12th Fail, All India Rank, Laapataa Ladies: Mid-budget movie returns to theatres | Bollywood - Hindustan Times
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12th Fail, All India Rank, Laapataa Ladies: Return of the mid-budget movie to theatres

ByDevansh Sharma
Feb 28, 2024 06:11 AM IST

Vidhu Vinod Chopra's sleeper hit 12th Fail has set the ball rolling for mid-budget movies to see a theatrical window, instead of directly being dumped on OTT.

I distinctly remember watching Anu Menon's piercing portrait of grief, Waiting, back in 2016. It was a quiet first-day, first-show, with fellow viewers located in clusters across the cinema hall. But despite the fragmented seating, the Kalki Koechlin, Naseeruddin Shah film had us sharing its sombreness. It was like listening to the same song on headphones and tapping on the same beats. The same year, Prime Video and Netflix entered the Indian market, and made it virtually impossible for a film of that scale to grace the big screen again.

Stills from All India Rank, 12th Fail, and Laapataa Ladies
Stills from All India Rank, 12th Fail, and Laapataa Ladies

(Also Read: Anaar Daana review: Lived-in account of a child wrestling with the idea of grief)

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The mid-budget miracle

It wasn't like mid-budget movies like Waiting and another Kalki-starrer, Margarita With A Straw (2014), didn't co-exist with the big-budget entertainers before 2016. Each of them had a place under the cinematic sun and managed to find its audience someplace, somewhere. Even the obsession with the 100 crore club, which started with AR Murugadoss' Aamir Khan-starrer blockbuster action romance Ghajini in 2008, was pretty much a part of the pop-culture and trade phenomenon.

It's only in 2015-16 after the mammoth success of SS Rajamouli's pan-India action epic Baahubali: The Beginning and the coincidental advent of global streaming platforms in India that box office became a spectator sport. The very subjective appeal of a film was getting determined by the acutely objective box office figures. It began to feel like only the Goliaths could enter the movie market, and Davids had to make peace with a streaming dump.

“I feel these days, many get caught up in assembling a project without focusing on its core idea. But if you know your intent well, whatever it may be, write a good script, and make an honest movie – irrespective of its budget, it’ll do well,” says Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who delivered a sleeper hit with 12th Fail last year. The thematically rooted and technically proficient film, starring Vikrant Massey, earned 60 crore at the box office, three times its budget of 20 crore.

But that wouldn't necessarily guarantee both the filmmaker and the actor a bumper opening for their respective next work. They can't command bums on seats on account of stardom like a Salman Khan does. They'll have to go back to the grind and ensure a good story is told in a compelling way. For instance, Vikrant's 2016 starrer A Death In The Gunj, directed by Konkona Sensharma, may have enjoyed a tremendous word-of-mouth from its loyalists, but it barely made any money when it released in theatres 8 years ago.

It's the same case with Vidhu Vinod Chopra, whose 2020 directorial Shikara with two newcomers never took off theatrically. He insists that he could churn out franchise hits like the sequels to his Rajkumar Hirani collaborations, Lage Raho Munna Bhai and 3 Idiots, but he doesn't want to cheat the audience, or primarily, himself. “Yes, a bigger film may have a bigger opening, but then a smaller film also has its word-of-mouth. Ultimately, prioritising impactful storytelling resonates with audiences who want to see films on the big screen. We must strive to deliver better content, reigniting the magic of cinema on the big screen,” says the filmmaker.

Individual risk-taking

Vidhu's fellow filmmaker Kiran Rao, however, thinks that a rare 12th Fail is an exception, instead of the norm. She claims the landscape hasn't shifted in favour of mid-budget movies like her upcoming Laapataa Ladies. “Honestly, I don't think there's much of a shift yet. These are all experiments – some will be successful, some won't be. There's no trend as such yet. It's individual conviction and individual risk-taking that's facilitating this. For instance, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, against everybody's advice, went to the cinemas and proved everyone wrong,” said Kiran.

That was one of the key reasons, she says, why she didn't want her fellow co-producer Aamir Khan to play a character in Laapataa Ladies. While he wouldn't really change the economics of the mid-budget movie since he's also the producer, the perception of Laapataa Ladies becoming an Aamir Khan movie may invite unnecessary conversations around its box office magnitude, instead of the overall impact of the movie. It's no surprise why Aamir's presence in her 2010 directorial debut Dhobi Ghat was kept under wraps till the release day.

Like Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Aamir Khan has also been backing mid-budget movies like Peepli Live (2010) and Secret Superstar (2017), despite having global money-makers like 3 Idiots, PK and Dangal to his credit. It's probably why Jaideep Sahni suggested his fellow lyricist-screenwriter Varun Grover to pitch his directorial debut All India Rank to Sriram Raghavan immediately after the success of his 2018 thriller Andhadhun. A mainstream producer with a recent hit is all that a mid-budget storyteller needs.

But I remember Gauri Shinde, the director of English Vinglish (2012) and Dear Zindagi (2016), confess to me that she wants to make at least a third film for the big screen before she can move on to the OTT space. “I don't know if there's a space in cinemas for the kind of movies I make,” she had told me. And Gauri had Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar, the biggest names of Bollywood, as her co-producers on Dear Zindagi (and Alia Bhatt as the lead actor).

Multiplex culture

“As filmmakers, everybody would like to go to the cinemas first. Although we're big fans of the streaming platforms. That's where we watch most of our content. They also have things that we just can't make for the cinemas,” says Kiran. But she's aware of the larger issue that plagues mid-budget movies like hers. “I think audience is interested in different kinds of films. But we have to deliver them at the right price point. They love your trailer but sometimes, the experience of going to the cinemas is so expensive. If we can diminish those challenges, then we'd be able to make any kind of film reach the audience,” she adds.

This isn't the first time mid-budget films are trying to wrestle for a shot at the big screen. When multiplexes cropped up across India in mid-2000s, a film like Bheja Fry broke out in unprecedented fashion. It introduced the concept of a sleeper hit, one that emerges as a box-office success despite low pre-release buzz and unfavourable trade estimates. “For this generation, I'd call it a ‘middle-of-the-road’ trend with relatable stories, focusing on the lives of the Indian middle class,” says Varun Grover, whose All India Rank, based on an IIT aspirant's tale, hit the theatres last week.

He's been a champion of the mid-budget movie for years, whether it's Neeraj Ghaywan's 2015 film Masaan that he wrote or Sharat Kataria's 2015 small-town romantic comedy Dum Laga Ke Haisha, that he penned the lyrics of. “These gradually faded away, partly due to Covid. After the pandemic, it took the industry a while to recover, but now, it's confident that people are returning to theatres and theatre owners are are also confident that films which aren't big star vehicles will attract audiences," he added.

Varun finds merit in the argument that India's diversity allows its movies to be of a certain range. While Covid may have caused ‘revenge viewing’ to take precedence over ‘relatable viewing,’ things are looking up now. However, it was only a few months ago that a big name like Taapsee Pannu had to struggle to get screens for her all-women production Dhak Dhak because the studio wanted to dump the film in cinemas only as a prerequisite for a Netflix release.

It would be a pity to have promising mid-budget miracles not enjoy a fair shot and be deemed flops just because of their size. It's the size of the beating heart that counts way more than the size of the exterior. No film deserves to be deprived of the depth of field and immersion that a cinema hall ensures. Kiran Rao sums it up well, “It's important for us to keep taking stories to the audience in such a way that cinema becomes the first place where you watch films. Because that collective experience just changes your response." It's only when you laugh or cry in public that makes you own your emotions.

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