Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat was clearly not a charity case. Stories emerged that so popular was the film that in places the film had shows as early as 3 AM merely to accommodate everyone. Never before has any Marathi film, and rarely any film made in the state of Maharashtra, had such a huge craze. Yet, the five screened PVR Juhu refused to screen the film beyond one show in the first two weeks. After that, they simply took it off.
And PVR is one of the good theatre chains with a long track record of patronising good, indie films.
I was surprised that Sairat has so far made 75 crores. Except, my surprise is the opposite of yours. I am surprised that the film has not been allowed to make 200 crores. In my estimate, if the ideal conditions were met, it would have easily crossed… 400 crores. Before I explain how, let’s first analyse what makes the film so popular.
WHY SAIRAT WORKED
There is something about stories of young, innocent people who do not buy into the rules of society, who fall in love only to be confronted with reality. These stories tug at out heart. Young audiences love it because they are going through it in the present. The old love it because it reminds them of the innocence of their youth.
It’s no surprise that some of the biggest hits of commercial Indian cinema – both Bollywood and its regional centres - have been love stories. Every time a star kid had to be launched, the failsafe bet had been a love story. Think Kumar Gaurav and Love Story. Think Aamir Khan and Qayamat se Qayamat Tak. Think Salman Khan in Maine Pyar Kiya or a Hritick Roshan with Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. Think of the new star kids launched in the last couple of years and you’ll find they were all love stories.
The more impossible the love story or the tougher the odds our lovers have to fight, the bigger does the film become at the box office. Unless the story and/or the direction is insipid (like a few of these have been in the last few years), this formula has never failed.
So, Sairat as an impossible love story, had most things going for it right from the start. But that still does not account for the stupendous success of the film. One of the most important reasons for this, has been some very smart choices by writer-director Nagraj Manjule.
Sairat is very smartly packaged to hide caste in plain sight. While activist celebrate its caste angle, common masses can stay completely aloof from this same angle.
No reason is given by the girl’s father or mother about why they do not approve of the boy. Audiences can assume these based upon their understanding. A caste aware person will see the reason as being the differing castes. One in denial of the existence of caste can simply see the opposition stemming from the financial disparity between the two.
That is the problem with commercial cinema. It takes money to make it and thus money needs to be recovered. One does this by making a film relatable to as many as possible. The attempt is to reach the lowest common denominator. Hence, the playing of the caste card just about right made it that much more accessible to people.
There is no clear underlining of caste-based identities of the two protagonists. Indeed, to the generic observer, it would seem like a rich vs. poor saga. Like a Maine Pyar Kiya where the girl is poor, or a Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai where the boy is poor.
Yet, for those with caste awareness casteism is visible everywhere in the film. In the way they live (palatial home vs. one room), in their occupations (politician vs. fisher-folk), their dialects, the way they travel (Royal Enfield vs. repaired bikes), in their attitudes (born in upper class priviledge makes the girl strong but the strong boy has to hide his strength and pretend meekness like he does in the fight scene with the girls cousin), the water they drink (boy drinks water from mug vs. buying a mineral water bottle for the girl), how they adjust to poverty, what their very noses can smell, their names, their friends (the boy moves with the underprivileged like him – a boy with disability and a Muslim boy), the poetry class where the name of firebrand Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal is referenced etc.
These detailing infuse and effuse realism to the film, negating the unrealism of other devices like the slow-motion shots.
Casting a girl (Rinku Rajguru) who looked normal and not a gym-going cardboard cut-out was genius. Usually you see the height, colour, build and looks of the lead woman in most films and you are put off right there because you cannot relate to her. Like the lead in Dam Laga Ke Haishya here is a woman who every single girl who saw the film could look at without a pang of envy.
The girl with a strong mind of her own who rides a bike and is not scared to get into a physical scuffle, becomes - in a strange way - as aspirational as the female lead in most Bollywood films. Except the aspiration here is not to ‘look’ like her, but to ‘be’ like her – strong, independent, wilful.
The boy (Akash Thosar) meanwhile is a body builder in real life but was told to tone down his body and look normal, just the reverse of what Bollywood asks one to do. This worked as men could just concentrate on the story rather than feel insecure by the six pack abs on display.
That these two, and quite a lot of the cast are non-actors, lends an authenticity hard to get otherwise. The music of the film has the entire nation dancing to its tune. The settings, the incidents, the locations chosen, the direction was again just enough not to overburden with too much reality, or be too frivolous to distract you.
But here’s the rub, and a big one. None of these matter or are enough to cash in the moolah. What comes here, just as in most things, is the middleman – distribution.
THE DISTRIBUTION GAME
Like the casteism in the film, distribution is the elephant in the room that obstructs or facilitates a film’s success depending upon which side of the divide you are on. And in a real story matching reel, Nagraj Manjule and his band of filmmakers are the Dalits in the equation with the big brahmins deciding on their whim which film will work and which won’t simply by controlling distribution.
Let’s compare Sairat with one of the biggest money grossers of Bollywood Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (PRDP). It is exactly the opposite of Sairat being the story of kings, set in exotic locations that do not even exist, the muscular hero fighting his way in well-choreographed wired action sequences while the nubile heroine, a literal princess no less, waits to be rescued.
PRDP made a whooping 40 crores on the very first day, crossed 100 crore in three days and ended up eventually making 400 crores. Magical, wonderful, staggering, you’d say by this cursory glance. But since the devil lies in wait in the details, let’s nit-pick. When we do, a very interesting distribution game emerges.
PRDP was released in a staggering 5000 screen across the world, the largest for any Indian film so far. I remember opening BookMyShow and being surprised to see that there were just two Hindi films running in theatres in Mumbai on the week PRDP released, the other being the leftover of the film released the previous week.
PRDP had literally wiped out the competition. If you wanted to see a Hindi film that week, you had no choice. Add to this the tremendous advertising campaign and a person would be intrigued enough by all the hype to at least go and see it once. And that is what everyone did.
After the 40 crore first day strong opening, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’s collection dropped to 31 crore on day 2 and on day three it made 30 crores. So clearly, word of mouth was not what the film relied on for its success.
Now compare this with Sairat which released in about 450 screens in the first week, mostly in Maharashtra but also in some neighbouring states. With negligible advertising support, it made 3.6 crores on its opening day, spread by word of mouth to make a total of 12.1 crore over 3 days. This seem paltry compared to PRDP, except if you take the percentages and try to level the two.
Imagine if Sairat had got the same advertising push as PRDP and had also released in 5000 screens instead of 450. If we find the percentage difference in the number of screens (11.11) and multiply the earnings with the same, we see that Sairat would have made 40 crores on the first day, the same as PRDP. However, since its three day collection was 12.1 crore, it would have made a whooping 135 crore on the weekend itself instead of the 100 crore that PRDP made.
Because of its stupendous success the number of screen Sairat is playing now, a month after its release, is 525 screens from which it has made 75 crores so far. If you multiply it by 11.11 and put in other factors, you would realise that Sairat would have so far made… 700 crores at the box office, making it the highest grossing film in India.
Yes, I agree that this is not how it works. The films popularity dips with corresponding weeks and with it its occupancy lessens as well. Even if you consider all these factors, and reduce the earnings to correspond with these, it would still have made well over 400 crores at the theatres.
Rajshri Films, as one of the oldest distributors and makers of films in this nation, can pull off that kind of distribution numbers and hence make the kind of money it did with PRDP. They are the Brahmins of the film industry and our Sairat team are the Dalits who cannot imagine this sort of clout, and thus success. Maybe they would be allowed to now.
Hence, the success of Sairat becomes that much more heartening because without all these supporting paraphernalia, with insufficient help, these bunch of filmmakers have pulled of a success purely based on the merit of their film. How many filmmakers in the country can claim that?
I finally got to see the film after four failed attempts, in the fourth week of its release. But before that I watched another Hindi film, which was running at half capacity in PVR Juhu and I wondered what business sense is it that you refuse to give even one screen to a film that is running to packed houses everywhere, but give multiple shows to a film that is running half empty.
Casteism did you say? Yes, it comes in different shapes and sizes in real life.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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