Seven Bengali films during the Durga Puja week across 250-odd single screens and a handful of multiplexes in West Bengal – and this does not include four new Hindi titles, a Hollywood production, and the overruns of previous Bengali releases. Is this economically sound?
Until a few years ago, a Durga puja release was highly sought after by producers and distributors in Bengal, but the practice seems to have been escalated to unmanageable proportions. Six of the seven films were released on September 22 itself. Bengal’s biggest production house, Shree Venkatesh Films, unveiled Srijit Mukherji’s adventure drama Yeti Obhijaan, in which Prosenjit Chatterjee reprises his role of the beloved Bengali literary character Kakababu, and Raj Chakraborty’s commercial entertainer Bolo Dugga Maiki.
Shree Venkatesh Films co-founder and director Shrikant Mohta is clear about his strategy: “One [Yeti Obhijaan] is for the urban audiences, the other [Bolo Dugga Maiki] is for the rural audiences.” Shree Venkatesh Films have had two puja releases every year since 2010 – one targteted at Kolkata’s multiplex hoppers, the other for suburban crowds.
Star actor and politician Dev Adhikari released his ambitious production venture Cockpit on the same day. Adhikari plays a pilot who has to safely land a Kolkata-bound commercial flight that is hit by bad weather. Then there’s yet another Byomkesh Bakshi mystery, Byomkesh O Agnibaan, produced by Eskay Movies and starring Jisshu Sengupta as the sleuth.
Hit filmmakers Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy’s production company Windows also released their maiden production venture, Aninddya Chatterjee’s domestic drama Projapoti Biskut. They were joined by veteran filmmaker Swapan Saha’s Shrestha Bangali, starring newcomers Riju and Ulka.
Producer Rana Sarkar, of Dag Creative Media, has stayed away from the crowded weekend. He has picked September 27 as the release date for Chawlochitro Circus, a satire on the Kolkata film industry directed by Mainak Bhaumik. The date marks the seventh day of the Durga festival. “In my experience, pre-puja releases don’t work,” Sarkar said. “I have a superhit puja release, Srijit Mukherji’s Chotushkone (2014), which ran for 100 days. The first 38 days saw 100% occupancy. But in the first four days since the Friday release date, there was only 10% occupancy.” Sarkar is promoting his film by saying, “Everyone’s film comes during pre-puja, only we are coming right at the puja.”
Srijit Mukerji has had a puja release every year since his directorial debut Autograph (2010) broke box office records, but he now believes that the golden run ended around three years ago.
“Till 2013, releasing a film during the pujas was profitable,” Mukerji said. “More people came from outside and at any given time, there were more people on the streets than anywhere else. The extra footfalls was a financial advantage. But in the last three years, a lot of competitors arrived and profits were eroded to the extent that any puja release now beings with 25-30% loss in theatrical revenue.”
The number of shows, and profits, get divided between a handful of production houses. “Unfortunately, now it is a status symbol for producers to release their films during the puja week even if they are expecting potential losses,” Mukherji said.
Production companies are guided by their egos rather than business sense, Sarkar claimed. “It’s not that that these films are being released with the thought that puja is a ripe time for business,” Sarkar said, “Now, if a producer releases a film on so-and-so date, another has to release on that day just to compete with it.”
Theatrical revenues have diminished in importance for producers, who instead earn back their investments from satellite and internet streaming deals and releases in Bangladesh. For instance, Yeti Obhijaan, which was shot in India and Switzerland and features substantial stunts and computer-generated graphics, is budgeted at Rs five crores. The film is being released across 80 theatres in West Bengal, 50 screens elsewhere in India and 40 screens in Nepal. A Bangladesh release will follow soon.
“After you take out the satellite deal, the Amazon deal and the distribution deal in Bangladesh, what I have to recover is less than the average budget of a Bengali film,” Mukherji said.
Shiboprasad Mukherjee, who has co-directed many hits with Nandita Roy since 2011, said that in highly competitive times, the production with the lowest budget shoulders the minimum risk. His production Projapoti Biskut cost a humble Rs 69 lakhs to make. Chawlochitro Circus, Bolo Dugga Maiki and Yeti Obhijaan cost Rs 1.2, 3.5 and five crores respectively.
Cockpit costs an estimated Rs three crores, but the landing cost is expected to be much more given that Adhikari launched its music in an aeroplane 36,000 feet above the ground.
The focus on multiplex economics ignores single-screen theatres in the suburbs of Kolkata and the villages of Bengal. Digital projection costs are too high for small and first-time producers to release films in single-screen theatres. The number of single screens in the state has shrunk from 1,000 to some 250-odd theatres. As of 2010, the number of single screens in Bengal stood at 330 according to a report by the Film Federation of India.
“Most Bengali films do not recover money from theatrical releases,” Sarkar said. “And nobody cares about single screens. It is tragic how they are being neglected. If another hundred single-screen theatres are closed, urban cinema will survive, but rural cinema won’t.”
The lack of theatres and the abundance of films in a single week do not concern Shiboprasad Mukherjee. “Ultimately, the one with the best content will survive,” he said. “There are no big films, small films today. The Mumbai film industry is an example. Look at a film like Toilet – Ek Prem Katha. Or Marathi films like Sairat and Natsamrat. Good content has takers.”
Unlike his peers, Mukherjee is optimistic about the huge number of films running in theatres during the Durga puja week. That several corporations are investing money and space for co-branded advertisements is a sign that Bengali cinema is being seen as a profit centre. “Earlier, a film would get one ad and we would wonder ‘So nice’, but now multiple companies are trying to get associated with Bengali films. That’s a good sign,” Mukherjee said.