Mumbai cheers up Moore

Print edition : November 19, 2004

Michael Moore (right) in the film. -

UNTIL recently, the only documentaries one saw on the big screen were government-sponsored Films Division shorts during which the audience would leave the hall to get some popcorn or smoke a cigarette. Mike Moore has changed that situation at least in Mumbai. Perhaps, for the first time, people are queuing up for tickets to watch his Fahrenheit 9/11.

An expose against United States President George W. Bush, Fahrenheit 9/11 digs into the Bush family's links with the Saudis and the Bin Laden family and questions the U.S.' rationale for the invasion of Iraq. Mike Moore had to fight a long battle to get his controversial film released in the U.S. Miramax, a subsidiary of Disney, backed out of a deal with the director. The film won the Palme d'Or prize at the Cannes film festival, after which the Lion Gate Films distributed it worldwide.

The muckraking U.S. director's film, a box-office hit that has grossed $155 million in ticket sales worldwide, is perhaps the first political documentary to make it to Indian theatres. Fifteen prints of the film are being screened in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Pune. Later, it will be released in five southern cities.

The movie has drawn audiences beyond the expectations of its distributor, Paramount Films, grossing Rs.55 lakhs in its first 10 days, better than the collections of some Hollywood films. The average per print earnings of Fahrenheit 9/11 were more than Rs.3.26 lakhs, higher than the Aishwarya Rai-starrer Bride and Prejudice, which grossed Rs.2.94 lakhs per print in its first week. Even conventional, cynical film trade watchers in Mumbai, who normally believe that only sex, violence or Shah Rukh Khan sell, are surprised with the success of Fahrenheit 9/11.

But Paramount Films is pretty pleased with itself. "It has done well because the subject is interesting and topical. The strategy for the release of such films also has to be good," says Sarabjit Singh, general manager of Paramount Films.

Is Fahrenheit 9/11 a one-hit wonder, or will it pave the way for more Indian documentaries and films of its kind?

We now have the flexibility and infrastructure to release such films because of the mushrooming of multiplexes in India," says Sarabjit Singh. Multiplex owners are willing to experiment with different types of films. "We are trying to screen all kinds of cinema. In certain cities, there is an audience for such films," says Neeraj Goswami, head of Shringar Cinemas.

"Moreover, there are lean times in the year when we do not have enough film content and are open to looking at different kinds of films. Even if a documentary film-maker approached us, we would consider it," says Neeraj Goswami. A few months ago, Shringar experimented with the release of an Iranian film called Baran, which would otherwise be screened in India only during film festivals.

Are documentaries and thought-provoking films, once considered taboo by the film trade, now economically viable? "Distributors may not be willing to put in money, but if film-makers approach the multiplexes directly and can arrange for the publicity, we can even project the DVD on screen, eliminating the Rs.50,000 cost of converting from digital to film," explains Neeraj Goswami.

Is there hope for political films made by Indians? Anand Patwardhan, one of the country's leading documentary film-makers, has had to fight court cases against Doordarshan to get it to broadcast, even though his films have won national awards. After a bitter fight with the Censor Board, film director Rakesh Sharma managed to get The Final Solution documentary on communal violence in Gujarat cleared without any cuts.

"Surely, if such a film, that too a political film that is critical of the U.S. and its war mongering, proves to be viable, it means that Indian independent documentary films, which our audiences can relate to, have the potential to draw even greater audiences," says Patwardhan.

Of course, there are still the die-hard sceptics. "It is a rare case. I do not think this will help Indian documentaries. When occupancy of [theatres showing] Hindi feature films has dropped, not even multiplexes will be interested in documentaries. Fahrenheit 9/11 did well only because it has been hyped so much all over the world," says Taran Adarsh, editor of Trade Guide, a weekly box-office magazine.

At the same time, he affirms that viewing patterns have changed dramatically. "Around 97 per cent of Hindi films this year have flopped because people are fed up of the same fare. Times are changing, tastes have evolved and the mindset of some film-makers is also different. The audience is more open today," he says.

Has the content of Indian feature films also changed with the times? Are intelligent films, which enjoyed their heyday in the 1970s, back in the reckoning? A few months ago, Govind Nihalani's Dev, which dealt with the communal problem, and Prakash Jha's Ganga Jal, based in Bihar's political scene, were released. Sudhir Mishra's film, an epic tale about student politics at the time of the Emergency titled Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is also slated for release.

"There has always been an audience for intelligent cinema, and it is growing. The release of Fahrenheit 9/11 opens up those spaces," says film-maker Saeed Mirza. "There are powerful films like Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, or unusual films like Pankaj Advani's Cape Karma, which need to be promoted so that the audience knows they exist."

"This is a very exciting time for us. People all over the world are getting tired of fluff and lies. Maybe the time has come for something closer to the truth to become commercially viable," says Anand Patwardhan.

After a good showing at the box office, Mike Moore has inadvertently done his bit of muckraking in the Indian film trade as well by challenging the conventional wisdom on `what the audience wants'.

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