Not a rosy picture on the silver screen in Kerala

Allegations of drug abuse, inability to draw the crowds to cinema halls, and conflicts between actors and producers mar the Malayalam film scene

Updated - May 12, 2023 12:59 pm IST

Published - May 11, 2023 07:33 pm IST - KOCHI

Cinema posters displayed at MG Road in Kochi. Despite the steady number of new releases, only a few pass the test at the box-office. Only one movie out of the over 75 movies released since January 2023 clicked, showing the downward trend in the multi-crore Malayalam film industry.

Cinema posters displayed at MG Road in Kochi. Despite the steady number of new releases, only a few pass the test at the box-office. Only one movie out of the over 75 movies released since January 2023 clicked, showing the downward trend in the multi-crore Malayalam film industry. | Photo Credit: H VIBHU

When actor Tini Tom dropped the bombshell over the use of drugs in the Malayalam film industry, he was literally letting the genie out of the bottle.

While it was for long the worst kept secret in the industry, it was perhaps for the first time a mainstream actor publicly acknowledged it. Inaugurating the Kerala University youth festival at Alappuzha last week, Mr. Tom went to the extent of revealing that he had recently worked with an actor whose teeth had started crumbling following the use of drugs.

He further divulged how his wife turned down an offer for their son to act in a move for fear that he may fall into the drug trap. The actor’s revelation sent shock waves across the Malayalam film industry and even prompted the Excise department to collect a statement from him.

Also read | Police to keep tabs on film sets to prevent drug abuse

K. Sethu Raman, District Police Chief (Kochi City), says shadow teams will be deployed in film locations to nab those involved in the sale and use of drugs.

A hushed up subject in the industry circles is now out in the open with the Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the apex body of trade organisations in Malayalam film industry, and the Kerala Film Producers’ Association (KFPA) admitting to the menace while extending support to the enforcement agencies to crack down on suspected drug abuse in the industry.

The drugs scandal is the latest hurdle to hit the multi-crore industry staring at myriad crises. From the growing list of box-office duds to theatres facing imminent closures and the soaring movie budgets along with the alleged lack of professionalism among a few young actors, the industry has for long been staring at an existential crisis.

As per estimates by the KFPA and the Film Exhibitors’ United Organisation of Kerala (FEUOK), the industry had suffered an estimated loss of ₹300 crore in 2022 as more than 90% of the movies released between January and December tanked at the box-office. Only 17 of the 176 releases clicked. The situation is no different in 2023. Only one (Romancham) of the over 75 releases up to April-end can be termed a hit. 

“The warning signs are clear. Unless there is a concerted effort, the industry may slip into a major crisis soon,” says G. Sureshkumar, president of the Kerala Film Chamber of Commerce. The chamber and the KFPA are blaming the rising pay packets of lead actors for the spiralling production cost.

“Salary of lead actors accounts for about 55% of the total budget. For a movie having a budget of ₹10 crore, the salary of actors will be around ₹6 crore. The production cost is only ₹2 crore for a movie in which the lead actor is taking home a pay of ₹2 crore. Let them take the higher pay packet, if their movies are having a steady successful run at the box-office and reduce it when it goes the opposite way. The box-office return of a recent movie of an actor, who took home a pay of ₹3 crore was only ₹30 lakh. Lead technicians are also raising their salary these days within a short span of success. A director, who had made three movies up to now, recently demanded a ₹1-crore pay packet after his last work turned out to be a hit,” he says.

However, the lead actors have a different take as they claim that they fix their salary in tune with the earnings made by the producer after sale of OTT and satellite rights while banking on their stardom.

Actor Baburaj, executive committee member of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA), says producers continue to depend on the star value of actors to improve their earnings.

“It is the choice of the producer to select an actor for his venture. If he does not want to pay a higher salary for an actor, he can look for other options. This has been a regular trend for a long time. If a movie becomes a hit, the actor will increase his salary. His value will come down naturally, if four of his movies crash at the box-office in a row. We should also not forget the fact that there had been several occasions in which actors had agreed to reduce their assured salary after realising that the producer’s financial situation had turned worse,” he says. 

Industry representatives say the initial euphoria over the soaring returns from the sale of OTT rights has faded over the past one year. “The OTT players have considerably reduced their pricing as they are now looking at the response for the movie at the cinemas before accepting a film. Though we do not have the exact figures, only 30% of the recent releases were able to sell the digital rights owing to the downward trend,” according to M. Renjith, president of the KFPA.

The theatres are also facing the heat of the crisis as the number of hits has started affecting their prospects. From about 1,200 screens a decade back, the count has now come down to around 670.

According to FEUOK estimates, nearly 25% of the theatre owners are staring at a crisis after they defaulted on the loan repayment following the drop in collections.

“I will blame a section of lead actors and producers, who opted for a digital-first release, instead of releasing their movies on the big screen. We cannot ignore the reality that the audiences have developed an inclination for watching movies that do not require a theatre experience on the OTT platforms. Since January 2023, there have been numerous occasions where exhibitors had dropped screening of movies after only four or five viewers turned up to watch the initial shows,” says K. Vijayakumar, president of FEUOK.

“The lead actors and producers, who had embraced the digital platforms, have now realised the hard truth after the OTT platforms started rejecting films that failed to click in theatres. Besides the overall dip in theatre collections for several movies, the exhibitors are also facing the burden of increased building tax imposed by the government. We are now planning to support movies that are having good content rather than screening poor-quality works that are mostly made with the intent of reaping business from the sale of OTT rights,” he says.

Urging the OTT platforms to take a decision that they will buy only movies that are unique in content, Sabu Cherian, former chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation and executive committee member of the Film Federation of India, says it will pave way for re-branding a movie as per its content and not on the brand value of lead actors.

“Before the emergence of OTT platforms, actors were claiming a higher salary based on the returns made by the producer after the sale of satellite rights. Once the digital platforms mushroomed and started lapping up films, satellite rights have seen a sharp decline as people switched to the OTT platforms instead of watching it on television channels. The average returns from the sale of satellite rights have now dwindled to one-fourth of the earnings from the sale of digital rights,” he says.

Despite a series of controversies, the industry remains a divided house on the issue of suspected drug use among a section of actors. Though the Film Chamber of Commerce and the KFPA had repeatedly raised the topic and called for intervention by the government and enforcement agencies, the Film Exhibitors’ Federation of Kerala (FEFKA) has a different take on it.

“We do not have a database of actors alleged to be using drugs as claimed by the association of producers. Such issues cannot be taken up on the basis of hearsay,” says B. Unnikrishnan, general secretary.

“FEFKA will be soon holding detailed discussions on the various issues facing the industry, including the topic of suspected drug use,” he says.

The fissures within the organisations were clear as the executive council of AMMA has not yet endorsed the revelations made by Mr. Tom and Mr. Baburaj on the drug use among a few actors.

“The association does not have any list of actors who are suspected of using drugs. The executive committee will take up the issue and allegations of lack of professionalism raised against actors Sreenath Bhasi and Shane Nigam at its next meeting,” says Edavela Babu, general secretary. 

The KFPA has made it clear that they will caution its members against cooperating with actors suspected to be using drugs and not abiding by the clauses in the work agreement signed with the producers.

Also read | Sreenath Bhasi applies for AMMA membership

Filmmaker Vinayan, former president of the Malayalam Cine Technicians’ Association (MACTA) Federation, blames the fluctuating positions adopted by the leadership of trade bodies in the industry for the present crisis.

“You will not be able to act against those showing lack of professionalism and indiscipline, once you start diluting your stance on various issues for personal gains and to build your contacts with the who-is-who of the industry. I had recently heard a leader of a trade body showering praises on an actor for his punctuality. This actor had skipped shooting of a recent movie and flew to Bengaluru while the remaining cast and crew were waiting for him at the location. The producer had to incur loss as the shooting got disrupted. On the issue of drug menace, I have a view that the best prescription will be not to work with actors suspected of using drugs. They will either stop using it if they continuously lose assignments or face a likely exit from the industry,” he says.

Theatres have started feeling the punch of the crisis in the Malayalam film industry. As per the estimates by the Film Exhibitors’ United Organisation of Kerala, around 15 cinemas are facing threat of confiscation of property by banks that had provided loans to exhibitors.

Theatres have started feeling the punch of the crisis in the Malayalam film industry. As per the estimates by the Film Exhibitors’ United Organisation of Kerala, around 15 cinemas are facing threat of confiscation of property by banks that had provided loans to exhibitors. | Photo Credit: H VIBHU

Despite the trade bodies crying out loud for remedial action, the number of new releases continues to be on the rise. If 2022 had 176 releases, the number has already crossed 80 since January 2023. An assessment by the Film Chamber of Commerce shows that around 80% of the movies were produced by first-timers.

“Though the chamber and the KFPA advise them about the pitfalls in advance, they prefer to go ahead with the project based on the assurances given by the director or a production controller backing the project. They are like tourists who leave the scene after facing setbacks at the box-office,” says Mr. Sureshkumar. 

Mr. Cherian quelled doubts of money laundering in the industry, saying that producers are paying value added tax for the salary given to actors and every penny spent is accounted for. 

But the Income Tax department has not yet taken such claims at face value. It recently carried out inspections at the offices and residences of leading actor-producers and a few production houses for suspected tax evasion, unaccounted cash transactions, and investments in real estate abroad.

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