Copycat Tales: Rip That Original, Time For Remakes To R.I.P?

Production companies have to invest more in screenwriters and the creative team rather than slotting all their monies on stars.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A still from 'Vikram Vedha'. (Source: Official trailer)</p></div>
A still from 'Vikram Vedha'. (Source: Official trailer)

As liberalisation swept through India in the nineties, its headwinds and tailwinds blew awkward and unrelenting as the country prepared itself for a turbulent takeoff of some sort. Sectors of the economy took a while to come to terms with the undefined space they had for themselves to break through, innovate and lead. It was not too different for the films and entertainment business; it serenaded around trees and trailed the lush green outdoors and picturesque mountains with no inkling of what to expect or where to go next. With the official status of an ‘industry’ stamped on it in 1998, the mimic octopus that could freewheel itself into whatever shape or colour fantasised ornate reveries of hidden treasure chests with corporate finance brimming on the horizon, a gun to the head of the hitherto one-track lonesome producer script. The years witnessed the emergence of big Bollywood releases simultaneously releasing in the U.S. and the U.K., then emerging markets for Indian cinema, a new trend then and a staple release diet now that ensures a sizeable chunk of the overall profit pie. One can argue that the only tangible result of this phase for Bollywood and the film industry overall in the country was the onset of the multiplexes that would go on to ravage single-screen theatres which had faithfully knitted the dreams of millions of Indians thus far. It was also a period when a discreet, niche workforce among Hindi filmmakers endeavored to binge watch foreign titles on CDs and sleepwalked into studios with a cut-copy-paste drivel or even inspired ideas and ventured to churn them into straight Hindi copies, spiced up with desi masala or adaptations if you like it served on porcelain serve wares. The victims—unsuspecting audiences whose knowledge hub was then ever feeble with the internet still in a crawl before its marathon run in the new millennium. Today, even though the reality is different, Bollywood still churns out steady production lines of remakes that go on to constitute a major chunk of their box office revenues.

However, the recent failure of director duo Pushkar-Gayatri’s, Reliance Entertainment-backed Hindi film Vikram Vedha, a retake of their own 2017 Tamil film with the same title, paints a disconcerting picture.

Lazing Around With Remakes

In this calendar year, over 11 movies were released that were bona fide remakes (Hindi films based on South originals) and almost all of them failed to smack up the all-important box office barometer. Vikram Vedha made with a budget of about Rs 175 crore, too, stuttered and spluttered, suffering an ungainly run at the domestic box office despite the presence of Hrithik Roshan who is known to have the popularity to get in the audiences from mass belts as well as the young crowd. At the end of two weeks, the film’s all-India collection stood at about Rs 75 crore with a dismal second week bringing in approximately Rs 15.75 crore.

For context, the last successful remake was the 2019 Kartik Aaryan-starrer ‘Pati Patni aur Woh’ with about Rs 87 crore. The option for green signaling a film remake the world over is if the original has something great to offer in terms of its storyline, presentation or execution. More often than not, it is not the artistic ambition but rather it is the endeavor’s impending prospect of earning profit for all concerned. The remake recipe is an age-old one, perfected by the Indian film industry dating back to the 1950s when Mehboob Khan remade his own ‘Aurat’ (1940) as ‘Mother India’ (1957), a movie shot in a clear motion picture process (Gevacolor, Belgium) and nominated for the Oscars. Then the idea for recreating a film was to give it a different spin rather than with eyes only at the box office as opposed to the present where the hedging of bets on remakes is with the profit motive overriding other aspects. Interestingly, over the decades it was the southern film industry that was honing its knives on the whetstone script tomes as it tore into Hindi films to copy them into the various languages. From ‘Johny Mera Naam’ and ‘Khilona’ (1970), ’Guddi’ (1971), ‘Seeta Aur Geeta’ (1972), Roti Kapda Aur Makan (1974), ‘Deewar’ (1975) to ‘Damini’ (1993), ‘Ishq’ (1997), ‘3 Idiots’ (2009), innumerable Bollywood hits have been remade into their southern avatars either in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or Kannada. Since the 2000s it has largely been the other way around with Bollywood investing more in churning out South hits with varying degrees of success.

The Devil Was Always In The Details

The original ‘Vikram Vedha’, which took two years in its writing, had R Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi portraying the titular characters with natural flair as the film went to do very well at the Tamil Nadu box office and also garnered excellent reviews from all quarters. Made on a paltry budget of Rs 11 crore (approx.), it went on to collect over Rs 70 crore at the Tamil Nadu box office. Well, five years on the same directors tweaked their original idea and set it in Lucknow and Kanpur with Saif Ali Khan and Hrithik Roshan reprising the roles, and the result was a non-starter. One issue was the promotion and marketing did not sustain itself well prior to its release, which was quite clear from the lack of buzz about it from the trade and also from the lukewarm manner it opened. Despite positive word of mouth and praise-worthy reviews, the audiences just did not make it to the cinemas. The film lost out hugely in the mass belts where it failed to collect even though Roshan is known to be quite a huge pull there and as days went by, it even failed to trend decently and finally collapsed under its own weight. Film Twitter is often a quirky and messy half-way house, with the slack first two-day collection reports coming in, Karan Johar of Dharma Productions tweeted praises for the movie in an effort to boost the Twitterati to get out and watch the movie, but to no avail. What then did go wrong? Well, the 2017 Tamil original was available on the internet streaming sites and even on YouTube with subtitles; your potential audience had already consumed the fare as they sat locked down during the last two years and maybe even before that!

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Aamir Khan in Lal Singh Chaddha. (Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Flogging The Remake Horse In OTT times

For sure, jumping on the remake bandwagon was an easy way out to earn mega bucks a decade or so back as the southern releases never had a pan-India release then. ‘Bhool Bhulaiya’ (2007), ‘Rowdy Rathore’ (2012), ‘Singham’ (2011), ‘Bodyguard’ (2011), ‘Baaghi 2’ (2018) were some of the big Hindi films that went on to earn, in some cases even more than their southern counterparts—most of them have been so successful that full-fledged series have been spawned, all that were highly anticipated by film buffs and the industry trade. Giant strides in the telecom/internet bandwidth arena and the related thrust on digitalisation ensured that many could now access films and shows on their smartphones and other mobile gadgets. And with the arrival of streaming platforms, the end is near for remakes one would think. Take some recent duds for instance: before ‘Vikram Vedha’ there was Shahid Kapoor’s ‘Jersey’ that came early this year and was a disaster—it was based on the Telugu original hit of the same name that released in 2019 and was available on platforms with subtitles. ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’, the remake of Forrest Gump, was an unmitigated disaster at the domestic box office while the original can be seen on the internet. Moreover, now almost all Tamil and Telugu regional box office hits are dubbed and released all over the country within a span of weeks, keeping the remake window tightly shut. A few like the ‘Baahubali’ series, ‘RRR’ and ‘KGF 1 and 2’ had a massive pan-India and international release, making them worldwide sensations. Now the latest Kannada super hit ‘Kantara’ that released last month, within days of it being declared a blockbuster by the trade, has its dubbed versions being readied for release and the Hindi version has got off to a decent start at the box office.

Dice Them Nice, Price It Nice Too

Remakes notwithstanding, these are interesting times indeed for the Indian film industry. The week that just passed saw Indian cinema’s original angry young man Amitabh Bachchan turn his 80th bend on the Bollywood causeway, turning into the Grand Old Man of the Hindi film industry. In an ode to the actor’s oeuvre, a week’s retrospective was held across the country’s cinemas that replayed the big box-office hits of his career with screenings attracting huge crowds that cut across age barriers, going on to show that the public space of a cinema hall is not going away anywhere. The audience will come if you tell your original stories made for the big screen experience and with the massive overreach of the OTT space it is clear as daylight that production companies have to invest more in their all-important screenwriters and the creative team rather than slotting all their monies on stars alone. Again, a big rejig has to be done in the way the moviegoing experience is currently priced, especially in the north of the country. It is clear that currently the prohibitive costs of film tickets as well as food and beverages that often complement each other is a big dampener, especially in the multiplexes. Efforts in this direction may have begun, with the Multiplex Association of India having a ‘National Cinema Day’ on Sept. 23, wherein over 4,000 multiplex screens (PVR, INOX, Cinepolis, Carnival and Delite) showed films at an admission price of Rs 75 (excluding taxes) for all releases, including new ones. Initial reports suggest that the move may have spurred box office returns in a positive manner with huge footfalls in cinemas on that day. Moving on, there are plans afoot to reduce ticket rates on certain days especially on the day of a film’s release. But how these one-off initiatives will pay off has to be seen in the short to medium term.

So, in this post pandemic, OTT rampant phase has the final nail then been hammered into the remake crypt of the Indian film industry? It definitely does not look like it, with a slew of remakes or themes inspired from an original arriving in the next couple of months, namely ‘Mili’, ‘Drishyam 2’, ‘Shehzadaa’ ‘Bholaa’ and ‘Cirkus’. With 2022 already being the only year in which five films from the Indian film industry having crossed the Rs 400 crore world gross, a rethink on remakes may still be a pipedream.

Anand Mathew is a social development consultant based in New Delhi and writes on films.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.