Throwing in the Towel

One of the recent topics trending online was about the drying up of creative juices of Bharathiraaja, the acclaimed filmmaker in Tamil. His recent work ‘Annakkodi’ has been torn apart mercilessly by both the critics and the public. It’s not just that it was no patch on some of this great works, but it was looking seriously amateurish, not something you’d expect from this person, two of whose films have always featured in all the top-10 lists of all-time greatest Tamil films.

The problem is not specific to Bharathiraaja alone, but applies to several other creative people in India. Is it because we Indians don’t know when to hang up the boots? After all, we see Ilaiyaraaja still writing music and competing with the youngsters today. We saw Balachander trying very hard to be relevant in the 90s and even in the noughties, when his movies were failing miserably. No one knows what made him stop, but it was a gesture too little too late.

In the 90s, Amitabh Bacchan too tried a lot of tricks to continue to be relevant. His famed ‘comeback’ film ‘Mrutyudhaata’, where he tried to revive his angry young man, bombed. Then he tried to become a rapper, then businessman, a specialist in event management, anything and everything until a game show gave him the new lease of life. Perhaps Bharathiraaja too has been waiting for his own KBC to happen?

One of the reasons our creative people continue to work is the revenue stream. Consider this: after her hugely successful album ‘21’, Adele, the English singer, has announced a five-year sabbatical. After his hugely successful album ‘Dev D’, Amit Trivedi, the Bollywood composer, was back in the studio, working for three more films. Adele perhaps can even retire from her music career and live off the royalties from ‘21’. For all we know, for ‘Dev D’, Trivedi would have been paid an upfront fee that wouldn’t have lasted for more than three months’ expenses. The problem is we do not have the concept of royalty. In Hollywood, there are directors and script writers that have become multi-millionaires with just one film. Even if some of their films have failed at the box office, if the word of mouth built up afterwards, they had recovered the cost in the form of DVD sales or rental royalties. Yes, there are huge rental chains that pay royalty every time a movie is rented. In here, we are not even allowing the market for DVD-rentals to take roots. Worse, we are not even allowing the market for DVD-sales to take roots!

Therefore, our creative people are forced to work continually, just like other professionals. Creative people are also not known to be very financially savvy so, for all you know, some of them might be leading a hand to mouth existence. Just like how some of us live on pay check to pay check, they might be living on one film to the next. The lifestyle they’ve built up over the years would also be guzzling up their resources. Like how once we bought a car, a flat, an LED TV and a smart phone, you’re tied to a minimum CTC and can’t afford to earn below that.

This also has an additional problem. A composer or a filmmaker who needs to churn out material in quick succession might end up plagiarising to meet the deadlines.

Is Bharathiraaja leading such an existence? Is there a compulsion for him to work in order to survive? Or does he think that he needs to prove himself to somebody, or to overcome his previous debacles?

To be fair to him, I have not seen his latest film, nor do I plan to. But I have seen all his previous films to observe the clear decline of his skills. It is the same with others as well. Mani Ratnam’s Kadal is not a patch on his Naayagan, but it still had the basic elements of his ‘style’. Spielberg’s Tin Tin is no Indiana Jones or E.T., but when you watch a few scenes, you’ll know it’s Spielberg. When you watch Kangalaal Kaithu Sei you’d think it was by a first year film institute dropout.

Should our creative folk retire respectfully? Should we tell them so? It will probably happen with the next generation artists. There were times when our playback singers were singing 10 songs a day and our music directors were writing five songs in a week. Our directors were churning out 2-3 films in a year.

Today our filmmakers take at least two years for a single film and music directors commit far fewer films. With Hollywood studios entering the Indian market and the industry getting more and more corporatised, the day is not far when we adapt the royalty-based working model. Perhaps that day Ilaiyaraaja will take a five-year sabbatical!