The caterpillar has turned into a butterfly. Punjabi cinema, for decades, one of the most sluggish and least noticed of regional cinemas, has undergone a transformation in recent years. More films are being made with production values much higher than before; their plots are more varied and complex; investment is pouring in and returns are breaking records.
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"Jinhe Mera Dil Luteya has broken all records of Punjabi cinema," says Kumar Taurani, chairman and Managing director of Tips Industries. "In the first week of its release itself it clocked box office revenues of Rs 2.70 crore in Punjab which till date no Punjabi film has been able to do."
The superior quality of Jihne Mera Dil Luteya is ascribed mainly to the producer's willingness to spend freely in the pursuit of cinematic excellence. Until 2002, an average Punjabi film used to cost a mere Rs 50 to 60 lakh, but even now its budget rarely exceeds Rs 2 crore. Dharti too, released in February this year, made on a budget of Rs 3 crore, was only a step behind, starring the reigning superstar of Punjabi films, Jimmy Shergill, and including in its cast yesteryear's reigning Hindi film villain Prem Chopra - though not in a villainous role - and Ran Vijay Singh of MTV Roadies' fame.
Punjabi cinema is still a Rs 50 crore industry - against the Hindi juggernaut of Rs 4,000 crore - but based as it is in Mumbai, it is able to draw on many of the Hindi film industry's resources. All the technicians and other crew members Punjabi films employ, for instance, are from the Hindi film industry. Curiously, barring Shergill, the stars of most Punjabi films are nationally renowned singers of Punjabi origin, who double here as actors. There are also a good number drawn from television. Trade pundits are agreed the industry could easily expand to twice its current worth.
Before the makeover, Punjabi films were made only sporadically, at the whim of individual rich Punjabis - some non resident Indians, some local. But now well known film companies - which earlier produced only Hindi or South Indian films - are entering the Punjabi arena. Eros International, T-Series and Tips Industries have taken the lead along with BIG Pictures, part of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani group. BIG Pictures has produced three Punjabi films in a span of two years, 2007 to 2009, and is currently distributing Punjabi films. BIG Pictures biggest hit in Punjabi was Mera Pind (My Home) in 2008.
At the start of October, Eros International entered into a tie-up with actor Jimmy Shergill's production house to produce four Punjabi films. Other corporate film houses such as UTV Motion Pictures, and Dar Motion Pictures, part of the Dubai based Dar Group which is currently producing Hindi and Marathi films, are also eyeing Punjabi cinema. Their interest has been stoked by the fact that Punjabi films are not only ringing the cash registers, but are also cheaper and take less time to complete than Hindi films. Punjabi films can be wrapped up in six to nine months while Hindi films take at least a year to 15 months. "It's a potential market which cannot be ignored. Multiplexes emerging in small towns are also fuelling the growth of Punjabi cinema," says Kamal Jain, Group CFO of Eros International.
"The multiplex industry is roughly growing at a rate of 14 per cent per annum," Jain adds. In the last five years, the multiplex chains in Punjab have seen a boom too. Against four multiplexes in all of Punjab in 2007, there are now 36. These in turn have attracted a large middle audience for Punjabi films which did not exist before. With quality improving, Punjabi films are also finding releases in Punjabi dominated areas of Delhi, and parts of Haryana.
"The big attraction for the studios to produce Punjabi cinema is the overseas diaspora which is huge," says Rakesh Jariwala, partner and segment champion Filmed entertainment, Ernst & Young. Some other reasons include spreading risk and expanding into newer markets.
The resurgence of Punjabi Cinema started in 2001/02 when Bollywood and Yash Raj banner's ace cinematographer Man Mohan Singh turned to make Punjabi films. Ajay Kapoor, associate producer-Films, and director at T Series, which financed the effort, says: "We were the pioneers in producing Punjabi cinema with great production values with Jee Aayang Nu in 2002. Later we produced Yaara O Dildaara in 2011."
Navnait Singh, one of the most sought after director in Punjabi Cinema who has assisted Man Mohan Singh says: "In the 1970s and 1980s filmmakers were inspired by loud Punjabi cinema from across the border. The language and stories were not too appealing and most could not connect with what was happening on screen. Then when Jee Aaya Nu released in 2002, it was different. The film was a musical, made in Bollywood style with renowned technicians and with the NRI audience in mind. Since then things have changed completely for Punjabi cinema."
Today, Punjabi films apart from being shot in the locales of Punjab, are also being shot in other exotic locations like Ladakh within India, and even abroad.
Unlike Southern film industry, music and satellite rights are not yet big revenue generators for Punjabi cinema industry. But, producers are hoping that with channels like MH-1, PTC Punjabi airing Punjabi cinema, this will change.
According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report on the Indian Entertainment industry released recently, the Indian film industry clocked revenues to the tune of Rs 8,750 crore in 2010. Although a break up of the regional cinema industry is not given, it is understood from industry players that Hindi mainstream cinema contributes 45 per cent (Rs 3,938 crore) of revenues and regional cinema the rest (55 per cent, or Rs 4,812 crore). South Indian cinema accounts for two-thirds of this regional pie, with the balance coming from other languages such as Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali and Bhojpuri.
But, like other regional film industry, the Punjabi film industry also faces numerous challenges. One of the major challenges is the lack of true actors in industry. Except for Jimmy Shergill, a popular Bollywood actor, others from Bollywood have not entered the fray yet. As of today most top rated popular Punjabi singers such as Harbhajan Mann, Babbu Maan, Jasbir Jassi double up as film stars. Even a Mika Singh and Gursewak Maan have tried their hand at Punjabi cinema.
According to Jain of Eros, the biggest challenge to Punjabi films are the Hindi films. "Distribution of regional films is restricted to their respective states. But, having said that, Punjabi films have now broken into Haryana, and will soon spread into Delhi and NCR region," says Jain.
"Multiplexes pay no advance, but after seeing the growth, they have started giving more screens. For hit movies, they are forced to increase the number of shows in the second week," says Vijay Tandon, a distributor in Punjab for Tips Industries.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the budget of an average Punjabi film rarley exceeds Rs 2 lakh.