Bollywood Goes Digital

Madhuri Dixit
Madhuri Dixit in the award-winning Bollywood epic Devdas (2003).

It’s a treacherous ride to Hathras down India’s Bulandshahr-Aligarh highway. Narrow roads that barely allow two cars to squeeze past, pools of rainwater, potholes that make you jump two feet up even as you barely move an inch forward, and deceptive bends that seem made for disastrous climaxes. Hathras is the least likely milestone in Bollywood’s road to the future. But this innocuous hometown of the late Hindi haasya kavi [satirical poet] Kaka Hathrasi is living a new dream that Bollywood’s just begun chasing—a dream called e-cinema.

The fantasy is unfolding almost invisibly in Prakash Talkies, a decrepit theater with shocking pistachio green walls. On any given day, it’s peopled as much by stray cows as film junkies. A poky stall outside briskly sells oil-laden bread pakoras, and privileged street dogs move in and out of the hall. The few good men who decide to pay for some of those not-yet-broken chairs spew betel juice along with wolf whistles. Prakash Talkies is like thousands of other Indian cinema paradisos—but one of only a handful where a film is shown without the film.

In its handkerchief-small projection room, the giant 35mm Zenith projector almost looks like a relic. Its carbon arc lamp doesn’t shoot light through filmstrips to create the illusion of movement. Instead, a small laptop stores images as files and pops them onto a dirty, dusty screen, desperately in need of a wash.

Outside, the posters scream: “Nayi computer machine dwara dekhiye Gangaajal” (See Gangaajal through new computer machine). “We thought we’ll start off with this film. Yeh naam bahut shubh hai (it’s a holy title),” says theater owner Giriraj. It’s day one of the new technology, and the photos of Shankar and Hanuman are showering their blessings on everyone; the tilak and flower garlands adorn the computer server.

Equipment that your neighborhood geek may see as mundane is being regarded by many as the biggest landmark yet in the march of cinema. Some have even called it “the biggest revolution since sound!” “E-cinema is the way to go in India,” claims Adlabs Managing Director Manmohan Shetty. The company, known for its motion-picture processing lab, has signed an MoU [memorandum of understanding] with Subhash Ghai’s Mukta Arts to retrofit 400 cinemas with digital projectors by April 2004 and 1,500 cinemas by 2007.

Music companies Tips, Time, and Venus have also got together along with financiers Bharat Shah and Govardhan Tanwani, Prachaar Communications, and distributors Tilak Enterprises. They have introduced it in 35 theaters in Maharashtra and have now joined with a distributor to tap the northern market.
While Hollywood has been hesitant about adopting the technology, Bollywood seems to be going full blast.

On April 18 this year, Mukta-Adlabs installed digital projection equipment in Trimurti theater in Sangola and Bharat in Mangalwedha, both in Maharashtra’s Solapur district. Since then, more than 30 theaters in the state have been upgraded. Two months ago they brought the technology to Guna in Madhya Pradesh, and to Purulia and Haldia in West Bengal. In Uttar Pradesh, the first theater to go digital was Capital in Rae Bareilly on Aug. 8, followed by Swarn Talkies in Auraiya on Aug. 15. After Prakash Talkies on Sept. 9, it’s now the turn of Banda and Azamgarh. “We intend installing the system in 150-200 towns in Punjab and UP [Uttar Pradesh] in six months,” claims Sanjay Ghai of Mukta-Adlabs.

They are calling it a solution, not a mere experiment. Those for it claim it addresses industry problems by saving costs and opening up new ways of making money. No longer do you need to transport 50 kilograms of film reels in canisters. Instead, the movie will be stored in a high-capacity disk drive about double the size of a cigarette pack, which will be couriered to the hall, where the film can be downloaded to the server. Also, it’ll be a digitally encrypted signal with an access password. This, to keep the pirates at bay. While a conventional print costs 60,000-80,000 rupees (US$1,310-$1,747), digital images come at only about 10 percent of the expense.

The technology reinvents the conventional distribution-exhibition model in India. Traditionally, after doing the rounds of metros and big cities, the same prints are passed on to the B- and C-grade centers. They reach there after a gap of five to six weeks. Says Raju Hingorani, CEO of  Tips: “There are about 8,500 registered cinema halls in the country but the biggest films are released with not more than 400-500 prints.” Hollywood, in contrast, reaches 75 percent of its market in the opening week.

With disks, the films will now arrive much more quickly in small towns, enabling faster recovery of money. For example, The Hero opened with digital prints in Sangola and Mangalwedha a week after its release in the metros and made 16,000 ($349) and 12,000 rupees ($262), respectively, on the opening day. Earlier, the entire week’s collection would have been in the range of 15,000-20,000 rupees ($328-$437). “Now the film will make as much money in the first week as it would have in 10 weeks,” says Komal Nahata of Film Information.

But the effort is largely aimed at getting the better of a menace called piracy. Pirates have been cashing in on the time lag in the film’s release by showing illegal copies of the movies in small towns. An average Bollywood film today loses an estimated 40 percent of its revenue to piracy. “Since the state is doing precious little to curb piracy, the industry has decided to help itself,” says Nahata.

But the businessmen aren’t the only ones smiling. Ashrafi Lal, who has been the head operator at Prakash Talkies for 18 years, looks happy at his imminent obsolescence. No painstaking, time-consuming rolling and rerolling of reels, and assembling it on a platter, no splicing, gluing, or taping it, no change of reels after every 20 minutes. All he has to do now is click the mouse and keep a watch. Besides, he now also has an AC in his projection room. The technology promises to offer even more: The songs and scenes can now be replayed on demand. Owners would have flexibility and freedom in programming because two films can be stored simultaneously. Digital images are also known to have less chance of wear and tear, as opposed to celluloid strips that get scratched easily.

However, what the audience will now miss are the advertisements and trailers that will eventually need to be preprogrammed. Also, the system is still in a testing mode. The picture quality is not as good as a print and there are fears that the technology may turn obsolete sooner than expected. Moreover, the installation costs are huge. With 10-15 lakh rupees (1 million-1.5 million rupees/$21,839-$32,758) required for fitting in the system, the digital revolution could run out of money soon.

But for the downbeat trade in B and C centers, it’s almost like the last kiss of life. Says Anil Kumar Gupta, the partner at Prakash Talkies: “We are not able to meet our costs. We rarely get to see a houseful.” On top of it, there’s the huge 60-percent tax to pay off to the state government.

So will the laptop revive the East-mancolor dreams? “If the films do well, more funds will flow in; it’ll also help in improving the infrastructure and facilities,” says Ghai. Prakash Talkies plans to install fancy new gates at the entrance and spruce up the open space into a public garden. They will also wash the dirty, dusty screen soon.