Festival praise no guarantee for box office success of Indian films


Aishwarya Rai-starrer Sarbjit had two market screenings on the first weekend of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival where it won applause, but its performance at the box-office has been less than impressive. The movie has only notched up collections of Rs.18 crore in its first five days in India. The recent biopic may not technically have been part of the festival screenings but history shows that touring the festival circuit or praise within those circles doesn’t help the box office collections of Indian films.

Neeraj Ghawyan’s much-acclaimed Masaan, which was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, besides winning two awards, made a little over Rs.3 crore. Nawazuddin Siddiqui-starrer Miss Lovely, which competed in the same category at Cannes in 2012, besides being screened at Toronto and Rotterdam, managed about Rs.49 lakh. All box-office figures in this article have been sourced from movie website Bollywood Hungama.

“I don’t recall any film that has done festival rounds and managed exceptional numbers at the box office,” said trade analyst Atul Mohan. “The reason is this mainly tends to be experimental cinema that appeals only to a certain section of the audience and gets a limited release in the first place.”

With the exception of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which was screened at the International Critics’ Week at Cannes and later ended up making more than Rs.20 crore in India, festival favourites have not really managed much as far as domestic collections go.

“But that too had a face like Irrfan Khan, popular here as well as in the West,” said Mohan. “Plus, big studios like Dharma Productions, UTV Motion Pictures, NFDC, DAR Motion Pictures and Sikhya Entertainment really pushed it.”

To be sure, Raman Raghav 2.0, directed by Cannes favourite Anurag Kashyap, which premiered at the festival this year, also comes with low stakes. Industry experts point out that the film, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Vicky Kaushal, not just marks Kashyap’s return to low-budget cinema after the debacle of Bombay Velvet. It is also not a light, frothy film that would have universal appeal, going by the posters.

“Whether festival praise helps or not depends on the film, and a lot also depends on the campaign. If the tone and the pitch of the campaign is closer to the film, and it’s generating interest, then of course it helps,” said Ranjan Singh of Phantom Films, which has produced Raman Raghav 2.0.

Of course, acclaim at any international festival certainly benefits a movie in the fundamental sense, at least as far as the smaller films are concerned.

“Audiences today are smart enough to decide on their own but small films are definitely helped with blurbs of festival praise on their posters,” said film critic Bhawana Somaaya. “Plus, the filmmaker is able to negotiate theatre space with exhibitors and distributors.”

In case of big-ticket releases though, it may seem slightly off-putting to see blurbs of praise on the posters, she added. It’s like you’re pushing it too hard, like Rituparno Ghosh’sThe Last Lear, which could have done better had it released without the hype. The film earned about Rs.55 lakh.

The road to a prestigious festival screening is a journey of its own kind. While selection at some is based on personal contacts, others like the Berlin International Film Festival have a global distribution system in place where there are specific people appointed to look at films from particular regions, like South Asia, all through the year and call for entries. After that mediators come in.

“When you make a good film and want to explore (overseas), you can always apply directly to festivals through international sales agents. It’s a time-consuming process but not really expensive,” said Nila Madhab Panda, director of I Am Kalam, which was screened at Cannes in 2010.

Besides providing exposure and media space, especially to films whose makers do not have a substantial budget to work with and resources for prints and advertising, festivals do a great job of educating the West about a different kind of cinema emerging in India.

“It’s a small window that has opened up for Bollywood in markets that haven’t accepted it yet,” said Shubhra Gupta, film critic with The Indian Express. “In the last 4-5 years, with films like Udaan and Gangs of Wasseypur going to these festivals, the West has realized Bollywood may not only be about song-and-dance.”

But festival response still remains no barometer of how the film will fare in the domestic market, simply because of how Indians inherently make movie-watching decisions. In a country where nearly 300 million people watch movies, not too many may know or care about the Cannes festival.

“These are all good films but they need big studios to back them. Distributors and exhibitors are a lot more receptive towards studios that come out with at least 3-4 big titles each year,” said Mohan. “Plus, they could do with multiplex support which have their own criteria in allotting shows and tend to be skeptical about such films.”

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