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Opinion: Opinion | Lights, Camera, Paycuts: Why Bollywood Needs To Stop Bleeding Producers Dry

Opinion: Opinion | Lights, Camera, Paycuts: Why Bollywood Needs To Stop Bleeding Producers Dry

Last month saw the release of Kalki 2898AD, and as of July 4, the Prabhas starrer has grossed more than Rs 700 crore at the box office. The success of this Tollywood film has naturally sparked comparisons with the Hindi film industry, with its recent flops coming into sharp relief. The recent Bade Miyan Chote Miyan fiasco only highlighted those concerns. Its box-office failure was followed by allegations from crew members that Pooja Entertainment, the production house backing the film, was yet to pay them their dues. In fact, actor Akshay Kumar reportedly had to step in and ask the company to clear the dues before paying him. 

The churn Bollywood is going through has stirred up a hornet’s nest, with many feeling that there is a serious need for course correction. There is widespread chatter about exorbitant star fees and their entourage costs, and writers, DOPs and other crew members have started speaking up about the extreme disparity in pay structures in the Hindi film industry.

Every Friday counts

While Bollywood stars have for years now been able to charge exorbitant fees, the Covid-19 pandemic set in motion a lot of changes. The Hindi film industry went through deep turmoil, and some say it has still not been able to regain its footing. Only Shah Rukh Khan has managed to deliver blockbusters in the last two years. A slew of big-star Hindi films, like Jayeshbhai Jordaar, Laal Singh Chaddha, Ram Setu, Cirkus, Adipurush, Selfiee, Maidaan and Bade Miyan Chote Miyan, have all flopped at the box office, causing great worry to producers and actors alike.

Back in 2022, ace director S.S. Rajamouli had pointed out that the downfall of Hindi cinema in that year – considered one of the worst periods for Bollywood ever – was because of the high fees of actors and directors. “What happened once corporates started coming into the Hindi film industry and paying high fees to actors, directors and companies, was that the need to ‘I have to succeed at any cost’ has come down a little bit; the hunger [to succeed] has come down a little bit. Here, down South, that was not there. You have to swim or you are going to sink.”

A popular filmmaker from the Southern film industry who wished to remain anonymous reflects on the high star fees and entourage costs. “Remember, every Friday counts. If a star becomes too expensive for a producer to manage and they’re already on tenterhooks and the star pushes it – as long as the star is succeeding and selling tickets on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, they’ll curse under their breath but they’ll keep hiring the star. But the minute the star has two or three flops, they’ll drop him or her like a hot potato and the person becomes invisible. At that point, no one wants to put up with it anymore. Thus, the stars need to strike a balance and know when they’re hiking expenses for a producer beyond limits.”

The Economics Of A Project

However, Pankaj Jaysinh of UFO Moviez India says it’s the producers who have the ultimate say in a project and that stars shouldn’t be blamed for their high fees and costs. “No doubt that big names are expensive, but it’s all economics (demand vs supply). If several movie producers are chasing a star, he or she is going to up their fees, and vice-versa. And it’s not that only movies with stars are hits. There have been content-based movies made in Rs 20-40 crore, like Munjya, Madgaon Express, Teri Baaton Mein Uljha Jiya, which did well. Audiences love good content too and stars don’t matter in this case. There are also experiential films made on Rs 100-300 crore budgets, like Kalki, Fighter and Pathaan. Here, the audience wants to see grandeur and stars. Thus, a producer, depending on his budget, always has the option to go for either of these categories. It’s the producer’s call. I don’t think we can blame stars for their high costs,” he emphasises.

The fact, nonetheless, remains that most Bollywood stars come to sets with their entire entourage (of up to even 20 people at times, including stylists, nutritionists, hairdressers, gym trainers, bouncers, etc), and the producer usually has no issues – sometimes, no choice – in coughing up money. It’s the writers and other crew members who bear the brunt and get short-changed for their work. It’s no secret that screenwriters are some of the most poorly paid members of the Indian film industry. Atika Chohan, who is known for Margarita With a Straw (2014), Chhapaak (2020) and Ulajh (2024), says, “The production budgets leave no room for writers and development, and this is a fact. No one takes risks with new ideas and voices, while everyone bleeds money on actors who bring nothing new to the table but extreme losses. This is one of the biggest contributing factors to the current industry recession and market correction. In Bollywood, actors consider it an insult if they are not pampered like gods. It’s embarrassing.”

A Better Business Model

Perhaps there is another business model that could work. Director Anurag Kashyap recently spoke about how the big Khans of B-Town – Shah Rukh, Salman, and Aamir – don’t charge fees for their films and thus, their movies are easier to produce. “They take backend profits, so their films are never costly,” Kashyap said. 

The South has lessons too. While Bollywood producers are struggling with star fees, entourage costs and the like, the South film industry has shown remarkable cost-sensitivity. Kannada filmmaker Anup Bhandari, who worked recently with superstar Sudeep in Vikrant Rona, says the actors here are very aware. “In the South, especially the Kannada film industry, the actors are far more conscious about not burdening the producers. Their entourage mostly consists of their staff and a few key people. I have also seen actors asking producers to ensure they stay within the budget and some who have gone out of their way to help producers with costs,” says the RangiTaranga director. True, even South has expensive big names, but film trade analysts say that this is justifiable due to their huge market not just across India but internationally as well. 

Post-COVID-19, many in the Hindi film industry, including producers, studio heads, and top executives, are looking for a market correction, beginning with star fees. The unpredictability of the entertainment business coupled with a changing audience that is flooded with options means that quality and fulfilment of expectations are paramount today. 

The need of the hour is a cost-effective and healthy ecosystem.”Compare the Hindi film industry to the business models in Kerala, where actors produce good cinema. Take, for instance, Mammootty’s Kaathal The Core, and every Fahad Faasil film. They are examples of a healthy film economy and a creative ecosystem.”

As one trade analyst pointed out, Bollywood should perhaps take a leaf out of the South film industry to get back on the road to profitability – not just in terms of content but in terms of production costs as well.

(The author is a senior entertainment journalist and film critic)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

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