'Tere Bin Laden': Who needs Bollywood stars when you have Osama?
Perceived from afar, the following synopsis would guarantee to get any aspiring filmmaker thrown out of the offices of every major and minor production house in Mumbai. That is a film with no recognized stars, set in Pakistan and featuring a caricature of Osama Bin Laden.
But director Abhishek Sharma of this summer's sleeper hit "Tere Bin Laden" was no ordinary aspirant and the surprise box office returns of his directorial debut hint at a mixture of serendipity, a certain degree of commitment to its success on the part of his producer and distributors and an audience more open-mined than many would have believed.
Multiplex film flex
For years now, film industry folk have classified their product under three sub-heads: mainstream, crossover and multiplex. A mainstream movie is expected to appeal to the widest possible audience regardless of their individual tastes. Crossover cinema is supposed to be good enough for Western audiences while 'multiplex films' are targeted at cinegoers with greater disposable income who require luxuries like air-conditioning, properly upholstered seats and a caramel popcorn option to be able to truly enjoy their cinematic experiences. By these definitions "Tere Bin Laden" is a multiplex film that arrived with significant marketing muscle.
The film is about television journalist Ali (played by Pakistani pop star Ali Zafar) who is single-minded about migrating to the United States of America. Thwarted by a series of misinterpreted circumstances in the early days after 9/11 he is deported and all his successive visa applications denied.
Stuck in a dead-end job seven years later, reporting on the inconsequential, Ali makes the acquaintance of Noora, a chicken farmer (debutant Pradhuman Singh), at a rooster crowing competition. Late night exhaustion and the appearance of a serendipitous freeze frame while editing his footage give the desperate-to-migrate reporter an idea that seems golden at the moment. With the help of his trusted cameraman (Nikhil Ratnaparkhi), a make-up artist (Sugandha Garg), a coworker who can write Arabic (Chirag Vohra) and a voiceover artist (Rahul Singh), he goes about transforming the mild-mannered chicken farmer into the most dreaded man on the planet; and releases a new Bin Laden video into the world, hoping to make enough money from its sale to buy him a new identity with which he can enter the United States.
The hare-brained scheme causes threat levels to be raised in the United States; a team of investigators is deployed to discover the origins of this new missive and the leading man and his cohorts find themselves in the crosshairs of various agencies plotting to take down the dreaded 'terrorist'.
As happens in most movies when they set up a particular nationality as the fall guys, "Tere Bin Laden" features bumbling American and inept Pakistani authority figures. But this film succeeds mostly on the leading man's looks and the genuinely comical appearance of the chicken farmer turned international terrorist.
Chanelling bin Laden
And to think that this whole project came into being because the director had a headache. Sharma tells us the genesis of the idea for his feature film came on a day when he went home with a splitting headache. He had wrapped his head up to find relief from his pain and when his wife saw him, bearded and turbaned, she saw fit to tell him that he looked like Osama bin Laden. And "Tere Bin Laden" was born.
He then did some research on the Internet about Osama tapes, and worked on the story until he had a first draft to show Pooja Shetty Deora, "who at the time was my boss in Adlabs Films (renamed Reliance MediaWorks)." Sharma was a studio executive at India's big entertainment conglomerate for four years. "She liked it and that's how it came into being."
Sharma hasn't found the time to think of his follow-up to "Tere Bin Laden" yet because he is focusing on the release of the film in the United States. He says, "I knew that this film is an entertainer and that people will get entertained. One thing I have learned though, is that you should have your targets but you should not have expectations because the audience can really surprise you."
The movie played to largely packed houses in India even on its second weekend after release, and official sources as well as trade pundits seem confident that the movie will prove successful financially. According to trade analysts at leading Bollywood portal BollywoodHungama.com the film will be a "profitable venture for its producers, due to its low costs and returns from theatrical and non-theatrical avenues (sale of satellite, home video and music rights have fetched Rs 4.25 crores.)" At a time when big ticket offerings like "Kites" and "Raavan" have fared miserably at the box office the success of a star-free film is being feted as truly remarkable. It proves that audiences today are not merely going to watch movies based on which stars are in the film.
When Sagar Ballary's comedy "Bheja Fry" delivered a significant return on investment in 2007, several production houses attempted to cash in by launching similar projects that neither captured the zeitgeist nor set the cash registers ringing. It wasn't until 2010 that Dibaker Banerjee's "LSD: Love, Sex aur Dhokha" made an impact without fielding the names of major movie stars in its publicity. Ballary himself is yet to return with a follow-up project. Serendipitously timed with the worldwide success of the Hollywood acquisition "Paranormal Activity", the success of Banerjee's film has led to whispers of several 'shot on video' movies being greenlit by Bollywood producers.
Every filmmaker in this town will currently have a theory about why "Tere Bin Laden" is doing as well as it is. But when the director was candid enough to admit being confounded himself, you have to think again. "Being an ex-trade pundit, I would not have given these kinds of figures to myself if I had analyzed it as a third person," laughs Sharma. "So yeah, it is overwhelming."
It is easy, in the afterglow of "Tere Bin Laden"'s success, for those tired of the big Bollywood machine to call it another new beginning for an indie movement in Indian cinema. But the realities of this business are probably best illustrated by a quote from the book "Adventures in the Screen Trade" (1983). While discussing the expectations from a movie before its release, the writer William Goldman concluded very succinctly, "Nobody knows anything."
Almost two decades later in contemporary Indian cinema, this simple truth still remains at large.