Although the wave of controversy over the delay in the release of Vishwaroopam is likely to die down once the movie releases in Tamil Nadu, the real tragedy will be the failure of the Tamil film industry to come together on matters critical to its future.
The biggest problem facing the industry, on the creative side and the business side, has been financing. It is well known that the industry functions mostly on usurious loans for lack of corporate backing. And the big stars present the toughest challenge as they end up demanding exorbitant salaries upfront, pushing the producers to look for expensive under-the-radar deals. “You can count on the fingers of one hand the number of financiers for all big budget Tamil films in the industry today. They expect a 3.5 per cent interest on their loan on a month-on-month basis. Period,” an industry insider, who did not wish to be named, said.
Compare the Tamil film industry with Bollywood. Mumbai has been able to reinvent itself over the past decade and cut itself away from underworld patronage. Some production houses are publicly listed companies, able to schedule their movies at multiplexes months in advance. The mantra is ‘live and let live.’ The skirmish between Ajay Devgan’s Son of Sardar and Shah Rukh Khan’s Jab Tak Hain Jaan seems to be a one-off occurrence.
In the Tamil film industry, the scenario is one of contrast. Leave alone the funding, there is little understanding among the players. Often, last minute scheduling, backed by political and monetary might, could make or break a movie. The plight of small films is even worse. They often get shunted out of theatres to make way for the big budget movies.
The manner in which the big stars approach projects is also different. While some of the ‘A list’ stars in the Hindi industry are willing to work on a smaller upfront payment and adopt a profit share after the film’s release, their counterparts in the Tamil industry insist on a big upfront settlement.
This shrinks the film-makers’ budget. And often, midway during the production, they find themselves requiring further finance. This is the stage where their negotiations for audio rights, overseas rights and satellite television rights (as a lease for 99 years) bring in the money. The deals are often unfair but the filmmakers are willing to pledge anything.
The difficulty in raising funds midway also affects the production values, in spite of having the best technicians. This is why south Indian technicians look for work in Hindi films. Another secret that no one wants to go on record about is the ticketing. Though the projection systems and delivery of content have moved to digital, the ticketing in most theatres in B and C centres has not. There is gross underreporting and a thriving black economy.
The biggest hurt caused by the Vishwaroopam controversy would not be just to its producers but to the credibility of the Tamil film industry. Those seeking corporate funding would now be hard-pressed to convince investors. The industry’s uncomfortable proximity to successive regimes — whichever party has been in power — and its reluctance to stand together is hurting.