Video Killed the Video Star
In order to survive, Uttarakhand's film industry made the switch from celluloid to video, which has nearly led to its own undoing.
Rajesh Malgudi has never heard of Anurag Kashyap.
You’d think he would have. Malgudi is an Indian actor known for his wide range of villainous roles, and Kashyap, the patron saint of Bollywood’s New Wave, has been all over the news these past months for his latest hit film, Gangs of Wasseypur.
Such ‘new wave’ films, set in smalltown India, or at least the world outside the cinematic vortex of Bollywood, are now de rigeur. Gangs, which dealt with the coal fields of Dhanbad, was preceded earlier this year by Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, which focused on rural land acquisition. 2010’s Paan Singh Tomar, directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, a friend of Kashyap, was situated in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh. Rajesh Malgudi was considered for a part in the film, but in the end, he didn’t get it.
And he couldn’t care less.
Malgudi says he’s more into Bhojpuri films than he is Bollywood anyway, and he owes his reputation to starring in movies from his native Uttarakhand. If you don’t follow Uttarakhand cinema, or haven’t heard of Rajesh Malgudi, you’re not alone, and today, if you meet him, Malgudi likely won’t be signing an autograph for you, he’ll be serving you food.
I first heard of Malgudi after reading an article about him in the Indian Express earlier this year. Reporter Priyanka Kotamraju had written the piece after realising that the proprietor of a small Chinese eatery where she was having lunch near the Income Tax Office, Delhi, was the man portrayed on the movie posters plastered around the shop’s walls.
I was curious, so I went to check it out. Malgudi wasn’t there, but a shopkeeper next door who sells Uttarakhandi CDs and VCDs confirmed that Malgudi was in fact an Uttarkhandi film star and gave me his number. I thanked the man, and before I left, I noticed two more such shops adjacent to his, also in the specific trade of music and movies from Uttarakhand. These shopowners also vouched for Malgudi’s fame.
So, in an India of Shahrukhs, Aamirs, Amitabhs, and even Rajnikanths: how is it that Uttarakhand’s biggest movie bad guy is slinging plates of noodles for lunch-going office workers in central Delhi?
Uttarakhand is a bit of a late bloomer when compared to the much more well-known Indian film industries like Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, and even Sandalwood; some of which have been producing features since before Independence. The Bhojpuri film industry – the next rung up the ladder from Uttarakhand’s – may cover a liguistic area that spreads from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar to the plains of Nepal, but Bhojpuri-language films only began to appear in 1962.
In what is now the state of Uttarakhand, the first Garhwali-language film, Jagwal, wasn’t released until 1983, and the first Kumaoni-language film, Megha Aaa, hit theatres in 1987. Uttarakhand’s state film department was only separated from the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board in 2002: two years after Uttarakhand severed itself from Uttar Pradesh.
To date, there have been 23 feature films in Garhwali and two in Kumaoni, the two predominant languages in Uttarakhand. Although some, like 1986’s Ghar Jawain, have done relatively well, the rest have been underperformers. The last theatrical release was 2007’s Sipai Jee, one of the state’s most expensive ever. It bombed. Badly.
The film industry as it currently exists in Uttarakhand has taken its cue from their next-tier Bhojpuri, in that now, the films are not really films. They’re videos – shot on cheap digital cameras and copied not onto DVDs, but lower quality VCDs. In Uttarakand, video is the film industry, played on computer drives and digital disc players in the homes of approximately one crore Uttarkhandis, not to mention a migrant population of over 60 lakh people, who mostly buy them in the markets of Mumbai and Delhi, from little shops like the ones near Delhi’s ITO, where many may not even know that one shop away from their Uttarakhandi VCD seller, one of the industry’s biggest stars is manning the wok at the Adarsh Chinese Food Centre.
The phone number the shop manager had given me is legit, and a few days after my visit, I return to meet Malgudi, who has invited Pannu Gossain along. “You should meet him,” Malgudi had said to me over the phone. “He is the Shahrukh Khan of our film industry.”
Under Gossian’s balding pate are two small eyes, and under those are a pair of pockmarked cheeks. Malgudi cuts a more dashing figure with his stylish haircut and his tight jeans. They suggest we go to the Udupi restaurant at Bahadur Shah Jafar Marg, a favourite haunt of journalists who work in the various media establishments nearby.
Malgudi tells me he started his career performing in adaptations of the Ram Lila, and true to his later fame as a baddie, says he always took more of a liking to Ravana, Lanka’s evil overlord, than to Rama and his heroic rescue mission.
His acting career was put on hold after he met with an accident while playing football in college, and though he recovered, his left eye was permanently damaged. After working odd jobs for a while, in 2004, he returned to acting with the VCD film, Bagiyaan Beti.
“It is the biggest hit in the VCD market yet,” he says. He was initially reluctant to act in it as his Garhwali was not good; he grew up in Delhi. But he worked on his language and dialogue delivery in subsequent films.
Malgudi may have been the star that got me here, but he’s like the Gulshan Grover to Gossian’s Shahrukh Khan – it’s Gossian’s life that more exemplifies the story of Uttarakhand cinema.
Like Malgudi, Pannu Gossian began performing in versions of the Ram Lila as a child in Pauri Garhwal, Uttarakhand. His family later moved to RK Puram, Delhi, a neighbourhood with a sizeable Uttarakhandi population.
“Once there was a stage show in Sector 6, organised by a well known name on the Uttarakhandi cultural circuit,” says Gossian. After somehow managing to get a pass to the show, he went backstage and asked to be allowed to perform. During a break, while the crowd was getting restless, he was given the stage, where he did impersonations of Bollywood stars and put on a dance routine. Following this big break in 1995, he was asked to join the Dev Bhoomi Kala Manch, a Delhi based cultural troupe of Uttarakhandi artists and he toured with them for the next five years.
But in 2000, he moved out of his RK Puram home for what he calls “personal reasons”. Whatever these reasons were, he quit performing, and began selling cigarettes at a roadside stall in Saket, in south Delhi, called Uttarakhand Pan Bhandar.
When the business folded, he sold saris at a garment shop. He followed this with a stint as a bus conductor, and eventually elevated himself to being a doctor’s personal driver. But his dancing days weren’t over, and a talent hunter from T-Series, a music and filmmaking company, tracked him down and got him to appear in a music video.
“The song clicked,” says Gossian, and demand surged. “I was being called the Shahrukh Khan of Garhwal...The turning point came after I acted in a couple of music videos based on songs composed by Narendra Singh Negi.”
Negi is the grand patriarch of Uttarkhandi music, and helped by the association, both songs became big hits. Many film roles and awards followed. Gossian also recorded an album as a singer. He could, so to speak, hang up his chauffeur’s cap. To date, he has acted in 32 VCD films, of which five are still unreleased, and he has lent his talent to over 350 music video albums. Currently, he is fulfilling a long held desire: directing a film. (At the time of going to press, the film has wrapped.)
Superstar he might be, but the maximum he has ever been paid for a film is Rs 35 000. Generally, he is paid around Rs 20 000 per film and Rs 10 000 per song in a music video album. He continues to supplement his income by doing stage shows, charging around Rs 2 500 per appearance. It may not seem like much, but Gossian is the highest-paid actor in an industry where a movie costs four to five lakhs to produce. Those with better production values would cost more, but still not much compared to shooting with actual 35-mm film.
It is this low cost of production that initially spurred the Uttarakhandi industry’s shift from celluloid to video in the early noughties. Attracted by the lower cost of production, and the successes enjoyed during the most productive period from roughly 2002 to 2007, a host of amateurs entered the field, and this also proved to be its slow undoing.
According to an article published in Uttarakhand Film Darshan, a journal edited by GS Thapa from Dehradun, many native Uttarakhandi businessmen from places like Delhi, Mumbai and Punjab saw a chance to make some quick cash and entered the VCD market. The casting of friends and relatives in important roles, getting wedding videographers to handle cinematography and other such unprofessional decisions brought down the quality of the films. Audiences began to lose interest and revenues dipped.
The Uttarakhand Film Darshan article estimates that if around one and a half lakh people were employed in the industry between 2003-2007, the numbers have now halved. The annual turnover of the industry has fallen to Rs 15 crore, from the high of Rs 40 crore three years ago.
Uttarakhandi director Mahesh Prakash is no amateur. He is credited with making the biggest number of VCD films to date. But like many other players in the industry, he has a second job, in his case, editing others’ films. He was the first person to invest in a non-linear editing device when it had just hit the market, and he puts it to good use. He also teaches at a media school. Make that two second jobs.
I meet him in the living room of his house in East Delhi, where his daughter serves us tea. Malgudi is there too. He’s a regular visitor, as are many other Uttarakhandi movie types. You could call Prakash’s home, which includes his small editing studio, the Uttarakhandi indutsry’s unofficial Delhi HQ.
“80 percent of the state’s population lives in villages,” he says of the audience in his native Uttarakhand. “Theatres are far away from them. It would take an entire day to go watch a film and come back home. This is where the VCDs came in. The PD150 had come in by the year 2000. It is an easy-to-use camera, small, and perfect for the hills. It cost Rs 700 per day to hire it. VCD players could be bought for Rs 1500 to Rs 2000.”
At the peak of the VCD boom during the 2000s, around two to three VCD films were released every month, as well as about 20 music video albums. Prakash says, these days, those numbers have also halved.
There have been other contributing factors to the decline as well, perhaps the most obvious being the ease with which one can illegally copy a VCD.
Before the whole industry went straight to video, Delhi had at least four theatres where films from Uttarakhand were screened until the 1990s, all located in areas where people from the state live in large numbers. Ghar Jawain had its silver jubilee run at RK Puram’s Sangam Cinema in 1986. Sangam has since stopped showing Uttarakhandi films. The other cinema halls have all shut down.
The situation is no better in Uttarakhand. Compared to 67 cinema halls at the turn of the century, only 34 remain, showing features from other Indian film indus- tries. But at least they exist. As far as the health of the Uttarakhandi video-film industry within its own borders: according to the Cinematography Act, 1952, it is illegal to publicly screen a VCD in Dehradun, the state capital.
I’m told two video parlours exist in Sahaspur, a Muslim-dominated industrial settlement just outside of Dehradun, but when I visit, both parlours are closed, and their owner, a portly man named Avinash Gupta says, “I never get to know when these VCDs hit the market.”
Finding a VCD shop in Dehradun proves to be an equally daunting job. But the Uttarakhandi film board still gets their cut. They take a percentage of the private sales of VCDs, and collect a fee when the films are shown on intercity tourist buses, or at least they’re supposed to.
The state revenue department will tell you things are fine, backing their claims with tax receipts from cinema halls, where producers pay the state film board Rs 25 000 before their film can be shown. There is also a surcharge added to each theatre ticket sold that is collected in the name of developing the local film industry.
For the year ending in March 2012, Rs seven crore was added to the state’s coffers. At Rs four crore the year before, this means industry revenue, in that single year, has almost doubled. What this doesn’t mean is that tar- riffs collected from VCDs shown on buses and in video parlours elsewhere in the state are contributing much.
The paradox is that while revenues from the state’s entertainment business have risen significantly, the VCD segment has not been allowed to commensurately grow.
Unlike others in the industry, Uttarakhandi actor Balraj Negi is optimistic about the future of VCDs. Like his counterparts I’ve met, he has a second job, even if his seems more of a natural position to slip into post-film-career: cultural coordinator in the state cultural department. Negi’s office is in a dour building filled with chatting clerks and aimless peons. He is dressed in a short green kurta and trousers, hair balding, but he retains his youthful good looks. He leads me into a nearby room stuffed with musical instruments and various theatrical props. Two women employees sit, sipping tea, glancing admiringly at Negi.
He may work for the government, but Negi is quick to point out that Uttarakhand has no real functioning film board, and the Uttarakhand Film Chambers of Commerce, set up in 2001 and run by respected producer RK Verma, didn’t have a meeting or discuss any policy until 2005, and no film policy has been announced by successive governments.
But still, the industry isn’t dead yet. The recent Garhwali VCD hit, Gundru Baniga Hero (Gundru Becomes A Film Actor), is the story about about a young, slightly idiotic, but passionate young man from Uttarakhand named Gundru.
In the film, Gundru’s father is not enamoured of his son’s dreams of movie stardom, but Gundru convinces him to fund a trip to Delhi to meet a producer of Uttarakhandi VCD movies and music albums. Gundru’s dreams are not fulfilled, ultimately, mostly due to his own incompetence and foolishness.
Purists and critics may deride the film’s Bollywood influences and the overall lack of quality, but with Mahesh Prakash editing in East Delhi and Rajesh Malgudi running a food stall at the ITO, these films keep the language and culture alive for Uttarakhandis living outside the state. For many, these films are their only way to connect with their world back home.
They say art imitates life, and Gundru perhaps reveals more realities of the Uttarakahndi film industry than it intended. At the end of the day, the overriding sentiment behind Uttarakhandi films, like other regional film indus- tries, is one of cultural preservation.
Could Gundru’s story, if the filmmakers had the right connections, have been the subject of a Bollywood-produced feature, part of this New Wave led by Anurag Kashyap? Probably. Would it speak to Uttarakhandis as urgently as a grainy, garish Gundru? Not necessarily. A film called Miss Lovely, about the C-grade Bollywood film industry – and starring Niharika Singh from Dehradun – made it to Cannes this year.
A Mumbai-produced Gundru, for all the production quality and star power it may have brought, wouldn’t portray the bubbled ambitions of someone for whom starring in a VCD and taking home a few thousand rupees would be a career high.
Balraj Negi may have said it best, because he said it so simply: “Our films will work if we talk of things that affect our people.”