Abhishek Bachchan: ‘Filmmaking as an Enterprise Has Become More Efficient and Professional’

If Bollywood superstars are like royalty, actor Abhishek Bachchan is a crown prince. The son of Amitabh Bachchan, who ruled over Bollywood filmdom since the 1970s, and actress Jaya Bachchan, the younger Bachchan initially struggled to find his footing in India’s movie industry. His first dozen or so films were financially unsuccessful, though they revealed his acting talent. Abhishek Bachchan came into his own with the massively popular Dhoom in 2004. Since then, Bachchan has seen his movie career take off, with recent hits such as Dostana, which cost Rs. 35 crores (US$7.2 million) to make but grossed Rs. 90 crores (US$19 million). While Bachchan and his superstar wife Aishwarya Rai are often in the media spotlight, what is less known is his involvement in AB Corp, his father’s film production company. During the Wharton India Economic Forum in Philadelphia, Bachchan discussed his views about the business of filmmaking in an interview with India Knowledge@Wharton. 

India Knowledge@Wharton: You come from a family where your dad and your mom have both been in the film industry for a long time. How do you think the industry has changed from what it was in their days to what it is now, especially on the business side?

Abhishek Bachchan: Oh, vastly. I think there is a drastic difference between the industry in the 1970s, which is predominantly when my parents started working, and now in 2009. I think it has become far more professional in approach and execution.

India Knowledge@Wharton: How so?

Bachchan: I think we had a very familial approach to our filmmaking in the past, which is representative of the kind of culture that we come from. Indians are very family-oriented, and that reflected itself in the way we work as well. What has happened with this new generation of filmmakers and actors that has come in, is they have brought in a greater sense of responsibility towards the profession of movie making.

There are pros and cons to that but I think, in general, we are moving in the right direction. At the end of the day, it is a commercial medium. People pay for their movie tickets, and I think it is only appropriate that we do become more professional.

Films are being made more efficiently. They are funded through the right channels. And I think that would be the one major difference between the films of the past and the films today. Crews are changing; they are far more professional, actors are more well trained and prepared to do what they want. Actors are also focusing predominantly on one film at a time as opposed to in the past when — including me, I mean when I first started off, there was a point of time when I was doing 15 movies at the same time whereas now I shoot one film, finish it, and move on to the next. So, all in all, filmmaking as an enterprise has become more efficient and professional. That would be the greatest change.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Your work on the creative side is very well-known on the screen. Are you involved in the business side at all? If so, can give us a sense of what your involvement is?

Bachchan: Yes, most definitely. My family has a production house called AB Corp and we are currently producing a film which stars my father and me called ‘Pa.’ I do look into the production aspect of it as well. I also feel that today’s actor is far more involved in the production aspect of filmmaking than just coming there and doing his job and leaving. I think there is a lot more involvement.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Could you give me a sense of the kind of business skills that you might bring to bear on the commercial side?

Bachchan: That would be tough to define because it is weird. Although it is a business, it is a creative business, so there are no hard and fast rules to anything. Apart from the fact that you have a product which you are making, which is a movie, you have a budget set aside for it. You have to bring in that product within that budget in a set period of time, you have your financing in place, your distribution, your exhibition, these are all fixed in a sense. But where do you draw the line in being professional in the sense, if you reach the end of the day’s work and you have not managed to can the amount of scenes that you need to, does that mean the scene that was left out is just left out? No, you have to shoot that.

So this sort of creative decisions, how much time do you give a director to shoot a scene. You know, if your assistants, your direction assistants have only planned for, say, 20 shots in a day, and he ends up on the trot wanting to take 5 extra shots, do you not allow him to do that? So, these are creative decisions which need to be taken on the spot. So, it does blur the lines a lot. But, all in all, I think it is a very demanding thing to bring it and make it run more like machinery while knowing that it is also a creative field.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Actually one specific example might be, let us say, you have a production company, as you said, and you get pitched ideas and stories all the time or even scripts perhaps. How do you look at a script to see, you might like the story, but is this a winner of a movie? Could you take me through the thought process of how you evaluate it?

Bachchan: Yeah, surely. I do not know any actor, director, producer, or any film technician who knows which film is definitely going to work. If we did, we would only be making successful films. We work in an industry which has a success ratio of, I think, at last count, 8%. You have to understand that you are dealing with the choices and the mood of an audience which is completely alien to the process of filmmaking.

You put in a lot of hard work, heart and soul into a film and that film is judged by an audience which has no emotional equation with your product. They come in having spent hard-earned money to buy a ticket, to buy their popcorn, and they want to be entertained. What you think might be entertaining for them, they might not agree with. So, how do you go about choosing a script? I think you have to go back and lean on your instinct which is what kind of film do you want to be a part of, what kind of film do you want to make, and what kind of story do you want to tell.

For me, personally, whenever I get a script to act in, for example, the process is very simple, you know, you hear the story, if it touches you, if it inspires you to work, you go ahead and do it. You really do not know what the outcome is going to be. So you have to be part of a film which you think will work, as per your standards.

As a producer, it is slightly different because you get to allocate funds for a particular film, there might be a film which might be off the beaten path, might not seem to have all the ingredients people perceive to be needed in a commercial Indian film, which one would probably green light if they felt it would be made in a very, very tight budget.

I think today what is wonderful is that our exhibition circuit has suddenly just blossomed; a lot of different smaller-budgeted films are getting the opportunity to be seen. So, for example, if there was a story which I felt was very nice and unique, and novel and something new, but a bit risky possibly, I would probably consider making it if it was made on a really shoestring budget, because that would then ensure that I could make that film into a success.

India Knowledge@Wharton: What would be an example?

Bachchan: I did a regional film about four years ago in Bengali, called Antarmahal, which was directed by a very renowned director from Kolkata called Rituparno Ghosh. Antarmahal was made for Rs. 1 crore (US$211,354) which is a lot lower than the films I am usually used to making. Obviously, the art is, you understand, the intention behind making the film, the budget. So, you do not end up paying them that kind of money and for their creative satisfaction, I guess, they do take a huge cut on their paycheck.

If I had made that movie for Rs. 20 crores (US$4.2 million) there was no way I could have made that film a success. But having made it in Rs. 1 crore, and being a Bengali film and having certain parameters to it, which make it more difficult to distribute to a Pan-India audience, we managed to make it a success, we made money out of it. But had we made it in 20 crores, there was no chance for it.

Conversely, I did a film called Dostana last year, which released in November, and that film was at the budget of Rs. 35 crores (US$7.4 million). But that was in Hindi, we had very popular stars in it. It was a slightly risky subject to make but we tried to ensure that we covered all the other bases; it went on to do great business.

India Knowledge@Wharton: How well did it do?

Bachchan: I am not sure of the exact worldwide gross, but I think it was somewhere close to Rs. 90 crores to Rs. 100 crores gross (US$19 million to US$20 million).

India Knowledge@Wharton: If you sense a tension between the creator side and the business side, how do you resolve it?

Bachchan: You choose the creative. I think that is the best way to resolve it. I think most producers and directors and actors would agree with me. Because people do realize, at the end of the day, it is a creative medium as well and that has to be given prime importance. I do not think anybody would do anything to compromise the quality of a film, obviously within a reason. I mean if suddenly your director turns around and says, “I am going to shoot a war scene and I want a 100,000 people.” That is obviously not going to fit into your budget, and you are going to ask them to try and shoot around that. But usually people do not make such absurd demands and usually the weight is given to the creative side.

India Knowledge@Wharton: How is globalization changing the Indian film industry? By that I mean a couple of things. One is the increasing demand for Indian films, not just within India but globally, and the greater attention that is being paid now to Indian films. Secondly, also the fact that a number of international financiers are funding Indian films and studios are getting involved. Well, how is the landscape changing with that?

Bachchan: That was just bound to happen; it was a matter of time. I do not think it is happening because they enjoy our films. To answer the second part of your question where you said a lot of studios from America are starting to do a lot of joint ventures in India — it has nothing to do with the kind of films we make. I think it has got to do with the numbers. You are talking about a country which has a population of over a billion people who religiously watch a movie, you know, possibly more than once a week. And you cannot run away from those figures — that is huge.

The Indian film industry is the largest film industry in the world; we make over a 1,000 films a year. We still sell the largest number of tickets in the world, more than Hollywood, or any other film industry.

Those are figures you really cannot ignore. The fact of the matter also which will attract studios from Hollywood to India is I think the most expensive film ever made in India cost Rs. 50 crores or Rs. 60 crores, which in today’s day and age would be just around US$10 million, or US$12 million — which is possibly one of the smallest budgets they can make for a studio [film]. The returns on that investment are huge, so I think it is common sense and it is good business. Obviously, they are going to get attracted to it.

International studios have come to India, they have done a lot of joint ventures with local production houses and made certain films. They have had a rocky start. I think it is going to take them time to understand the Indian film industry and the Indian palate. But I think they will get there. I think it is wonderful because you are broadening your horizons. You are accepting another film industry and, you know, dipping into a larger creative pool to choose from.

So, how has the landscape changed back in India? I think there is a lot of optimism in the air. I think currently because of a lot of Indian films getting some notice abroad, a lot of Indian technicians are being recognized, especially in the past year. I think the world that does not know our film industry is waking up to the film industry, seeing the opportunities and the talent that lies there. And I hope the optimism is because people now feel that they can borrow from each industry. And I hope a lot of western talent comes to India and works in India, and conversely I hope a lot of Indian talent goes abroad and works there as well.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think there will be a sort of Slumdog Millionaire impact or effect on both the Indian and Western film industries?

Bachchan: Yes. Well, to set the record straight, Slumdog is not an Indian film, and I do not know why a lot of people seem to think it is. It is an American film directed by a British director.

India Knowledge@Wharton: It is a global film.

Bachchan: It has an Indian star cast. I have been saying this for a long time. Hollywood goes and makes films in Italy. That does not make that film an Italian film. But what is nice is that it has employed a lot of Indian talent, which has gone on to prove its worth on a global platform. That, I think, has really woken up the world to Indian talent and has helped people realize the kind of talent that lies in India, and I think there will be more films made in which a lot more Indian talent will be employed.

India Knowledge@Wharton: In addition to globalization, the other thing that is changing the film industry is technology. Could you speak about how you see the use of the internet, for example, and what kind of intellectual property challenges the film industry is facing because of that and how do you think those issues should be dealt with?

Bachchan: Well, I think those things have to be dealt with on a governmental level. I would think one of the biggest problems our film industry faces today is piracy. I think in the West they have a done a wonderful job of curbing piracy. I am not exactly sure but if I remember correctly, close to 40% to 50% is the amount we lose to piracy in our revenue. That is huge, I think, in the west they lose 1% or 2%.

India Knowledge@Wharton: To take a very specific example, when Dostana was released, there were websites that had the entire movie that you could watch for free.

Bachchan: Yeah, yeah. It was up on YouTube as well. Like I said, there is very little we as an industry can do if we do not have the backing of our government. Currently, I know there have been a lot of attempts by certain members of Parliament to make piracy laws more stringent and stricter. But it really is not helping and I really think we need to crack down upon that. Because once you do that, it does have a ripple effect all the way down.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Has your production company done any deals with international studios so far?

Bachchan: No, no, no.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Why not?

Bachchan: We are currently only producing one film — that is the way we wanted to start. We wanted to start off small and make a few films, build up a bank, and then see where it leads us.

Secondly, there really has not been the need to tie up with any international studios because as of right now, with the kind of films we are making, we do not really see the need for that. As and when, and if we do, what is wonderful is today those avenues are open for us to explore an opportunity like that. There have been a lot of inquiries, yes. But we have not really thought it important as of right now to do something like that but I am sure if in the future we feel there is something in which we require their expertise and something that we feel we will not be able to fulfill, I am sure we can look into something like that.

India Knowledge@Wharton: Looking to the future of film industry, do you feel that there will come a time when the movie industry will require MBA students, for example?

Bachchan: We have a lot of MBA students right now, actually. Yeah, there are a lot of them now with, you know, the corporates moving into the film industry over the last five to 10 years, with bank funding coming into the film industry over the last decade, I think, like I said, there is a more professional approach. So, yes, it is not very far away, where you will have a studio head who will be possibly a Wharton graduate.

India Knowledge@Wharton: One last question. How do you define success?

Bachchan: It is weird. Actually, for an actor it comes in two parts. One, obviously if a film does well at the box office, that is success; but plus I think because the creative side in us also needs a lot of attention, I think it will be just being happy doing what you are doing. I would hate to make a successful film if I was not proud of it. And I would have done it because I knew, you know, it would be just successful. But the actor in me would not be satisfied with the work I was doing. So, it is a double-edged sword. I think success means just being happy with what you are doing.

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