'Pathaan': Can't argue with figures (IANS Column: B-Town)

By Vinod Mirani

Shah Rukh Khan has returned to the big screen after a gap of four years. And it was by no means a red carpet welcome back.

The actor, who has reigned as the quintessential romantic hero, was making one more attempt at blending romance with action, albeit the emphasis was on action.

The promotion of the film was launched with a very sensual song, 'Besharam Rang', on YouTube. Even as the song was garnering a few thousand hits per minutes, it triggered varied reactions, mostly negative. It is a fact that movie lovers feel somehow let down by the stars they have idolised in recent times and it is not limited to Shah Rukh Khan.

The movie market was expected to improve for the better post the pandemic lockdown, but that is not how it happened. Films were being rejected left, right and centre! Be it Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, or Aamir Khan. The year 2022 saw the smallest success count of just about three films (out of 96 releases), though the normal minimum success ratio has been 8 to 12 per cent over the years.

This, when after the Covid-19 lockdowns, when people were starved of outings, movies and other source of entertainment, they were expected to throng the cinemas. That is not how it happened. People had alienated themselves from cinema and cinema theatres. Whoever the stars may have been, people did not want to watch their films.

Yes, they had found the alternative to visiting movie theatres in various OTT platforms that had mushroomed before and during the lockdowns and the realisation that whatever the film, eventually it is bound to be available on an OTT platform.

There were many challenges to films, but the films have always been the first choice for the audience; the OTT platforms could not have deterred people from going to the cinemas. If that were the case, the business of Hollywood films, South Indian films and even some regional films should have suffered as much. Yet, they were all doing exceedingly well!

The film trade, the exhibitors and, probably, the moviegoer was waiting for that one film that would be the reason to visit a cinema. And the song 'Besharam Rang' kind of helped create that curiosity, though no one expected that the film that would draw the footfalls in hordes would be a Shah Rukh Khan film, that too with the actor playing an out-and-out action hero. He was loved as a romantic hero and his earlier attempts to veer away from that image were not fruitful. What also mattered was that the production house, Yash Raj Films, too, was not enjoying a good run despite releasing some high-budget films recently.

What worked for 'Pathaan' was the way the film's promotion was planned. It was kept in the news. Earlier it was in news all along negatively, but the PR exercise followed by SRK's team turned it around. A few days before the release, a TV news channel devoted a minute or two to the film on a regular basis. One day, a TV channel announced that four lakh tickets were already sold in advance.

How did the channel know that? India has no centralised portal to keep such a record!. In fact, no news media -- print, electronics or TV -- has sources to get this information. They reported what was fed to them! At the same time, there was also an anti-'Pathaan' lobby, which claimed that all the advance booking was SRK's own doing and tickets worth Rs 20 crore had been bought through the newly created fan clubs.

Videos to this affect were posted online showing a SRK fan club member visiting a cinema in Hyderabad and buying all 400 tickets and also displaying a wad of currency notes. SRK made calls to whoever mattered and won the war of campaigns.

This time, Shah Rukh Khan has gone all out and his film has been covered by not only Indian, but also the international media. Whatever the quality of the content of a film, the industry has one rule. Finally, the figures speak. And the figures of 'Pathaan' do that loud and clear. You cant argue with figures.

The Union Budget: Once a dreaded word

For years, the film industry dreaded and got worked up whenever the Union Budget was due to be announced. Governments thought nothing about the film industry and treated it like a milch cow. The film industry was subject to taxes on the import of negatives and to add to that the excise duty on the release prints. The only way they went was up.

There was no corporate or institutional finance in those days, due to which a filmmaker borrowed from individual film financiers and ended up paying a minimum of 36 per cent every year as interest on the borrowings deducted in advance per quarter. If he borrowed Rs 10 lakh, he got Rs 9.1 lakh in hand!

The reason a filmmaker dreaded the Budget was because the new taxes and levies would only push the costs higher. A producer tried to release his films before the new budget proposals came into effect -- that is, by March.

Post additional taxes, the only media writing about the plight of the films industry were the trade papers, which had limited or no circulation outside of the film trade. To the mainstream media these things did not matter mainly because they had little knowledge of the film industry, nor cared about how it worked, let alone understand its plight.

Now, when there is no reference to the industry in the Union Budget, there is no reaction from the film fraternity. There is no import duty, nor is there any excise duty. Today, film prints are in the digital format, but this excise business, anyway, was stopped long ago.

But then, our people are never satisfied and continued to complain. In this 2023-24 Budget, and even before that, they wanted the GST on film tickets to be reduced from 18 per cent to 12 per.

This expectations of the industry were really not practical; they were a sign of greed. When films were a state subject, entertainment tax varied from 100 per cent to 150 per cent, but the industry never complained.

In this generation, the film folk are mostly educated, but they never apply their learning or their mind when it comes to such things. What is your problem with GST? You are not paying it, the one who buys a cinema ticket pays it.

If your film is worth it, they will pay your unreasonably enhanced admission rates plus GST. And, if you think that the GST reduction will bring in more footfalls, why don't you cut your admission rates, which are abominable at best of times?



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Title: 'Pathaan': Can't argue with figures (IANS Column: B-Town)

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