The film industry has been in a state of flux for the last ten years. Caught between the masala fare of the 90s, the mini-revival of parallel cinema of the 80s and exploring new forms of cinema including the abstract experimental and the uber-contemporary, the film industry is in the midst of change. The rise of a strong urban only contributed to these changes while corporatisation has worked in both ways. While some have chosen to recycle the same old stuff with bloated budgets (Singh is King, Bunty aur Babli, Dhoom 2 etc.), others have really dared to push the boundaries of Hindi cinema and both, reflected and contributed to the changing sensibilities of Indian society. Amongst the foremost in this category is the man behind UTV: Ronnie Screwvala.
The Bombay boy started with television and gradually branched out to distribution and production of movies. With a career spanning over twenty years (ten of which has been devoted to the movies), he has managed to push cinematic frontiers particularly in the last 5 years or so and more often than most others dared to walk the road least travelled. And that has made all the difference.
Lets look at some of his works as a producer. After the forgettable "Fiza" (2000), he came as a co-producer to Farhan Akhtar's critically acclaimed film "Lakshya" (2004). A great story of personal transformation and a good war movie, the film was different from most others at its time for its technique. Apart from a solid script and arguably Hrithik's best performance, the film boasted of some of the most exquisite cinematography ever witnessed on the Indian screen. It's action sequences were spectacular in places. No costs were spared on the project (Budget: Rs. 32 crores) and though it was a financial disaster, it was hailed by many as one of the best films of 2004.
Moving forward, after some smaller films ("Main Meri Patni Aur Woh" and "D") and the daring but preachy "Swades" in 2005, Ronnie Screwvala gave us "Rang De Basanti" (2006). Here, you have a unique story and script which looked at issues like patriotism and the apathy of the youth from a whole new (and somewhat abstract) prism. It was a risky project in terms of its very concept and required huge amounts of faith to be made. The director was Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra who previously gave us the visually stunning but box offfice disaster "Aks." Once again, no costs were spared (Rs. 25-30 crores) and some of the best actors and technicians in the industry were assembled. A free leesh was given in terms of execution and the result was for all to see. The film was loved by many and hated by an equal number. But it had been many years since a film had actually managed to evoke such strong reactions for its content and was actually considered socially relevant. A whole generation of people flocked to watch the film and many drew inspiration from it. The biggest success of the year, the wave that "Rang De Basanti" created was unstoppable for a long time.
In contrast to "Rang De Basanti" was another film released in the same year by UTV: "Khosla ka Ghosla." Directed by a first timer, Dibakar Banerjee, the film had no big actors to boast of except Anupam Kher and Boman Irani. Made on a small budget, this little sleeper hit is arguably the best (and certainly, the most intelligent) comedy made in many years. With solid performances from the two stalwarts and Ranbir Shorey, Vinay Pathak and Navin Nischol, the film was loved by audiences and critics alike. It harked back to the times when comedy was more subtle than the brand of humour that rules the roost post "Hera Pheri." It relied more on wit and situations rather than physical antics. It was the sort of film that Hrishikesh Mukherjee would have made in his hey days and raised the bar for the comedy genre considerably.
2007 was another eclectic year with the forgettable cricket flick "Hattrick," the offbeat "The Blue Umbrella" and the decent "Life in a Metro." However, the important common factor in all these movies were their subject matter which set them apart from the run of the mill. Also, they were extremely different from each other unlike the same kind of films being churned out by producers like Sajid Nadiadwala etc. The music of "Life in a Metro" was excellent and its execution was also interestingly different.
However, by far the best year of Ronnie Screwvala was 2008. Here, there were several projects undertaken by him and each as different from the other as chalk and cheese. It started with "Jodha Akbar" a poor film in terms of script and story. However, historical films have a terrible track record in India with a few exceptions and it took guts to invest Rs. 50 crores into a film about a tale that was even barely known. However, with a combination of a bankable cast, great music, a huge (nearly seemless) canvas and great marketing, "Jodha Akbar" emerged as one of the biggest hits of the year.
But the best thing about Ronnie Screwvala in 2008 was not "Jodha Akbar" but rather, everything else he did. With the exception of "Rock On!" all of the best films of the year came from his stable. "A Wednesday!" and "Mumbai Meri Jaan" were perhaps the best representation of the personal anguish experienced by the common man because of acts of terrorism. They were both small films with small casts and ordinarily, limited financial capabilities. But they left a huge impact on the viewers and managed to do well because of word of mouth against all odds. Again, they were some the few films that were actually socially relevant rather than being merely glossy and jingoistic about thorny issues.
Similarly, "Aamir" was a small film which caused a surprisingly large splash and perhaps revived some hope for the thriller genre which had god awful films like "Race" to claim in 2008. "Welcome to Sajjanpur" saw the return of Shyam Benegal in the director's chair after a hiatus and again looked at the lives and issues of the people in a small town in an interesting manner. "Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!" offered us an interesting crime caper which actually managed to capture the spirit of Delhi and its people. "Fashion" was again a huge risk to take. With an all female star cast and only Priyanka Chopra and Kangana Ranaut with any amount of star power, a director like Madhur Bhandarkar (who is well known for small-budget films which do moderate business) and a subject like the fashion industry, it was a huge risk to invest roughly Rs. 25 crores in the project and spare no costs in giving the film an authenticity (from the costume and the fashion shows to the designer cameos) which Bhandarkar's previous endeavours, particularly "Page 3" lacked. The result was a real knockout performance by Priyanka Chopra and the best work of Madhur Bhandarkar so far.
It's only been 3 months in 2009 and Ronnie Screwvala has already given us two films: "Dev D" and "Delhi-6." While "Dev D" has already received much praise everywhere (including this blog) little needs to be said except that Ronnie Screwvala deserves kudos for daring to deliver a movie so bold. As regards "Delhi-6," you may love it or hate it, but you can't deny that it is different in its subject matter and it is a film no major producer other than Screwvala would even dream of making (though they would be content with their "Hey Baby"s and their "Singh is King"s). Further, it is a landmark film for its visual effects and actually capturing the sights, sounds and the people of Chandni Chowk with such poignancy and rare beauty.
To conclude a rather long first post, I come back to where I started from. Producers are rarely if ever credited for the success of their films. Few realise that it is their willingness and their faith that transforms an idea on paper to a celluloid experience. Further, it is sad to note that today, few producers are daring to push the boundaries of cinema. Most cash in on the tried and tested junk and don't really care for movies as a medium for meaningful stories and great art. A rare exception among these is Ronnie Screwvala. Each movie is a new experience. And like each new experience, it may not always be a good one. But I think the new experience itself counts for a lot in a world where fiction is fast being reduced to saas-bahu nonsense.