How does regional film making survive and succeed

By Sanjoy Patnaik

Film making in smaller regional locations/states is experiencing a range of critical challenges that largely emerges out of smaller markets, thus limited revenue and, therefore, less impactful cinema. Limited revenue is also responsible for attracting inadequately skilled human resource and averagely equipped techno-creative hands to make films that would at the least supplement, if not substitute, Bollywood consumers.  With the above mentioned limitations, regional cinema faces an unfair (can also be termed as cruel) comparison with Bollywood now which was not so much the case a couple of decades ago. Regional cinema, as we all know, had its own super stars who were extremely popular and big crowd pullers. While Bollywood had a Dilip Kumar or a Raj Kapoor, Bengal had Uttam Kumar, the Mahanayak, or Tamilians had an MGR who stood as symbols of strong regional identity. They coexisted with their individual spaces and levels of popularity. Regional films in those days, especially Calcutta and Madras, were squarely responsible for the growth of Bombay cinema in terms of providing content, artists and technicians. They thrived well with mutual support.

Of late, the regional film landscape does not look as healthy and professional as it used to be. Baring Telugu and Marathi, the status of films in other locations is experiencing continued stagnation and fast decline both in terms of returns and quality. Often viewers ask this very familiar question, ‘why are we (in the regional space) not able to make films that we used to make in the 60s or 70s?’ There will be multiple answers and reasons, each coming from different plains – a producer will lament the reducing viewership and poor infrastructure base, a distributor would complain the lack of stars that would attract people to the theatre, scriptwriter would blame remakes and absurd storylines, a director would bring in a plethora of issues including poor technicians and inadequate spending, and so on. The fact remains that they all have contributed significantly to the debacle.

There are not many empirical assessments undertaken on the impact of economic liberalisation of 1991 on regional cultural products. But it could be broadly inferred that trends like increased urbanisation and the growth of a highly mobile working population, especially in the age group of 20 – 40 years, have greatly impacted regional film making, especially causing reduced viewership in urban centres, where film viewing has largely been either INOX or PVR-centric. Though there is a standing government instruction to INOX and PVRs for mandatory exhibition of regional films for about 8 weeks a year, none abide by the rule nor does the government ever monitor implementation of such rules. While there is a distinct loss of revenue for regional film makers, there is a visible segregation of viewership with the relatively rich upper middle class (including the Hindi speaking migrant population) preferring to watch Hindi or English movies in INOXs or PVRs than a regional film that are invariably isolated to smaller and less posh theatres largely crowded by the lower middle class viewers. On the other hand, the INOX and PVR owners have a different story to tell. They argue that the quality of regional films, Odia in question, is so poor that it becomes very difficult to run them for more than 2-3 days.  It is a catch 22, reduced viewership contributes to low quality and low quality of cinema causing a constant decline in audience.

Moreover, in one way or the other, the fast technological development, especially the smartphones and the digital based entertainment industry to a large extent have diverted the younger generation from the regional cultural products to Bollywood and overseas making things difficult for the vernacular industry. Easy and inexpensive accessibility to wider entertainment products worked towards creating an unintentional comparison to choose one against the other. The sad fallout has been a marked decrease in regular investors/producers of regional films who are losing out as a result of this unfair comparison. Secondly, the easy access to nationally consumed entertainment products also to a large extent bridged the gap in comprehending Hindi in the non-Hindi speaking areas more to the advantage of Bollywood.

There is a conventional understanding within film makers and distributors in Odisha that sustained infrastructural development in the coastal plains for film viewing devastated in 1999 could largely address the plight of returns and viewership for undivided Cuttack, Puri and Balasore being the largest consumer of Odia films. This argument is largely misplaced and untrue as the same distributors have done considerably roaring business with Bollywood films in the same districts. Therefore, the development of Odia cinema largely depends on a multi-pronged strategy to collectively address the issues around infrastructure, finance – tax and subsidy, skill growth, technology base, exhibition and viewership, and so on.

Three key and crucial questions, therefore; a) with fast reducing viewership and lukewarm government support, what is going to be the future of regional film making in India, b) what kind of film making would bring back the audience while maintaining its own identity and individuality, and c) what is the best possible revenue model for regional films – both parallel and run of the mill. These are not easy questions to answer. On the contrary, this requires some real brainstorming and long term planning that should have started a decade ago.

While the state government needs to prioritise additional investments for the film industry, it is important to find right answers to the following questions. They are; a) is there a possibility of a public-private partnership model emerging, b) what is a viable business model for the private sector to invest, c) what is the extent of skilled employment the film industry is creating for Skill Mission to be interested in, d) should a quality-centric incentive model for film making be introduced, and e) how is the bigger film production centres/skills incentivised to come/invest to/in Odisha. Answers to these questions are crucial for creating and maintaining separate regional identities and reinforcing the fact that Bollywood cinema is not Indian cinema.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)