Journalist-turned producer-director B.R. CHOPRA, who has made several socially relevant movies, writes on the sorry state of producers in India today.
You really don’t have to search for an answer for the question posed. It is so obvious. In one sentence. We are not united and perhaps will never be.
You will now want to know the reason. That also is quite obvious and you don’t have to search far for it.
There is an-built weakness in the production sector because of its overall dependence upon everything and everybody else, particularly the temperamental and unpredictable human element, which goes into the making of movies.
An army of indisciplined soldiers cannot make for victory. The worst part is that the indiscipline seems part of the producer’s physiognomy. He cannot think freely. The very set-up around him makes him a slave, not a master. You will say, ‘But, sir, even slaves fight for freedom?’ No, it appears that after the struggle for independence, we have lost the zest for any further battle. And you will find this attitude of mental inertia in all walks of Indian life.
I do not know how united we were before Partition but I do know that there were no serious problems affecting the industry. We had only a dozen or so producers and each one of them turned out half a dozen or more movies. There was no star-system-at least in had not assumed the pernicious proportions it has today. By and large, artistes were attached to individual producers and worked on a permanent basis. And whenever an artiste appeared in the movie of another producer, he was loaned by courtesy of his/her studio.
Production in those days did not involve the hassles there are today. Punctuality and discipline were taken for granted and truancy was only exceptional. I remember how once Mazhar Khan, a busy star of yesteryear, arrived late on the set of Prabhat’s ‘Padosi’. Director V. Shantaram shouted, “Pack-up” and folded up for the day to teach the artiste a lesson, and to show him that coming on time was not a matter of choice, however big the artiste - it had to be respected as a routine.
The Brand that Counts
The producers and directors held a place of prestige and we seldom heard about a confrontation on the sets. I will not forget the incident when a popular director was called from Calcutta by Ranjit chief, Chandulal Shah; the director stated his price as one rupee higher than the highest-paid artiste. Those were the days when the directors were respected and the film’s quality was determined not so much by the star names as by the name of the brand.
On the business side also the relationship between the various branches was based largely on a mutual recognition of business ethics. By and large the production concerns had permanent distribution outlets and rarely did we hear about any internecine skirmishes. In fact, except for IMPPA, which was there to regulate production problems, if any, and which was there to regulate productions problems, if any, and which was there simply to announce annually the leader of the industry (which did to some extent import politics into the ranks of producers), there were no other associations. Perhaps there was no need for these, as both in the production and the distribution sectors, there was a sense of mutual respect and business was run according to traditionally accepted ethics. The long association of producers and distributors can be traced in practically all the institutions of those times ranging from Wadias to Prabhat and from New Theatres to Ranjit. It was only a rare C.M. Trivedi who, unable to fit into the pattern of things, struggled to introduce free-lancing in the ranks of directors and artistes. But and large, however, peaceful co-existence reigned between the various sections of the industry.
Even the exhibitor, who has a stranglehold monopoly today, had not discovered the middle-man at that time; it was a matter of personal pride to him to show good films to his clients. He was not merely a profit-making machine as he is today. He was deeply interested in the product he showed and just as the producers made pictures and provided the products, the exhibitor held himself responsible for the money and ploughed back earning into films thus completing the cycle of business. The producer distributor relationship was that of a manufacture-trade and often becomes a closely-knit unit. In some cases, even the exhibitor joined this unit when he acknowledges a preference for a particular brand or a couple of brands. Nishat, Lahore, for example carried the emblems of Ranjit, Bombay Talkies and New Theatres in the lobby and showed the pictures of these three brands on the basis of absolute priority.
The Government in those days had very little to do with films. Censorship was no problems and entertainment tax appeared only in the mid-forties-and that too only as a token levy. They did not have a Morarjee to think of an excise duty on prints because, in those days, the British rulers did not like to tax entertainment. It was left to free Indian to invent taxes on entertainment possibly because free Indian society has no right to free entertainment (according to some unmentioned mandate of Mahatma Gandhi).
Before and After
This then is the picture of the Indian film industry prior to independence and Partition. Organizational set ups had some kind of an in-built financial base which protected the producers against the vagaries of box-office and since they were harassed by the Government or a hostile Censor, they were able to devote time (which these days is consumed in wooing the Government) to improve the quality of their pictures. Most of these set-ups have left their mark in the history of the industry. Whether they were united or not really did not matter - they seemed to run their business comfortably, and the technicians and artistes seemed to work harmoniously together. We did not hear of two-hour shifts or stars absconding from sets.
Then artistes did not like to work in too many movies. Work in the studios progressed in an orderly fashion and there was no congestion in any department. People enjoyed working and they did not have to unite against any outside agency or any tendencies which created indiscipline. When I came to Bombay as a journalist in the year 1938, I found the film industry was just one big family. I repeated my visits almost every year and always this happy family atmosphere greeted me. There was a sense of healthy rivalry, which worked in the interest of quality. And even in the case of artistes who were the “selling points” in those days too there was a friendly give and take between them. Indiscipline was not tolerated by anybody and the producer was both respected and feared.
But after the War and the advent of free-lancing, the scene changed drastically.
During the war years, there was shortage of raw stock and rationing was introduced. There were, however, certain adventurers who managed to get hold of raw stock and made their unwelcome appearances as producers. For the first time in the history of Indian motion pictures, we saw the emergence of the so-called independent producers who had no studios nor any organization to back them up, and who, in a short while, brought about or encouraged free-lancing for the first time in the industry.
This movement of the independents gained momentum when the Partitioned ripped the country into two and gods of refugees crossed over from the North in search of livelihood. Some of those refugees spilled over into Bombay and some settled for a career in films. I was one of those refugees who had no qualification excepts the will to fight starvation. For the refugee producer on organizational set-up was not possible. Nor had they the resources of the old production concerns.