I have the honour of essaying the role of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in two films – Raag Desh, directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, and Kammara Sambhavam, directed by Rathish Ambat. One led to the other, actually. Mrudula Murali, who plays Lakhsmi Swaminathan in Raag Desh, is from Kerala. I am guessing the team of Kammara Sambhavam asked her who was playing Netaji in her film, and she called me to ask if it would be all right to pass on my number. I said, ‘Sure, I have always wanted to break into South Indian films’.
The Malayalam Film Industry and Its Many Charms
The direction team then called me up and asked for photos. I sent them, those were finalized, and within two weeks I was on a flight to Chennai. At that point, I only knew that the hero was Siddharth (of Rang De Basanti fame). I didn’t know who the director was, what the story was, who else was acting, nothing. All I cared about was that they were offering a decent amount of money and had already transferred an advance to my bank account. (In fact, when I reached my hotel room in Chennai – I suddenly worried about how they intended to portray Netaji).
The evening I landed, I was taken to the Memorial Hall, where they were shooting a scene involving Mahatma Gandhi; my hair was shaved off and I tried on the costumes for the director to finalize. My scenes would start the next day. In the hotel, I thoroughly learnt my lines (which were in Hindi and English) because I had a speech scene the next day and one thing I am a little stubborn about as an actor is that I will not be the one to forget my lines and cause a retake. In all my films, I have flubbed my lines at most twice or thrice. After all, a professional actor should remember his lines at the very least.
And, was I glad I practiced so much. I think I must have done the scene a total of 30-35 times, from different angles and with different lenses. I messed up my lines just once, thankfully. I think the heavy lunch prior to my shot was the culprit! Day 2 and day 3 were at the huge compound of Binny Mills, where a Japanese base had been recreated with astonishing amounts of detail. I am sure the Art Director will win numerous awards next year.
I had heard numerous accounts of the professionalism of the film industry down South, and finally experiencing it was wonderful. The crew was very professional and caring. There were around half the number of crew members one sees on a regular Bollywood production, but the amount of work they were getting done was no less. I was a little worried about food on the first day – curd rice and sambhar isn’t a good combo for me – but from day two onwards I found some dishes that I liked. And the day three lunch showed something unique about 99% literate Kerala – Hindus, Muslims, Christians all enjoyed the supremely tasty Kerala style beef fry.
Making Cinema Viable: Lessons from Down South
I had some very informative conversations with the production controller Shafeer Sait, the makeup and prosthetics wizard Roshan N G, and director Rathish Ambat, who in my opinion is a strong contender for next year’s National Award for the Best Debut. I learnt quite a few things about the Malayalam and Tamil industries which might be worth emulating in Assam as well.
For instance, ticket prices are capped at maximum 120 rupees. Because of this, not only are theatres consistently 70-80% full, it also allows normal middle class people to watch movies frequently instead of only one or two a month. As I write this, Tubelight tickets in Mumbai are priced at an insane Rs 380 to Rs 570 or even more. Only the rich can afford to buy tickets for their whole family at these rates. The Assam government is giving grants for renovating and reopening theatres. We ought to follow the example of the southern states and focus on opening many, many miniplexes and on keeping ticket prices affordable for the common person. It’s really sad that Tezpur, the cultural capital of the State, which used to have four cinema halls has only one now, and that too in bad shape.
Till a few years ago, Malayalam films weren’t in very good shape either, but with the construction of new miniplexes and the advent of high quality films, the industry has really forged ahead. Kerala’s population is around 3.4 crores, Assam’s is 3 crores, but an average Malayalam film budget is around 5-10 crores now, which is unthinkable for Assam. One of the main problems we face is the lack of theatres, and even out of all those, there are barely 15 or so theatres from where decent box office returns come. Most people don’t realize that if they pay 100 rupees for a ticket, then 50-55% goes to tax, to the cinema hall, and the distributor, leaving around 45% for the producer. So if a film earns 22 lakh at the box office, then around 10 lakh comes to the producer, which is the case for Local Kung Fu 2. Our budget was approximately 28-30 lakh, out of which 9 came from crowdfunding, 7 from sponsors and 1.5 from an investor. We spent around 9-10 from our own pockets, but since we had several pending payments to make, we’re still at about a 50% personal loss.
Contrast this to Malayalam cinema’s biggest hit so far – Pullimurugan – an average film, from what I have heard. But made on a budget of 25 crore, it grossed 152 crores worldwide! Reminder: Kerala and Assam have roughly the same population.
What’s the Solution?
The way I see it so far, three things need to be done to improve the Assamese film industry. More miniplexes (like Gold Cinema) need to be built. If we have additional 25-30 halls of decent quality, a 30 lakh film will have the potential to recover its budget within a week. And if they are built with government grants, then maybe there should be a cap on ticket prices so that common people are not dissuaded from regularly going to theatres. We also need at least one good Assamese film to release every few weeks. The collections of Doordarshan, Kothanodi, Bahnimaan, Gaane Ki Aane and LKF 2 show that the public is indeed willing to go for films they think are worth it which is why I am giving all my support to Dooronir Nirola Poja, another wonderful film that deserves to be seen by the public.
People say our films aren’t publicized enough. But they don’t realize just how expensive publicity is. Just printing one banner/hoarding can cost upto Rs 4000 and then renting it can cost upto Rs 15,000 per week or so. If we need to have 20 hoardings, the cost of those alone can be Rs 2-4 lakh. And, then there’s the actual cost of release through UFO/Scrabble/Qube – roughly Rs 4-5 lakhs for 40 screens. When the total budget of a film is Rs 30-40 lakhs, these are already huge chunks. I feel people should also take initiative and stay a little aware of which Assamese films are releasing. At least, we can watch the trailer, and decide whether it’s worth spending money on or not.
I’d like to end this by mentioning the best part of my Malayalam experience. My balance fees were transferred to my account on the last day of shooting, without me even having to ask anyone. A huge difference from having to call up accountants every now and then and asking, ‘Payment aa gaya kya?’.
By Actor and Filmmaker Kenny Basumatary