A tryst with money

Big production houses are stepping in to finance Bengali films, ushering in a professional, corporate culture in the industry. Hemchhaya De on what's making the money come Tollywood's way

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 30.06.13

Jeet can't stop gushing over the "look" and "attitude" of his Boss. Indeed, the Tollywood star's upcoming venture looks every bit like a big-budget Bollywood masala film, complete with over-the-top action sequences and the lead pair cavorting in exotic locales.

Boss has been co-produced by Jeet's fledgling production company, Grassroot Entertainment, with corporate giant Reliance Entertainment. "More and more companies are heading towards Tollywood to invest in Bengali films," says Jeet. The actor, who made his debut in the hit Saathi 11 years ago, is also co-producing a film called Royal Bengal Tiger with another Mumbai company, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures.

Following the Saradha scam, Tollywood has been under fire for its ties with so-called chit fund companies. Unofficial estimates say about 60 per cent of its films had been produced by money-market companies over the past couple of years. But clearly, the industry is determined to clean up its act by bringing in a more transparent, corporate structure for film production. And the buzzword in Tollywood today is "structured finance" — or the pooling of economic assets, which is common in Bollywood and the south Indian film industry.

"After the chit fund scam exposure, about 25-30 films have been stalled," says Swarup Biswas, president, Federation of Cine Technicians and Workers of Eastern India. "We have asked our parent body, Eastern India Motion Pictures Association (EIMPA) to ensure that producers with proper credentials come to the industry."

That seems to be happening already. "There is interest in Tollywood as we see big names such as Reliance entering the market," says Namit Bajoria, owner and director of Kutchina (a company dealing in kitchen appliances), who has produced such urban-centric films as Jaani Dekha Hobe and the upcoming Prosenjit-starrer Hanuman.com.

Indeed, apart from established production houses such as Shree Venkatesh Films, Eskay Movies and Surinder Films, local and Mumbai companies too seem to be thronging the industry to back good cinema.

Actors too feel that there's a growing "corporate culture" in the industry today. And it's already ensuring better and more structured working conditions. "Even a few years ago, there was little professionalism in production work," says Payel Sarkar, a popular mainstream actress whose upcoming film Ashare Gappo, which got shelved after the Saradha scam, is now ready to hit the theatres after a new producer stepped in. "But now, with companies coming in, timelines are being maintained and everyone has a designated role to play in the production process."

In Reliance's case, it's a re-entry. The group started out in Bengal with Rituparno Ghosh's Sab Charitra Kalponik in 2007 and then went on to make more arthouse films such as Ghosh's Abohoman and Buddhadeb Dasgupta's Janala. "Those films won national awards and we are proud of them. But we suffered heavy losses," says Shibasish Sarkar, CEO, Reliance Entertainment, which recently produced middle-of-the-road films such as the Bratya Basu-starrer Mahapurush Kapurush and Anjan Datta's Ganesh Talkies. "After a brief hiatus, we have come back with a more structured approach — we have our own distribution and marketing teams for the Bengali market."

Reliance says it will produce six to eight Bengali films a year. "We are looking at all kinds of cinema — we want to do 2-3 commercial films," says Sarkar. "We are also talking to directors such as Anjan Datta and Aniruddha Roy Choudhury (of Antaheen and Aparajito Tumi fame) to do masala films."

One reason companies are returning to Tollywood is that the market dynamics have changed. "We have been doing our market research for the past 18 months. Definitely there is a change in the industry today," says Sarkar.

The latest (2012) Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (Ficci) report on the media and film industry in Bengal notes that Tollywood has grown, both in terms of the number of films being made and the investments made in these films. According to the last available figures, in 2011, 100 films were released, up from the 45 films released in 2006. In terms of investment (cost of production and marketing), about Rs 150 crore was spent last year, 20 per cent more than in the previous year.

It's not just the big production houses, though. Several Bengal-based business houses and entrepreneurs are looking to invest in Bengali films and bringing in structured financing. Take Globsyn, which has set up a media unit to produce films.

Rahul Dasgupta, director, Globsyn Group, reveals that his company plans to set up a board comprising companies, build a corpus of Rs 5-10 crore, and work on portfolio management for films — in other words, follow a structured, professional approach to filmmaking.

Swapan Mukherjee, owner of Duckbill Drugs, has a similar vision. He has joined hands with several high net worth individuals and financial institutions to form Vignesh Creations, a production house that's making the Paoli Dam-starrer Ajaana Batas. "We want to bring in structured financing and we want to do clean, meaningful cinema," says Mukherjee.

The JIS Group, known for its educational institutes, has also ventured into film production with Kaushik Ganguly's C/ Sir starring Saswata Chatterjee and Raima Sen.

Tollywood producers say that the need for structured financing in Bengali films cannot be overemphasised. This will help in the better utilisation of available capital and help minimise risk, says Bajoria.

For example, Citigroup has a new form of limited partnership in Hollywood aimed at creating a more substantial equity investment vehicle for high net worth individuals keen on investing in films with a reasonable expectation of making returns. Called "partnership film financing", this is expected to draw newer groups of investors and also help boost infrastructure and distribution channels. "This model can be followed here too," says Bajoria.

Even big production houses such as Surinder Films, known for its big budget commercial films, are looking at investments from financial institutions. "As of now we (Surinder Films) are self-funded," says Nispal Singh, director of Surinder Films, who got married to actress Koel Mullick this year. "However, we are keen to have participation from financial institutions."

Structured financing would also help boost the marketing budget of films. "Most standalone producers here spend 80-90 per cent of the stipulated movie budget on production and post-production and there's little left over for marketing and promotion," says Sayantan Das Adhikari, director, Candid Communication, which handles marketing for various Tollywood production houses. "If we have structured financing in Tollywood, there could be a decent budget left for film promotions."

  • CORPORATE CROP: (From top) A poster of Boss, which has been co-produced by Reliance Entertainment; a still from Hanuman.com; Tollywood actress Payel Sarkar

Ficci says it is already working on corporatisation and opening newer channels for film financing in Tollywood. "It is on Ficci's radar to try to bring corporatisation into Tollywood," says Leena Jaisani, senior director and head, media and entertainment, Ficci.

But some are sceptical about whether corporatisation would make any difference in Tollywood. Says Arijit Datta, managing director of Priya Entertainments, which owns cinema halls in Bengal, "In structured finance a producer has to give a timeline; accordingly the cash flow will be ensured. You cannot shoot a film now and then say you are going to finish it after three months. How many producers in Bengal will follow this?"

Others say that the big corporate houses will pull back when they see that the returns are simply not good enough. After all, the Bengali film industry is a relatively small market, and one that's still plagued by poor infrastructure. "If we consider the scale of the industry, Bengal is not a market that will really attract us," admits Sarkar of Reliance. But he points to a bigger picture: "If we consider the Indian scenario in full, Bengal is the place from where great directors and technicians have come to Mumbai for the past 60 years or so. So it's the content and the talent pool that make Bengali films so appealing to us."

Tollywood's denizens — its actors, directors and producers — will hope that it can continue to hold that appeal and attract the moolah. And thereby bring the industry on a par with other thriving filmdoms elsewhere in the country.