December 7, 2018 / 7:40 AM / 6 days ago

It’s the script, stupid: Junglee Pictures looks beyond stars to churn out hits

Reuters - As Bollywood makes its year-end report card, one film that will emerge as the standout hit of 2018 is “Badhaai Ho” (Congratulations). The comedy-drama has made 1. 35 billion rupees ($19 million) at the box office even as big-ticket releases like “Thugs of Hindostan” and “Namaste England” fell by the wayside.

Handout picture of Priti Shahani.

If someone had said a few years ago that a small-budget Bollywood film with no big stars would beat a Diwali holiday release starring Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, the person would have been ridiculed. But for the studio that greenlit and produced “Badhaai Ho”, that era is now gone.

“Audiences are the biggest disruptor now. Three years ago, the audience stopped coming into theatres and caused this disruption” says Priti Shahani, president of Junglee Pictures.

The story of a middle-age couple who are expecting a child, much to the embarrassment of their family, continues to run in theatres for the third month. Made at a modest budget of 250 million rupees ($3.5 million), Shahani says when “Badhaai Ho” was given the go-ahead, her team estimated that it would earn “a princely sum” of 450 million rupees. She says the success of the film is not just because of a good script and noteworthy performances, but because Indian audiences’ taste is evolving.

“Up to four years ago, packaging was more important than the content, because the audience liked the packaging – good looking stars, great music, fabulous locations, some entertainment. Then the location stopped being important, because we’re travelling to those places. Music is being consumed on YouTube. So now, audiences are coming to theatres for a story.”

Junglee’s other release of the year, “Raazi”, also crossed the one billion-rupee mark. The film, about a young bride who works as a spy for India in the 1970s, also won accolades for its lead actor Alia Bhatt.

In an industry obsessed with star power, Shahani says Junglee has tried not to let that overpower the story. “Our stories have dictated our talent and dictated our budgets. When we write a story, we also think we’d like to pitch it to Aamir or Ranbir (Kapoor), but our stories choose our talent, and we go with it. It’s worked. ‘Badhaai Ho’ is a testimony to the fact that we didn’t fall into this trap.”

But that doesn’t mean Shahani won’t be pitching a film to Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh Khan.

“Star power is still a draw at the box office. There is a reason why people want to spend an average of 250 rupees to go and watch a film – and that is because of the face on the poster… (But) the power has now shifted to stories and therefore to writers and directors.”

Junglee’s focus on scripts meant it set up a writer’s room from the time of its launch in 2015, and Shahani says the studio prefers to be involved in projects from the inception. And as Hollywood becomes more popular with Indian moviegoers, she says Bollywood will increasingly copy western franchises and make spectacle films with Indian themes to retain their audience.

“You are going to see a lot more writing centered around our mythology. Our development is tentatively called “Hanuman”, and I know we will not finally call it that. And it’s a superhero film and inspired by our mythology. I know other producers are also working on such subjects,” Shahani says.

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Editing by David Lalmalsawma; The opinion expressed in this article is the author’s own and not of Thomson Reuters. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.

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