Ram Gopal Varma has a new movie in the works. Once upon a time in Bollywood, the news would have caused a flutter. The Varma movies were celebrated by the critic and the fan. Remember, the crime noir Satya? Who can forget Rangeela?
Those movies now seem a lifetime ago. Varma’s last hit Phoonk was delivered more than a decade back. The 2008 movie, made at a budget of Rs 5 crore, collected Rs 14 crore at the box office.
Varma’s career graph is actually dotted with box office failures. Of the nearly 50 Hindi films he has made in a three-decade career, he has only one blockbuster and four genuine hits to his name. Two were what in Bollywood parlance would be described as semi-hits. Nine were average, meaning they barely recovered costs. As many as 34 films were duds.
Dud factoryYet, Varma is able to consistently churn out movies. Film-making is not like say, writing a book. There is big money riding on the enterprise and losses can hurt a gaggle of stakeholders ranging from producers to actors to distributors.
Varma’s movies are not just box office bombs, but are widely panned. Take for example RGV ki Aag. The 2007 film failed miserably at the box office. It was made at a budget of Rs 21 crore, but amassed just Rs 7 crore. Critics hated it. Rajeev Masand called it a bad joke, saying writing a review amounts to dignifying a third-rate film.
The verdict for Naach, a bomb from 2004, was that it lacked — “spine” — and a script. Nishabd left everyone speechless in ways Varma would have not imagined. Critics called it lead actor Amitabh Bachchan's biggest mistake. The flops continued—My Wife's Murder, James, Mr ya Miss— and vanished without a whimper at the box office.
Few movie directors of the stature of Varma have had such a bad run. His peer David Dhawan who started making movies around the same time as Varma has directed 43 films. At least 23 were hits. While their movies are as different as chalk and cheese, Dhawan's last film Judwaa 2, a remake of his 1997 namesake title, minted more than Rs 132 crore against a cost of Rs 63 crore.
Passion for moviesVarma may have compelling reasons to make movies.
Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media, a media consulting firm, said Varma is passionate about filmmaking. He sees no other reason because the last authentic success by Varma was more than a decade ago.
Still, it begs the question how Varma is able to bankroll his movie projects. It would be easy to allude to his clout; remember his tour of the Taj Hotel after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks accompanying the then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh?
But moviemaking is expensive and even powerful friends will balk at losses.
Akshay Bardapurkar, a Marathi filmmaker and producer, has an explanation. For any movie financier, Bardapurkar said, what is important is whether a director is capable of making a good film. “Varma is."
Bardapurkar said RGV (a moniker carved from Varma’s initials) is a brand. “His work rings a bell with producers, distributors and exhibitors. Financiers bank on a simple model — they should get their money back. RGV promises that.”
Multiplexes particularly love Varma movies. “When multiplexes mushroomed in India from 2000-01, Varma became their poster boy with films such as Company and Bhoot,” said Kapoor.
Directors need all these stakeholders to rally by their side and RGV has that ability, according to Bardapurkar. “In fact, the moment RGV comes in the picture we can expect a studio to come on board as well.”
Indeed, despite his failures, several studios have backed Varma over the years. For example, 20th Century Fox collaborated in 2002 with Varma for three films, including Ek Hasina Thi and Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon. The two films sank at the box office.
Varma joined hands with Adlabs Films in 2005. They collaborated for ventures like RGV ki Aag.
Another production house named K Sera Sera (KSS), joined hands with Varma in 2003. Varma made films such as Darna Mana Hai, James, My Wife's Murder, Gayab, Naach and Ab Tak Chhappan, among others, with the backing of KSS. But the company severed ties with him in 2006 after a string of flops.
The Bollywood business modelWhen KSS parted ways, Bollywood insiders wondered if Varma would be able to invest in another movie. But Varma was unaffected partly because of the way Bollywood makes and distributes movies.
Film trade analyst Komal Nahta throws more light. A producer who is investing money in a film is not making a big loss, according to him.
Look at it this way: a producer is able to at least cut the losses. “The film may have flopped badly but the loss to the producer may not be that much because he has hedged his losses by selling to a distributor," said Nahata.
Take Ram Gopal Varma's Aag . The film was a box office disaster and distributors lost around Rs 16 crore. Yet, Adlabs Films, the co-producer, and RGV did not suffer steep losses because the film was pre-sold to the distributors.
In Bollywood, as it happens in other film industries, movie losses are distributed between a producer and distributor. This model is perfect for a prolific filmmaker like Varma, who is able to assemble big names.
Small budgets, less worryVarma has another special trait that makes the business viable. He is able to control the budgets of his films, said film analysts.
Varma’s films cost between Rs 4 crore and Rs 5 crore. That is a fraction of the typical Bollywood movie cost, which average roughly Rs 80 crore.
Filmmaker and producer Radhika Lavu explained varma’s low-budget filmmaking style.
Varma uses a lot of natural lighting in his movies, said Lavu. “Now, when you cut down the lights, you cut down a lot of cost and you cut down the number of people required.”
His movies also feature fresh faces, which also keeps a tight lid on costs. “Varma has a knack of picking up some fantastic talent. Look at the amount of talent he has launched in the industry from Anurag Kashyap to Manoj Bajpayee,” said Akshaye Rathi, film exhibitor and director, Saroj Screens.
Varma once famously shared how he shot a scene in Satya. One character's death scene was shot on Mahim Bridge in Mumbai. Only three to four people and two cameras without rotatable eyepiece were used for the shot. The cameraman would run behind the actors for the shot. Varma said Satya was shot in a guerrilla style and if he would have spent a lot of money and made a proper production design and location, Satya wouldn't have been the same.
“Having controlled budgets not only helps the exhibitors but also the entire value chain,” said Rathi.
Lavu said even when Varma was scoring hits, he made films on shoestring budgets. Few filmmakers would go back to making small-budget films because after hits they get access to bigger budgets, according to Lavu.
Making films in two languagesKapoor said Varma’s connection with the Telugu movie industry—he started his career there — has also stood him in good stead. Varma’s first directorial venture in Hindi was a remake of the Telugu film Siva. The Hindi remake Shiva established Varma in Bollywood. Many of his movies are released in both languages, giving producers access to a massive audience.
Varma remains active in the Telugu industry; his last film in that language was made in 2019.
Varma was one of the first mainstream directors to understand the potential of over-the-top (OTT) platforms in India.
His latest Telugu films have released on digital platform called RGVWorld.in, which is a pay-per-view model. On June 6, he released a film named Climax on the digital platform. The film viewed by 1.68 lakh people by paying Rs 100, he tweeted.
If that were true, Climax, which cost Rs 20 lakh, was able to quickly collect Rs 1.68 crore.
Staying relevantVarma has a knack of staying relevant, even if it means courting controversies. He has an opinion on almost everything, which he airs through tweets.
“His controversies still help him to create buzz around him,” said Bardapurkar.
That buzz often is a springboard to a new movie.