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The coming of age of Punjabi cinema

After a slow and sluggish start, the Punjabi film industry seems to be now poised to scale new highs and is increasingly becoming popular not only in the north Indian state, but also in overseas locations where a sizeable number of the NRI population with their roots in Punjab have settled down.

Anilesh S. Mahajan        Last Updated: April 9, 2014  | 17:57 IST
The coming of age of Punjabi cinema
Harish Verma, a Punjabi actor. Photo: Rachit Goswami.

On the sets of his latest movie Disco Singh, director Anurag Singh's enthusiasm is infectious. Not only has it influenced every member of his crew, the moment you start a conversation with him it would engulf you as well. His excitement is unmistakable as Singh discusses the basics of film making and its economics. And, therefore, it's of little surprise that he is the most sought-after director in the Punjabi film industry, winning accolades from movie goers as well as recently bagging the 'Best Director' award for his film Jatt and Juliet 2. Singh, 37, has directed three box office blockbusters, of which the first edition of Jatt and Juliet, had earned Rs 30 crore from global box office collections in 2011 - by far the best by any Punjabi movie.

After a slow and sluggish start, the Punjabi film industry seems to be now poised to scale new highs and is increasingly becoming popular not only in the north Indian state, but also in overseas locations where a sizeable number of the NRI population with their roots in Punjab have settled down. And, the primary marketing objective of all the movie makers in the state has been to simply entertain their existing admirers to sustain a competitive advantage and ensure continued satisfaction and loyalty of cine goers.

The winds of change had started blowing in 1999 with Manoj Punj's Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Butta Singh, in which noted singer Gurdas Mann and Divya Dutta played the lead roles, bringing the local audience back to the cinema halls. This movie had inspired Bollywood blockbusters Gaddar - Ek Prem Katha and Yash Chopra's Veer Zaara.

But, the real impetus was provided by Bollywood's ace cinematographer and Chopra's protégé Man Mohan Singh. In 2002, he made Je Ayan Nu (Welcome), starring singer Harbhajan Mann as the lead. This was the first big budget (Rs 2.5 crore) movie by the Punjabi film industry standards. It was released worldwide and earned revenues by riding on the popularity of Mann.

Gathering pace. In 2013 alone, 42 Punjabi movies were released. This might be less than the 103 Marathi and 105 Bengali movies, but industry insiders believe that things are moving in the right direction.

The Punjabi film industry's earnings might just be about 10 per cent (Rs 500 crore) of Bollywood, which stands at a whopping Rs 5,000 crore, but it is putting up a good fight with other regional biggies, such as Marathi Cinema, to position itself at the fifth position in the list, where the four south Indian film industries rule.

The optimism. Harish Verma, who plays lead roles in Punjabi films, says: "The production value is matching the standards of Bollywood." Verma says the revival of the cinema must be credited to youngsters. "They are the ones who are making a difference with good stories and the advent of new technology. I am sure Punjabi movies are here to stay."  

And, Verma's optimism is sure to bear fruit for professionals like Anurag Singh. In spite of the hurdles on his way, he has learnt lessons from his mistakes and moved ahead. "My earlier movies did not work at the box office. When I got offers to make movies in my mother tongue, I latched onto the opportunity," Singh told BT. His enthusiasm is shared by several other directors, including Sameep Kang of Carry on Jatta fame and Man Mohan Singh.

Grabbing eyeballs. Bollywood music director and producer Himesh Reshammiya has bought the remake rights of Disco Singh for Rs 3.5 crore and is expected to co-produce it with Salman Khan. This movie will also be made in three other regional languages, Bengali, Malayalam and Telugu. "If the content is good, people will appreciate it," says Anurag Singh.

What's more, both global players, such as Viacom 18 and Eros Now, and Indian biggies, including T-series, Tips, Subhash Ghai's Mukta Arts, Akshay Kumar's Grazing Goat and Jimmy Shergill's Jimmy Shergill Productions, are looking to grab a share of the pie in producing and distributing products of the lucrative Punjabi film industry.

"In days to come, we can expect some of the non-serious players to make way for more serious players to get into the fray. But good movies will rule," Singh tells BT. Big production houses, such as Eros, Fox Movies and DAR Motion pictures, are also keeping a close watch on the developments. "We are evaluating Bengali and Punjabi movies, but only in the second half of 2014 something concrete may come up," says Vivek Rangachari, Director, DAR Motion Pictures - which produced Lunch Box. "Right now Punjabi movies are doing well and people are putting in money in similar products. But, we want to be sure that this is not a bubble and has a sustainable future before committing ourselves into this," he adds.   

Rangachari's hesitance is understandable. The budget for making Punjabi movies is increasing. The lead actors are charging between Rs 1 crore and Rs 2 crore, while key characters are demanding Rs 50 lakh-1 crore - something that was never heard of. "It is the responsibility of the big stars of Punjabi cinema to make the business viable as well," asserts Rajiee M. Shinde, Director and CEO, PTC Network. Her company, PTC Motion Pictures, is producing Anurag Singh's next movie Disco Singh. "This is because the movies are doing good. The actors are making money because of their book value," explains Singh.

Back-end support. Punjab has given us great character actors as well as stars, such as Prithvi Raj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Dharmendra, Amrish Puri, Om Puri, Dara Singh and Raj Babbar. Now, its films are here to make a difference. And, what's working in their favour is the increasing back-end support, such as movie halls (140 halls across Punjab and Haryana) and satellite distribution companies like UFO Moviez taking interest in the industry. Pankaj Jaisinh, COO, UFO Moviez, says: "Jatt and Julliet 2 was released in 84 cinema halls and Bhaji in Problem at 72 theatres simultaneously across the nation. They grossed Rs 5-6 crore and Rs 2 crore, receptively. This is good collection as far as Punjabi cinema is concerned. It has a huge market."

Shinde of PTC Network believes events, such as awards, will further help the industry make inroads. "In 2011, we organised the first awards for Punjabi cinema. This brings in more content from Punjabi cinema and helps create a buzz, which in turn, helps in bringing in more audience."

The most favoured genres are comedy, love stories and rom-coms. "If a movie has to come from Punjab it should have ethos from that land, otherwise most of production houses are open about the scripts and plots," says Rangachari. "It also must have great music for sure," he adds. Well, no wonder, Punjabi films are making the audience dance to their tunes!

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