Thursday, October 08, 2009

2009 Box Office: What the biggest winners mean to Bollywood Art and Commerce

As Bollywood runs through the usually lucrative holiday movie season, its fascinating to see how the box office has been faring so far in 2009.

Box Office reports in Bollywood are wildly inaccurate. Every trade paper has an opinion which governs the box office 'fate' of a movie. Because the cost price of a movie is almost never known in Bollywood, it becomes impossible to determine the true success of a movie.

Having said that, word of mouth in India is a fairly powerful way of driving perception. So I combed through trade papers and matched it with 'reports'. I came up with the list of hits, disappointments and clunkers you see at the end of this post.

As you can see, we had four bona-fide hits this year. That's right: just FOUR! The rest of the films either made some money, saved face or ended up sending their producers and distributors to the poor house.

Its easy to draw conclusions from the flops. Brainless comedies don't work all that well. Small name stars and shoe string budgets may not be such a good idea. Youth appeal rom-coms isn't a reliable market. Hold the champagne for Govinda's comeback.

But is there a conclusion to be drawn from the hits? On the surface, no - because these hits are extremely different. New York was a thriller that asked some hard (if previously used) questions with no easy answers, Kambakkht Ishq was a low brow comedy that demeaned women, Love Aaj Kal was a hipster poser rom-com that respected women. Wanted is a balls to the wall action flick.

So what CAN you infer from this? Two things - although this phaltu Drift hypothesis needs to be put to the test in the coming months.

First, Bollywood is still driven by big names. In other words, if you don't have a star, you will have problems at the box office. Without big names, you don't get media space for movie promotions. So you may end up with something that might be DOA.

Audiences love stars. So even if you get good publicity, viewers are reluctant to watch a movie with names they don't love and adore.

The second and more interesting conclusion I'll draw is that Bollywood star branding seems to be working...a little too well. If you look at each hit carefully, it features a big name star in a role that their audiences have come to expect of them.

John Abraham (wonderful guy, may god bless him) tried hard but made a mess of his role in New York, yet it was an off-beat film that his core audience expects from him. Akshay's raucous misogynist comedy - I'm afraid - is right up his alley. Saif Ali Khan's clean-cut image is associated with romantic comedies that are well intentioned and feel good. Finally, Salman's macho bad boy image is perfectly suited to Wanted, which in turn is what his audiences want to see him in.

At this point it would be natural to ask: but what about the women who starred in these movies? To which I'd say in all honesty - if you are a female star you don't matter at the box office, unless your name is Aishwarya Rai. Unfortunately, she didn't show up in anything significant this year (and yes, I'm aware of Pink Panther 2)

This segregation of stars, markets and audiences is a good thing for Commerce but a bad thing for Art. It's not that the actors aren't trying hard: all of the afore mentioned actors have tried to break from stereotype with mixed results. John Abraham suited up (or should I say shed his suit) for a comedy last year (Dostana) and scored big. Saif played against type in Race and registered one of the biggest hits of his career. Aamir's Ghajini - quite a break from his core image - set the box office on fire.

Betting money on an actor playing against type is risky - and as the economy squeezes Bollywood - increasingly prohibitive. Note also the box office meltdown of the chancy high concept flicks (Aa Dekhen Zara, 8x10 Tasveer, God Tussi Great Ho).

Yet I hope the actors use their star power and continue to challenge their audiences. More importantly, their audiences need to step up and reward sincere efforts by keeping an open mind.

  • New York (John Abraham, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Katrina Kaif)
  • Kambakkht Ishq (Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor)
  • Love Aaj Kal (Saif Ali Khan, Deepika Padukone)
  • Wanted (Salman Khan, Ayesha Takia)


  • Kaminey (Shahid Kapur, Priyanka Chopra)
  • Life Partner (Govinda)
  • Wake Up Sid (Ranbir Kapoor, Konkana Sen Sharma)

  • Billu (Irfan Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Lara Dutta)
  • Agyaat (directed by Ram Gopal Varma)
  • Dil Bole Hadippa (Shahid Kapur, Rani Mukherjee)

  • 8x10 Tasveer (Akshay Kumar, Ayesha Takia)
  • Whats Your Raashee? (Priyanka Chopra, Harman Baweja)
  • Fast Forward (Vinod Khanna)
  • Baabarr (Mithun Chakraborthy)
  • Agey Se Right (Shreyas Talpade)
  • Do Knot Disturb (Riteish Deshmukh, Lara Dutta)
  • Luck by Chance (Farhan Akhtar, Konkana Sen Sharma)
  • Dev D (Abhay Deol)
  • Gulaal (Kay Kay Menon, Directed by Anurag Kashyap)
  • 13B (Madhavan)
  • Paying Guest (Govinda)
  • Dhoondte Reh Jaoge (Sonu Sood)
  • Teree Sang (Ruslaan Mumtaz, Sheena Shahabadi)
  • Jai Veeru (Fardeen Khan, Kunal Khemu, Dia Mirza)
  • Chal Chala Chal (Govinda, Reema Sen)
  • Firaaq (Shahana Goswami, Directed by Nandita Das)
  • Kisse Pyaar Karoon (Arshad Warsi, Ashish Choudhary)
  • Barah Anna (Naseeruddin Shah)
  • Little Zizou (Boman Irani)
  • Kaash...Mere Hote (Kumar Sahil, Sneha Ulal)
  • Aasma (Nauheed Cyrusi)
  • Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaye (Randeep Hooda, Raima Sen)
  • Aloo Chat (Aftab Shivdasani)
  • Aa Dekhen Zara (Neil Nitin Mukesh, Bipasha Basu)
  • Delhi 6 (Abhishek Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor)
  • Daddy Cool (Aftab Shivdasani, Suniel Shetty)
  • Kisaan (Sohail Khan)
  • Love Khichdi (Randeep Hooda, Riya Sen)
  • Quick Gun Murugan (Rajendra Prasad)
  • Toss (Ashmit Patel)
  • Yeh Mera India (Rajit Kapur, Seema Biswas)
  • Luck (Imran Khan, Shruti Haasan)
  • Jashnn (Adhyayan Suman)
  • Short Kut (Akshaye Khanna, Arshad Warsi, Amrita Rao)
  • Fox (Arjun Rampal, Sunny Deol)
  • Vaada Raha (Bobby Deol, Kangana Ranaut)


Anonymous said...

OMG !!! the list of flops and to think I watched most of them :o(((

bollywooddeewana said...

i haven't seen anything much this year save Billu, Cc2c, Love aaj kal and LBC. The lists of flop is scary

Meiyang Chang said...

It's disheartening to know that Dev D, Little Zizou and Luck By chance should fall under the failures category. Good stories don't translate into good collections and great acting doesn't necessarily mean good audience pull. As far as the actresses are concerned, unfortunately for them, most of them will have only 3-4 career altering films. Apart from that, they'll be stuck with the stereotype and face eternal competition from new PYTs. Not so for the heroes. Other than the occasional "off beat" role, they ARE doing what they've been doing for ages. And yet, the audience doesn't seem jaded. Look at Shahrukh Khan, Saif Ali Khan and Akshay Kumar, for example. Barring an Omkara, Sunghursh or Chak de India, I don't see much of a difference in their other roles. If versatility was a medicine, then the Hindi film industry needs a major dose of it right NOW!

Mind Rush said...

Meiyang, I agree with you and Drift saab. Being typecast rules in Bollywood! Pays big time at the box office.
Great analysis in this post, Driftji. Keep it up! And Mr. Chang, I am a fan!

Unknown said...

Meiyang, yes!

So to get down to the issue: how do you fund Art in parallel with Commerce? There is a model in the US that works really well. It rides on the back of a healthy indie scene. The people who make indie movies fuel a lot of the projects big studios won't. They often take risks without big studios signing on (hence the whole Sundance phenomenon).

But they do get a lot of audience support. I know the Weinstein brothers are much maligned in the industry but when they had Miramax they drove a lot of the growth of indie cinema. I love them for that.

Second thing, the big stars inthe US themselves will drive hatke work the minute they have a few big commercial hits. These are jokingly called vanity projects but the fact of the matter is that they force the studios to fund the movies that aren't deemed out and out commercial.

First scenario will take time to develop in India.

Second thing is entirely in the hands of the stars.

Anonymous said...

Totally have to agree with you Drift Saab on the actors taking the initiative in India. Most of them even own the production, and I am sure at the start none thought Chak de India would be a mega hit. It must be the right music to go along with it. Truly, only in India still the music helps a lot in getting the movie to hit or a miss list. And, that has become an important element as we saw in Slumdog, not just the story and acting but the music counts the success.

Never Mind!! said...

Agree with you on stars using their star power to engage audience in novel roles. But depressing to find LBC, Dilli 6 and Dev D in the same category of clearly B grade comedies. Ohh..ok thats wat most people have been saying.

Unknown said...

So let's talk about those movies.

LBC I thought was too self-referential - probably would never have a large audience. (Think The Player - hugely influential and discussed but not much of a money maker).

Dilli 6 I thought talked down too much to its audience and was a bit fractured. But still not sure why it wasn't a success.

Dev D I still haven't seen yet.

The trick in indie cinema is to find the stories major studios won't tell but the audience wants to hear. You can't just take the stories that feel cool in phoren cinema and retell them.

Pitu said...

So depressing that Dev D didn't work at the box office. It was easily the best movie of the year :-(

Priya said...

Man, I loved Kaminey, Luck by chance and dev D. what is to note is that these indie movies are finally getting made!

It is no surprise that box office hits come to actors who stick to type - big box office success is about appealing to as wide an audience as possible. and how better to do it than to stick to typecasting? (barring an aamir khan - who dares venture all around the place? and even he doesn't stray all that far.)

about the heroines point - it's too bad that they never have much of a role in determining box office collections. when i think of art and box office, i can only think of Kajol. She is probably the one exception because she comes so infrequently and people are still dying to see her. Not to mention that she is the best actor/actress around by far (yes, i am including aamir, saif etc. in the comparison), and still fairly young - about 10 years younger than the khan trio.

Aishwarya Rai - although a big box office star, meh. can't act for peanuts - so doesn't really contribute to bollywood art in my opinion. i think her star is also strongly tied to the actor she comes with - can't see her opening a picture.

my two cents.

Tanvi said...

I think, Delhi6 ddn't work because it had faltered screenplay. The message of Secularism was lost on the Kala bandar crap! That was supposed to be symbolic was treated more like mockery.

I saw Dev D and expected fireworks from all the positive feedback I had heard. It was good and Abhay and the girls did a Fab job. Bold story ... but again I think, like most Hindi movies, it dragged a bit too long in the last 30 mins.

Unknown said...

Priya, I hear you about the actresses. Wish it was different - but no actress drives box office, not even in the US. Not even Angelina Jolie. At one point Julia Roberts did. Briefly. Not anymore.

You might be right about Aish. You could get some publicity out of her and perhaps a 5 crore opening. But that is speculation on my part.

Tanvi, yes would be interesting if all Hindi movies chopped 30m off their playing time, no? We might even see a Gowarikar movie under 3 hours one of these days.

Priya said...

i agree with you aspi. for actresses to have a big role in driving box office, they need to have the big parts. if movies are always going to be male centric, with women factoring for less than a 1/3rd of screen time and emotional importance, how can they be held accountable for box office?

it's a vicious circle really. women come in when they are really young. by the time they get some acting experience or have some real clout, they are perceived as being too old. that's why the kajol and aishwarya rai experience is quite interesting - they are 30+ and going strong. but i feel sad for rani and preity - i think they really like their craft, but are already deemed too old when heroes who are at least 10 years older are still considered hot and happening.

what to do? :)

Kamal said...

At least real "HAT KE" movies like LBC, DevD, Gulaal are getting made and stay in public memories.

Compare this to the top 10 grossing movies in 1999.

Unknown said...

Holy Hannah! Biwi No 1 was a bigger hit than Hum Dil?

svr said...

Aspi (& gang), hi, after a long time! Good to see the Drift is still as awesomely fun as always!

Just wanted to add I loved Dev D too. I thought it was the funniest, smartest Indian movie I'd seen in a really, really long time. I thought Delhi-6 was pretty and sweet, but didn't see it being somehow more remarkable than best-nostalgia-movie-of-the-year in classic-Bollywood-style. (And I didn't see LBC yet.)

Anonymous said...

Actually Kambakkht Ishq is not a hit. The movie had a big opening and a huge fall. Since it was expensive to produce (60 crores) and made only 46 crores, it cannot be called a hit -

Kaminey and Life Partner are rated average at the box office (recovered cost).

It is sad to see the good movies on the list of flops.

Unknown said...

svr, hellooo! Boy, I *really* need to see Dev.D :)

Anon, interesting link. Thanks - I'm always looking for more inputs but hadn't seen that one before.

So the list says KI made $23 crores by week 5. Can't really rely on those numbers because they stop by week 5 and don't account for KI's international take (which is primarily US and UK).

Where did you get the 46 cr from?

meena said...

All the importance that actresses lack on the big screen they make up for on the small screen. when was the last tv show made that did not target women :)

Unknown said...

True. But the only woman who can open a serial on TV is Ekta Kapoor :)

Actually I'm just not in touch with the world of TV serials. I'm sure Prachi Desai in a serial might generate opening TRPs.

Anonymous said...

I saw Kaminey with my mom & she fell asleep midway, woke up only to make a "Fo, what's next" joke at the end. It just did not appeal to her generation.
LBC was too busy showing off its insider connections (major stars in cameos!) and FA wasn't charismatic enough to carry off the lead role.

katherine said...

One of the things I've been mulling over lately is the role the strike played in some of this. What would have happened to New York and Kambakkht Ishq if we all hadn't been so thirsty for a film after all that time? And I can't help but wonder if Love Aaj Kal wouldn't have been merely a Success, but benefitted from coming right after two films that really weren't all that great (New York did, as you say, raise some good questions, but the storyline was kind of pedestrian, I think).

I think, too, that some of what happened also depended on which films opened together. I'm sure that Life Partner ended up a success because it opened the same day as Kaminey -- Life Partner at least had a broader audience appeal, even if the film flagged (I thought the *story* was a good idea, just that the execution was a bit sloppy).

Quirky, artsy films aren't really made with the primary goal of being commercial successes, are they? I think good stories/films will always find a way to get made.
So I'm less concerned about them, and at least heartened by the fact that most of the genuine duds at least ended up in the right category.

Unknown said...

Katherine, good points.

While you'd think the strike would have whetted the audiences' appetites and affected the fortunes of NY and Kambakkht, I think it only partially helped. There is one data point around the release of 8x10 Tasveer which was released *during* the strike. Yes, it was kept off multiplexes but it did run in theaters and the per-screen averages didn't point to film-starved audiences crowding to see the movie. On the other hand 8x10 was a bit of a concept film so that could have played into its marketability as well.

Yes, counter-programming releases does help. Kaminey may well have helped Life Partner like you suggest.

I don't fully agree with your last para. Yes, arty films aren't meant to be commercial, but they are meant to be seen. There is no director in the world who will tell you they are making their movie just for the sake of art and actually mean it. And to stay in the business of small indie films you have to at least make as much money as you put in.

Finally, good films won't always get made. They need support. The best forms of support are superstars who want to 'branch out' and prove a point, movie moghuls with a fondness for small films and an appreciative audience.

katherine said...

Point taken re: the last paragraph, Aspi. Yes, I did think I was on shaky ground with that as a bit of a generalization, and you're right to challenge me on it.

I just realized, too, that 99 was released during the strike -- any idea how it actually faired?

Unknown said...

99 flopped. The way I look at it is: given I'm somewhat remotely plugged in, if I don't hear much about a movie after its release, I assume it belly flopped :)

bombaychavi said...

I loved 99. Apsi, you must see. They had some cute jokes.

Unknown said...

Really? I thought 99 was a turkey. I will definitely give it a shot if its available.

Unknown said...

Kaminey is way out of the league when compared to those films listed as hits....i am surprised how come it is not listed under the hits category....all the movies in that hits list is not even worth watching!

Unknown said...

PS, Kaminey's position on the lists is driven by its box office performance, not its awesomeness (not that I'm saying it was awesome - I haven't seen it yet).

Unknown said...

ya true!these days you never know what passes for a hit;you bring a buffalo to the market and sell it off as a horse and they'll take it.