While the success of Avengers: Endgame is a sign that the Indian audience loves fantasy films, issues of budgeting, planning, and writing are preventing Indian filmmakers from jumping on to the fantasy bandwagon.
The genre of fantasy is powerful because it transports one from the realm of the known, into the unknown where zombies, ghouls, superheroes, and other supernatural beings abound. While the Anthony and Joe Russo-directed film, Avengers: Endgame, which raked in about $43 million from Indian shores, proves that the Indian audience has an appetite for fantasy, the fate of Indian-made fantasy films turn this finding on its head.
While the Baahubali franchise, indie-film Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota and the Marathi-language sleeper hit Tumbbad, have been recent exceptions, one can say that Indian cinema is largely devoid of films belonging to the fantasy genre. Attempts were made in films like Ra.One, Thugs of Hindostan, A Flying Jatt, and others, but most of these did not enjoy commercial or critical successes. Talking about the reason for this dearth, Pete Draper, CEO and co-founder of Makuta VFX, the company behind Baahubali’s special effects says, “It comes down to stories, franchises, markets, whether producers are willing to take risks as a lot of them prefer formulaic fantasy or masala-heroic films, because otherwise, there are too many risks involved.”
To make fantastical scenes in fantasy movies believable, bigger budgets are required. However, often, a large chunk of the budget goes towards actors’ fees and hence there isnt much left to invest in the film.
The film critic Raja Sen draws a comparison between Bollywood actors’ fees and their Hollywood counterparts when he says, “When we make big budget movies in India, we prioritise actors’ fees to such an inflated degree that you don’t have any money left for anything else. So when Robert Downey Jr. is making $60 million on a movie which costs about $250 million, here in India is Aamir Khan, who is getting Rs 65 crores in a movie that costs Rs 80 crores. As a result, we don’t invest in super expensive genres like fantasy, as it is always a risk,” he illustrates.
Vasan Bala, whose Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota was critically acclaimed in India and overseas, says that to match-up to the scale and budget of international superhero movies, our film distribution system and budgets have to get bigger and better. He says, “Hollywood built an audience all around the world, for the past 100 years. The studio system got stronger, bigger, and they figured out distribution; they figured out a way to make these films effectively over a period of time. Not just with effective storytelling, but also with effective production design, special effects, casting and mounting — everything. They have kind of mastered the art, so if we look at their reach and the budget of these films, they are 20-30 times more than ours,” he explains.
Moreover, the exorbitant Virtual Print Fee (VPF) charged from producers during the time of release acts as a deterrent to making fantasy films. In an ongoing fight with theatre companies, Ronnie Screwvala raised the issue of unfair, exorbitant VPF paid by Indian film producers, as opposed to their international counterparts, who pay much meagre sums. Film release specialist Prakash Nathan explains how this affects the fate of a film: “The cost involved in distributing Avengers: Endgame is miniscule as compared to what it would have been for an Indian film. Why should there be any disparity? The cost of release is close to Rs 15-20,000 per screen for a Hindi film, whereas for an international film, its one-tenth of that. Right now, it’s demotivating people to produce fantasy films within India.”
Plan of Action
However, apart from the factors mentioned above, a lack of planning too can lead to the downfall of a fantasy film.
“If you go into a war without a battle plan, you are going to lose,” asserts Pete, drawing an analogy to highlight how problems in the planning stages lead to poorly made films. Once the budget is acquired, proper planning and implementation become the making or breaking factor for such movies.
A good example of proper planning lies in Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, as their recent film, Avengers: Endgame, tied together plotlines from across 22 other films. The Avengers series was in the making from the very first MCU film, Iron Man that released in 2008. “It’s all about sitting down, knowing what you want and achieving it with having an overall arc,” says Pete about the MCU films. This is also something that contributed to the success of Tumbbad, which took almost 10 years to come together.
A lot of times, the miscalculation of time plays a huge role. A recent example can be seen in Brahmastra, which was set to release in 2019, but has now been pushed to 2020. “Once we have the story and VFX, we all think that we are going to release that film in a year. But mid-way, you realise that it’s going to take much more time than you thought. So everyone is on a panic mode by then, you forget your story and ending and then it becomes a royal mess,” says Vasan and adds that realist deadlines are imperative.” If we have realistic deadlines, resources to support the deadlines, then you at least plan your film much better and you are not fire-fighting three fourth of your filmmaking process,” he says.
The lack of proper planning also leads to exhaustion of the VFX budget, culminating in ineffectual results. “We tend to do a lot of unnecessary VFX work. We have to clean up stuff that you could physically and practically do it on the set, but for some reason, they are not done. Almost 20-30 percent of VFX budget is spent on these fixes. When post-production is being used to fix all your problems, then it will dilute your budget, therefore you are not getting the quality you are expecting,” reasons Pete.
Content is king
Stories are the core of any film. While the scale can be subjective, it’s the quality of the story that makes films like Tumbbad and Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota much more impressive than the flashy Ra.One, Thugs of Hindostan, and even Krrish 3.
“In the end, it’s all about how good we are at storytelling. Sometimes, when you have too many resources on hand, then it tends to become very cosmetic and you tend to forget storytelling,” asserts Vasan. Agreeing to that, Pete who worked with S. S. Rajamouli on the epic Baahubali says, “It all boils down to the script at the end of the day. The reason why Rajamouli’s films are that successful is because they are basically down to scripts. His stories are good, they are engaging, he knows the process, he knows what he wants, and he is good at communicating.”
Sohum Shah, who not only played in adventurous Vinayak Rao in Tumbbad, but also, produced the film, is also of the opinion that good writing is the foundation of any good fantasy film. “No matter how big your movie is, but if it does not have good writing, it won’t do well,” he says, adding that quality of fantasy scripts in India is quite poor.
However, the future of fantasy films in the country isn’t entirely bleak as films like Brahmastra and Takht are being touted as the next big fantasy endeavours. But, whether they will be successful or not is something only time can tell. “I feel like if good fantasy movies are made, they will, of course, do well. Look at Baahubali, it is not even a Hindi language film, but it did so well. With Brahmastra and Takht, the change is surely coming. I feel that in the future, once we have a precedent in place, we will do more in the genre,” Soham concludes.