Pritish Nandy recently wrote in a blog: “Real filmmakers don’t budget big. They budget smart. What they chase is big ideas, not big spend. They don’t depend on stars to make their films succeed. On the contrary, the success of their films creates stars.”
If one were to apply this yardstick to Tollywood a decade ago, one would have come up against a Chinese wall. The big stars ruled the roost with their faithful directors and producers dishing out a time-tested recipe — a masala mix of love, hate, sex and violence.
Thankfully, the law of diminishing returns plus the advent of a few good men changed the landscape. What Ram Gopal Varma did (in his heyday) in Bollywood with his low-budget flicks has been replicated in Hyderabad — with more creativity. An ex-service man revolutionised Telugu cinema in year 2000, portraying a story of close pals turning soul-mates. Produced on a shoestring budget, K Vijay Bhaskar’s Nuvve Kavali (Want Only You) went on to play for more than 175 days and also gave Tollywood a new star: Tarun (who was only 17 then). More importantly, it gifted the film industry a new brainy writer called Trivikram Srinivas and a new formula for success: get your story right, never mind the cast.
What followed was a spate of low-budget movies with a whole host of fresh faces. Most of them turned out to be rubbish as they went back again to the old formula of a masala mix in the face of thought-poverty. But overall, in the eight years after Nuvve Kavali, many new directors came on to the stage with films like Anand, Happy Days, Ashta Chemma and Gamyam. It began to defy notions that all people want is garam masala.
Noted director Dasari Narayana Rao says there are many creative and enterprising directors in Tollywood. “Films like Aadivaram Aadavallaku Selavu, made on a budget of just Rs 96 lakh, returned business worth Rs 4 crore,” he points out. But one film that totally changed the scenario — making everybody sit up and take notice — was Happy Days (2007). Technically, the movie was made with a little over Rs 2 crore. It had an unfamiliar cast, a new music director, much-abused theme of campus romance and a director, Shekhar Kammula, who had tasted only moderate success.
But Happy Days went on to become one of the biggest hits, making instant stars out of all the people associated with it. It even crossed the collections of super-hits of A-list stars such as Chiranjeevi, Mahesh Babu and Pawan Kalyan. Actor-cum-producer Vinay Pathak notes Indian markets have opened up and begun accepting films with different concepts. “That’s the reason why we could produce the film, sell it and not only recover the cost of production but also make profits out of it,” he adds.
Gamyam director Kris (Radhakrishna Jagarlamudi), who won the Filmfare Award for 2008, says Tollywood has a lot of talented people. “They are out there, waiting for a chance… to prove themselves.” He himself is a source of inspiration. He took the script of Gamyam to every producer in Tollywood only to be rejected for the lack of masala. Exasperated, he got his father to invest Rs 2 crore. Needless to say, the film returned a lot more. Despite his experience, people in the business are still wary of new talent but at the same time, low-budget concepts have given the likes of Kris new opportunities.
“Gamyam was a very good break for me,” Kamalini says. “Kris had a bound script when he started shooting the film, which turned the tide in the Telugu film industry. I am told even Savaari has done the same thing to the Kannada film industry. The Hindi version is being made by Dasari Narayana Rao.”
Even director S S Rajamouli, also a star producer, has announced plans to concentrate more on small-budget films from now on. “I started my career with a small-budget movie, so I very well know its value,” he says.
In fact, the small-budget film isn’t a new concept. Earlier, Bapu and then the late Jandhyala had shown the way. Later, filmmakers like Relangi Narasimha Rao walked in their footsteps with some success. Interestingly, most of these small-budget movies fell into the genre of comedy, with humanity at its heart. More recently, filmmakers like Nagesh Kukunoor, Gunnam Gangaraju, Chandrasekhar Yeleti and Sekhar Kammula dared with films, all of which had a distinct personal touch. Some of these met with decent commercial success as well.
Kukunoor moved to greener pastures, but Kammula hung on to make films like Godavari and Happy Days. “Our tie-ups with corporates saved us a lot of money on the costumes front,” notes Kammula. “Location charges were free because CBIT refused to charge. I didn’t use any fancy camera equipment except for the hawk lenses. The remunerations of cast were minimal as I had signed new faces. The technicians worked for a relatively lower remuneration and gave their maximum output. It was like a collaboration for a good cinema.” Definitely, it’s a refreshing trend in the new cinema world and goes to show that the time now has come for content to be stronger than anything else.
When small is big
Ashta Chamma, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, released in September last year continues to run to packed houses even now. Made on a modest budget of Rs 1.6 crore, its box-office returns have reportedly crossed Rs 7 crore till date and it’s now been selected as an entrepreneurial case study by the Indian School of Business.
Ashta Chamma has new faces, a new director and a first-time producer from the IIM-A alumnus, Ram Mohan. For Ram, this is a way of giving back to his academics but for his professors, it’s an opportunity to study Tollywood. This project also showcases the business avenues that the film industry presents to entrepreneurs.
In the last two years, many films of top heroes such as Nagarjuna, Venkatesh, Balakrishna and Ravi Teja have flopped. But small-budget films such as Vinayakudu, Ashta Chemma, Ullasanga Uthsahanga, Ready and Kotha Bangaru Lokam went on to become smash hits.