are all young.
"The fact that this content is relatable is clearly evident when you look at the numbers it attracts. If you're telling an honest, fun story, then people will watch."
Aside from its focus on more youthful content, the Festival also provided its usual platform for India's growing number of independent and art-house film directors, many of whom work outside the Bollywood studio system. This year, its India Gold competition – an awards scheme specifically targetted at such contemporary works – handed out accolades to a number of such ground-breaking presentations, including Haobam Paban Kumar's Lady Of The Lake and Jaicheng Jai Dohutia's The Hidden Corner, both of which were produced in India's more remote Northeast states.
Overall, of course, Bollywood films and stars still took centre-stage at the Festival. In particular, the fan-focused Movie Mela event featured interviews with the ever-popular Shahid Kapoor, as well as the cast and crew of Karan Johar's current release, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (starring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma).
Such indulgences aside, this year's Festival was at pains to capture the current spirit of Indian cinema, a sector in which Bollywood is learning to share the spotlight with both independent filmmakers and the kind of youth-focussed content produced specifically for the internet. The festival also acknowledged that Mumbai is not the only major film production centre in India, with a special event presenting a first look at Baahubali: The Conclusion, the highly-anticipated second part of a Telugu-language historical epic produced in Hyderabad.
While Bollywood might not be on its knees quite yet, it is definitely facing competition from all sides. At least this year, its principal showcase had the good grace to acknowledge the changing face of the Indian film industry.
The Mumbai Film Festival 2016 took place from 20-27 October.
Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Mumbai