There is a whole category of movies about the movies – behind-the-scenes dramas that demystify the business of entertainment or provide an insight into the entertainment generated during the pursuit of business. One of the best such films is Robert Altman’s acerbic The Player (1992), in which Tim Robbins plays a Hollywood executive who smoothly plots a takeover of his studio while dealing with death threats from a rejected scriptwriter.
Hindi cinema has had its share of insider accounts, including Kaagaz Ke Phool and Luck By Chance. Hopefully, our brightest minds are taking notes from the sidelines of the ongoing war of attrition between the filmmakers of Raees and Kaabil. From the outrage that followed co-producer and lead actor Shah Rukh Khan’s declaration that Raees would clash with the Hrithik Roshan starrer Kaabil to the contradictory claims over box office collections, here is a drama befitting Samuel Fuller’s observation that “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word . . .emotion.”
Act 1: Heroes and villains
The prologue itself has enough drama to sustain a first act. Producer Rakesh Roshan, the father of leading man Hrithik Roshan announced early that he was blocking theatres for Kaabil to be released on January 26. It was planned as a comeback vehicle for his troubled son, who had spent most of 2016 denying a rumoured affair with actress Kangana Ranaut. The indifferent response to his August release Mohenjo Daro meant that the aptly titled Kaabil – the Hindi word for “capable” – was a test of Roshan’s star power.
Enter Shah Rukh Khan, the outsider who became an insider through a combination of talent, chutzpah, media savvy, marketing smarts, and spot-on timing. A hero for the liberalising 1990s and the poster child for the consumerist 2000s, Khan’s command over the box office has weakened in recent years, mostly because of poor choices (Happy New Year, Dilwale) and a delay in recognising the changed landscape of the Hindi film entertainer. Khan’s attempt to re-align his screen persona with shifting audiences tastes resulted in two of his most interesting roles in 2016: a deranged admirer of a movie star (playing both parts) in Fan, and a dishy psychotherapist in Dear Zindagi.
But neither of these movies entered the Rs 100-crore club. In fact, since it was opened by Aamir Khan with Ghajini in 2008, this box-office category has set its membership fee upwards of Rs 300 crores. This has so come to dominate the imagination that the only question trade pundits ask on the Friday of a big release is not, “How good is the movie”, but, “How much will it make?” Salman Khan and Aamir Khan have breached that barrier, but Shah Rukh Khan hasn’t.
Predicting box-office collections is an all-consuming activity in Bollywood, and one can feel only pity for the A-list stars on whose shoulders rest the attempt to earn enough money to feed a small country. Hence the outrage spewed by Rakesh Roshan when Khan said that he would release Raees a day earlier than Kaabil, on January 25, defying a film industry code of honour that accepts that only one blockbuster will be released on a particular weekend. Roshan had the maths all worked out. The veteran hit-maker, who propelled his son to stardom in his debut feature Kaho Na… Pyaar Hai in 2000, had been all set to release Kaabil on Republic Day and take advantage of the long weekend that followed. Kaabil was supposed to gross over Rs 100 crore and salvage the family reputation – until Raees decided to play spoiler. Kaabil was moved a day up, and the war began in earnest.
Act II: Tears and fears
The second act involved further rage, recrimination, and possibly private tears shed over the forced division of the pie. Rakesh Roshan expressed disgust at Khan’s antics and reminded all and sundry of his seniority. (He even threatened to quit filmmaking). Khan played the insouciant gate-crasher, not unlike his character in Raees.
The trade, having seen such battles before, hunkered down and tried to calm the fires on both sides to ensure that business did not suffer. There were casualties: pre-release box-office predictions were held up as proof of betrayal and disloyalty. Cinema programmers were locked into late-night confabulations with Roshan on the one side and Khan’s flock, which included co-producer Excel Entertainment, on the other. The general trade consensus suggested a 60:40 screen division of screens, with Raees in the majority owing to the strong buzz over its trailers. This led to further accusations of discrimination and hair-splitting over percentile points. Whatsapp resembled a war zone; reminders of old ties and track records were made; promises extracted only to be broken. In the end, Raees got better showcasing, but this proved to be only the beginning.
Act III: The spoils
The debate over which film earned how much began in the early hours of January 25. The minute-by-minute tracking resembled nothing less than an extended horse race on a never-ending track. Raees got the better opening, but Kaabil briefly caught up. Both films got largely favourable reviews, but if the critics were relieved that it was all over and they could move on to the next week, they were mistaken. Twitter timelines were flooded with daily and sometimes hourly updates on box-office takings. Roshan and Khan continued to plug their films after January 25, each dragging his exhausted self to television show tie-ins, post-release interviews, and red carpet events.
Since neither film’s production budget is precisely known, and given the imprecise nature of box-office calculations, the final takings are anybody’s guess. As of February 5, Raees had inched into the Rs 100-crore club based on its domestic box office, while Kaabil lagged behind with a relatively paltry Rs 71-plus crore. Raees is an expensive production, while Kaabil appears to have made on the cheap, so who has actually raked in the money? Producers often pre-sell territory rights, and it is distributors who rake in or bleed money. Perhaps this portion of the movie behind the movie needs to be told from the point of view of the distributors.
Both films have their strengths and drawbacks. Both are driven by the magnetism of their respective stars, but they are also weakened by an insistence on showcasing the superheroic qualities of their leads and their dated scripts, which are a throwback to 1980s films.
The Hindi film industry hates box-office clashes and prefers solo releases for important productions. This practice is inherently monopolistic, anti-competition in spirit, and anti-audience. Viewers who have the time, money and inclination for different films from Bollywood and Hollywood have no choice in the matter. Cinema programmers who want to do something less mind-numbing than plaster a single film across all available shows are equally bereft.
If nothing else, box-office contests keep the entertainment media and the trade pundit tribe busy. They generate reams of newsprint and footage, create the false impression that there is a great deal at stake, and fuel negative publicity, which is ultimately better than no publicity at all. Would Raees have made more money if it had no rivals? Perhaps. Would Kaabil have entered the Rs 100-crore club as imagined? Perhaps. Was the entire drama worth it? Only if a movie can emerge from the ruins of two stars going mano-a-mano, each trying to slay invisible dragons and demons entirely of their own making.