Filmmaker Vikram Bhatt has come with a new way of consuming web series.
If you thought consuming content off digital platforms meant downloading apps and paying stiff subscriptions for long periods, Vikram Bhatt is looking at changing all that. Yogesh Pawar caught up with the filmmaker to discuss his new idea, his views on critical acclaim and nepotism, among other things...
So you've cracked a new 'India-friendly' revenue model for the digital platform which will revolutionise the way content is consumed.
I don't know if I've cracked it yet. I feel the subscription model in India will take very deep pockets to make it work. I'm not saying it won't work but it is a question of a lot of money. Any indigenous Indian over the top platform will have to understand that the Amazons and the Netflixes have already made audiences taste blood. So are we ready to give them that quality? And with that frequency? Because if we aren't, people are going to feel cheated. And we have to remember that Netflix or Amazon are sourcing world libraries for content not only in English but in so many languages which they are happy to subtitle/dub and put out. So I don't think you can be a subscription model in India and promise even half of that content even if you charge only half the money that these two majors are.
But that's just the way entertainment works. When someone comes to watch a film, they don't see if the actors are big/small they are only concerned if its a good, value-for-money film.
Could you walk us through how it will work?
My model is to charge per show. Basically, I have a theatre on the web. This is not a subscription platform. In a sense, it is an OTT and yet not really one. It is more of a virtual multiplex where you'll have all kinds of content. You can buy a ticket to anything that you want to watch.
How did you get this idea?
This idea comes from our age-old understanding of entertainment and the tradition of buying a ticket. So like your music stores and music, your bookstores and books, your clothing lines and so much more, your theatre is also coming to your phone where you'll get both series and movies. All that's coming on your phone and you buy a ticket.
Will Indian audiences get it?
See it's like this. My mom or her mom don't understand the concept of paying monthly for entertainment. They'll ask what will happen. So are you going to show them trailers of the whole year? That's impossible. Then they don't trust you. So they say you are asking me to subscribe to an app from which I don't know what to accept.
And how much will it cost?
A whole series could cost as ridiculously low as Rs 10-20.
That could change how we consume content for good.
I'd still say that would depend on the content. If I make content nobody wants to watch, then I could price it at 10 paise and no one will come. It's also about the Indian mindset. If I want to watch a film I'll pay any amount but if its something I don't want to you can't convince me to pay even a single rupee to watch.
You'd earlier introduced stereoscopic 3D for the first time in India with Haunted – 3D. Is there an urge to be the first to do things?
I don't know if I'm being the biggest fool/maverick. This whole plan can turn out to be something ridiculous or it can be something that works. Because my app is available to any film producer in India or even the world. At the end of the day, it is just a theatre. So say if you make a web series, you're welcome to reach out and show it on my app.
So it is not only content that you or your production house makes?
It could be anybody's content. Remember I am just a theatre.
1921 is being made for the big screen yes, but are you now going to increasingly make the web your main arena?
I'll continue to make films but this is more personal and can be considered the longest form of storytelling. Do you ask a cricketer who plays test matches why he plays one-dayers? No, you don't. So films are a one-day match and a web series are more like a test match because there are episodes and episodes. But like in test cricket you hope for fewer draws and more wins so it is for a web series too.
Is horror going to the mainstay of your content?
Not when I am becoming a content provider. If you go to my youtube channel you'll find I have a variety of shows on it. There's drama, a taboo subject like Maya, a thriller like Twisted, an emotional story like Spotlight or a family feud like Hadh where three brothers fight over money. The dictum for my youtube channel VB On The Web is: compulsive entertainment. It could a love story, thriller, comedy but you must hunger to know what happens next.
From the beginning of this interaction, you've made it clear, the commercial success of your projects is more crucial than critical acclaim.
What is critical acclaim? It just means the 15-20 people who watched the film liked it. Critics aren't keepers of culture. There are only a few who understand cinema and discuss it with authority. Not that I have anything against cookery shows, but there are critics who were doing those till they switched to critiquing films. There are some who are just entertainment reporters. There are some who own their own web channel/portal. Mere access to print/tv/digital platforms doesn't make them critics. A critic is someone who understands cinema and then if he thinks you made a bad film, that's ok. Anyways I don't bother with the critical appreciation which at best can only make you happy for a little while. It does not give you the money to make your next film. The guy who comes with the money wants it back more than the fame and recognition. The fact that I survived on this premise for 26 years means I must've done something right.
Does it then mean that good and popular cinema can never be congruent?
It can and has been many times. There have been films which have been panned by critics like my Raaz which did not get any rating. A leading newspaper said: “Rating not applicable.” And then it went on to become a money spinner and the irony is that when Raaz 3 came out the very same newspaper shamelessly said: “Not as good as 1.” I understand subjectivity, but this is beyond bizarre.
Filmmakers like Rohit Shetty too cock a snook at critics in their film ads with the poor ratings set against box office collections.
But that means that the ratings still affect and bother him. For me, they aren't even on my radar. Critics can give 2, 3, 5 or no stars. It doesn't matter. It's like you make a house and you love it and all your friends and their friends like it. And then there is this one neighbour who comes to get sugar from you and says he doesn't like your furniture. You say fine, take your sugar and go. Who cares what he thinks? That's his job. To criticise.
As a journalist, you write columns, news stories, features and other pieces and try to make them different to stand out. A critic has no choice. S/he has to be funny and they often do that by humiliating the filmmaker. If he doesn't do that and agrees to the filmmakers' view then s/he becomes boring. So you need to be an a$$hole to be read.
Have you ever put off making a film on a cinematically brilliant subject because you thought it wouldn't work commercially?
It has happened 2-3 times.
Can you cite an example?
Somebody came to me to make a film on this nurse Aruna Shanbag who suffered abuse and then a lifetime of being confined to a hospital bed. I loved the subject but realised it was too dark. Films like that could be made for the web but don't know how many people will want to pay money for that. There was a time when tear jerkers worked. But it's over. People now go to a theatre to watch a film and have fun. Which is fine. I also do it. Why will I expect the audience to not do it? I won't choose a film about suffering, dying, hunger or poverty. I want to run away from those fears of mine. Why should I pay money to be shown the mirror?
Are you saying people like filmmakers don't have any social responsibility and should only concern themselves with entertainment?
The world of entertainment is expanding really fast. It's no longer just the movies in theatres. There are feature films, short films, short fiction films, long format, docudramas, world cinema, tv, international tv and what have you... There is so much going on that to find a way of getting it to entertain you in a socially responsible manner is commercially impossible. In this noisy market that our world has become where everyone is selling their wares, I'm going to do anything to sell mine. The last restriction I need is social responsibility. Of course, nobody is advocating social irresponsibility. Largely the web has been a leveller of sorts. Most content, even my own, is self-censored.
Your dad Pravin Bhatt's a respected name in cinematography and your granddad Vijay Bhatt was one of the pioneers of Indian cinema. Did that make entry in the film industry easy and did that buffer you in failure?
Nepotism is a reality. The only thing my dad did was introduce me to Mahesh Bhatt and asked if I could be his assistant. And that was the last thing he ever did. He hasn't got me a film or anything. At best nepotism can get you an opportunity, not success. There are zillions of examples of nepotism who are sitting at home today without work. Opportunity plus talent is going to lead to success with a dash of destiny thrown in. If you have talent, I am certain you'll get opportunities. It is only the untalented who make the loudest noise about nepotism. People talking about nepotism shouldn't forget that they've also been given an opportunity by someone. Otherwise, they wouldn't have the media space to talk.
Which among your dad and granddad's works do you really look up to?
Among my grandfather's films, Baiju Bawra has been the best and biggest. Ram Rajya, Himalay Ki God Mein, Goonj Oothi Shehnai, Bharat Milaap were all gems which will stand the test of time.
As for my father, I think of some of his work with Mukul Anand like Sultanat, Aitbaar and Agneepath come to mind. He has also done some great work with Mahesh Bhatt like Arth, Lahu Ke Do Rang, Sadak, Aashiqui and Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahin. His work on Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan where he made Rekha look completely different also comes to mind. To shoot more than 100 films and survive for six decades is no mean feat.
And they worked in an era when today's technology was not available.
I think all this technical finesse has made us bad storytellers. Even I began in an era of analogue and have edited films without any modern software or equipment. Ghulam and Kasoor were made without a monitor. For Raaz, I got a monitor for the first time and that too a VHS monitor (laughs).
You've worked with filmmakers Mukul Anand, Shekhar Kapoor and Mahesh Bhatt. What are your takeaways from each?
Mukul Anand is technically very savvy. So I learnt a lot about cameras, camera technique from him. Unfortunately, I didn't get any inputs on storytelling from him. That came from Mahesh Bhatt. In a way, you can't teach storytelling. You can only share vignettes of your own life and hope the person imbibes cues. Mahesh Bhatt never sat us down and drilled any filmmaking elements in us but the stories, the incidents and the things he has said to us made us storytellers.
And Shekhar Kapoor?
Well, Shekhar and I barely worked together. Unfortunately whatever film we started never finished. I started on Time Machine and it stopped. I started Dushmani and he gave up and then he went off to make Bandit Queen. So it never worked out between us.
Ghulam, Kasoor, Raaz and Awara Paagal Deewana came as back-to-back successes between 1998-2002. Why do you think has that kind of success and consistency eluded you at the box office since?
True. 2002 was a very good year. I've been able to do different kinds of subjects though not all have succeeded. I was able to make Haunted in 3D. I tried to make a creature film and it didn't work at all. But it's not for the want of trying. I've always tried to do different stuff. At the end of the day, failure and success are another stories. You really want to go on set and try something different. Even this new app thing and trying to put content out differently is getting my creative juices going. That's what life is about ultimately, isn't it? About trying new things. I've even made a semi-autobiographical called Ankahee. And then I made Dewaane Huey Paagal which didn't work. It was not Awara Paagal Deewana. More of the same somehow doesn't work. Repeating success is also failure.
Any contemporary filmmakers' work you admire...
All of us are capable of some really good work and we can all go and make trash. I don't think any one of us can be consistent. some of Imityaz Ali's work is so good. And look at Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I really admire his vision as a filmmaker and what he can bring to the screen. But we can't go by names anymore. One sees a promo and decides whether to watch/skip a film. Otherwise, why couldn't a Tubelight have done what a Tiger Zinda Hai (TZH) is doing? I remember seeing the TZH promo and saying: “This is going to be one kickass commercial film.” I haven't had the time to go catch it but I will since its a full-on adrenalin film. And this is not a director who has given you a string of hits in the past. Even YRF has had failures in the past. So it's more a unit to unit thing. So you like a certain unit of a filmmaker while you don't like others. This happens in the West too.
And who are your favourite filmmakers in Hollywood?
Though I may like some more than others, I watch all of Ridley Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and David Lynch films.
Your link-ups with Sushmita Sen and Ameesha Patel once made headlines. Are you in touch with either of them?
That is not the Vikram Bhatt I know or recognise any longer. That phase of my life is done.