2010: When Bollywood's Small Films Became Big

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Even stars like Shah Rukh Khan struggled in 2010. (Getty)

In 2010, bigger Bollywood releases like "Raavan" fell short of expectations, while edgier fare succeeded both commercially and critically.

NEW DELHI -- While 2010 saw some major releases such as Dabangg and Rajneeti reap rich rewards, the overall box office was weighed down by mostly lackluster performers (Kites, Raavan). Independent box office figures for the year’s total box office gross are not available here but industry estimates reckon that with about 180 films releasing in 2010, the overall business registered a loss of about 30 billion rupees ($66 million).

Action romantic drama Dabangg, starring top actor Salman Khan, hauled in about 1.45 billion rupees that is considered the year’s biggest hit among a handful of hits. But what is interesting is that some success stories came via small films without major star power such as India’s 2010 Oscar entry Peepli Live.

The trend of smaller films has been growing over recent years and it now seems that the industry has expanded to include both formulaic blockbusters and edgy fare. “What is essential is the strength of content more than just star power that audiences will respond to positively,” said Balaji Motion Pictures CEO Tanuj Garg

The Mumbai-based production house released the year’s edgiest film, Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (via Balaji’s “alternative” banner Alt Films), which pushed the envelope with its digitally shot look and feel exploring urban sexuality. It grossed an estimated 80 million rupees, easily recovering its 10 million rupees budget.

“The fact that observers were not sure if a film like LSD could work in cinemas showed the resistance to such fare, but the film’s success proved everyone wrong,” added Garg.

Balaji also tasted success with gangland drama Once Upon A Time In Mumbai, a more mainstream release starring top actor Ajay Devgn, whose star power also contributed to the success of political thriller Rajneeti from major banner UTV Motion Pictures.

Devgn, along with top actress Katrina Kaif (also seen in Rajneeti and latest release Tees Maar Khan), are considered the year’s most bankable stars.

But it was smaller films that found favor, such as comedies Atithi Tum Kab Jaoge and Phas Gaye Re Obama (both released by Warner Bros. Pictures India), while Walt Disney Studios India also experimented with another comedy, Do Dooni Chaar starring veteran actor Rishi Kapoor.

Hollywood studios in India largely played safe when it came to blockbuster releases. Fox Star Studios’ My Name Is Khan starring superstar Shah Rukh Khan was the only major star vehicle from a Hollywood studio here. But industry estimates reckon that despite the film’s strong haul of about 800 million rupees, FSS probably didn’t turn a profit with Khan given the film’s high acquisition and marketing costs, rumored to be about 1 billion rupees.

“The trend of previous years where budgets and acquisition costs spiraled out of control are now being corrected,” said UTV Motion Pictures CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur. “Films that were greenlit this year were probably priced at more realistic levels than in the past, which means that the industry has gone through a correction that was required.”

But what makes 2010 a bit of a damp squib is the resounding thud of major flops such as the much anticipated Kites starring top actor Hrithik Roshan and Mexican TV actress Barbara Mori. Released worldwide by Reliance Big Pictures, romantic drama Kites was also seen as an experiment in making an international Indian film targeting a crossover audience, when Hollywood director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) recut and “presented” the film for its U.S. release. 

Similarly, another Reliance film, acclaimed director Mani Ratnam’s Raavan also performed below expectations despite an extensive marketing campaign and screenings at the Venice and Pusan festivals.

Again, it was a small film like UTVMP’s Udaan that got international attention as India's only official Cannes entry this year (in the Un Certain Regard category), putting the spotlight on emerging talent like the film’s debutant director Vikramaditya Motwane.

The new year will begin with an offbeat release No One Killed Jessica, based on a real incident, the murder of a Delhi-based fashion model Jessica Lal. 

As Motwane said, “I think it is safe to say that India is on the verge of a breakthrough in terms of a new kind of Indian cinema that can appeal to a larger audience. We are getting there in terms of competing with other countries.”

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