The Slime of India (I know, I know) is running an article about Bobby Bedi’s (of Bandit Queen, Fire and Saathiya fame) plans for his next project after The Rising
: an ambitious three-film retelling of the Mahabharata.
Now, I’m sure Bedi can pile on the creative talent — Maniratnam, arguably one of India’s finest directors, will apparently be at the helm — but what interests me at this stage is the budget for the trilogy (Rupees 300 crores, approximately US $70 million) and his stated desire to create a ‘historic’ epic with production values similar to that of The Lord of the Rings.
Interestingly, $70M would make this the most expensive Indian movie venture ever, with Devdas at $10M a distant second. Bedi obviously hopes for a long and lucrative run in foreign theatres and in DVD sales, because the biggest Indian hit so far — Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK) — made not more than $30M after a marathon year-long stint at the box office. Of course, in Bedi’s favour is the fact that the Mahabharata will find a ready market when dubbed into various Indian languages, as also in DVD collections across the country. Obviously the producer will be hoping for a HAHK-style blowout in the very first film that’ll ensure audiences can’t stay away from the other two. On the other hand, sequels have never done well in India.
Of course, an open question would be how well the scriptwriters and the director balance Indian tastes in drama (which tends towards the melodramatic) with Bedi’s goal of taking the epic to the ‘American, British [and] Japanese’.
A bigger question is about production values. One reason Bollywood films look relatively unpolished is because a greater chunk of the budget goes into paying off the stars without who no big-budget Bollywood feature is complete. As the article says, Bedi is looking at casting not one but two A-list actors (Shahrukh and Aamir Khan) and an A-list actress, who together will eat into at least 10% of the budget. The question is therefore: can Bedi get LoTR-level gloss into three films for the money it took to make the Matrix?
As I’ve written before, great effects on small budgets have been done before: Crouching Tiger took $12M to make, for example, and 28 Days Later took $8M. But the limitations of those movies compared to the big FX films are apparent, and so are the budgets. The Titanic sank in $300M, The Matrix weighed in at a relative shoestring $65M and LoTR, made in New Zealand to cut cost and making use of extensive digital technology for its FX, needed $270M to recreate Middle-Earth on the silver screen.
Can diminishing digital costs, the availability of Massive and Massive-like packages, filming in India and using Indian post-production staff create the same FX quality for a third of the cost? As an FX geek I’m not holding my breath, but it would be great if good FX let Indian filmmakers think outside the boy-meets-girl box. And I’m sure Hollywood would love to add India to Mexico, Australia and now New Zealand as a low-cost destination for making movies.