Originally released only on CDs, Mollywood is now popular in cinemas across western Uttar Pradesh.
Western Uttar Pradesh has earned a terrible reputation in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots, the Dadri beef killing and the Kairana migration controversy. With assembly elections slated in the state this month, here is an alternate picture of the region that few know about.
In a bid to retain its rich history of language, art and culture, Meerut has developed its own rural cinema industry, which the locals refer to as Mollywood. Unlike Bollywood, films here are not released in cinema halls but are distributed in the market as CDs. One CD costs anywhere between Rs 25 and Rs 40. These films, made in Haryanvi, are extremely popular in western UP, the National Capital Region and Rajasthan’s border areas.
A Mollywood director Sanjeev Vedwan says, “Previously, some parts of western UP, Delhi’s NCR and Rajasthan border were part of a larger Haryana region. Later, they were merged into other states. But the dialect, language and culture of these areas has not changed, which is why Haryanvi films are still popular here.”
Interestingly, even without big screen releases, Mollywood gets good business, going into several lakh rupees. Perhaps because local people enjoy watching actors take up roles that they identify with and speak a dialect they want to hear.
According to a 2006 report published in the Outlook magazine, “Market experts believe that since these films are not released in theatres, it is difficult to calculate business turnover. However, it is estimated to be around Rs 100 crore. The CDs which are available at such low prices are a cheaper and cleaner alternative to the costly VCDs of Hindi films.”
Another report published in Dainik Jagran in 2007 claimed, “Mollywood’s turnover has reached Rs 100 crore. Nearly 5,000 people are associated with the industry including artists, technicians and distributers. Three hundred films are released annually and during the last two years more than 2,000 CDs have come into the market.”
It all started with comedy programmes recorded on audio tapes, which were quite popular in the area in the 1990s. By the end of the 20th century, audio tapes were replaced by CDs. With the arrival of CDs, the comedy audio business took a professional turn and film and music production companies like T-Series and Moser Baer joined in. In 2000, actor and mimicry artist Kamal Azad, in association with T-Series, released an audio CD of jokes called ‘Very Good’. People in the industry often cite this as the beginning of Mollywood. A spike of such CDs in the market followed. Soon, the trend shifted from audio to video and people began referring to them as films though they were only 40-minute to an hour long comedy dramas.
In 2004, the film Dhaakad Chhora was released (on CD) and went on to become a big hit. This was a milestone in the brief history of the industry and is often dubbed the Sholay of Mollywood. It has become a standard for measuring the success of films today. Actors Uttar Kumar and Suman Negi became idols for local youth, comparisons of their popularity was drawn with Bollywood superstars Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai.
It is believed that Dhaakad Chhora was the first full-length Mollywood film of Mollywood. “Mollywood begins with the release of Dhaakad Chhora. Previously only audio and short video clips were made. I do not know of any other film before it,” says Kumar.
“There are contradictory opinions regarding the first movie,” says Indian Mollywood Film Association’s president Sandeep Kumar. “Some claim that they made films 25 years ago. But I do not think any such movie was released on CD or watched by anyone. Only video albums and joke CDs were released then.”
Earlier, movies were shot on video handycams used to shoot weddings. Post Dhaakad Chhora, technology improved. Films released afterwards – Karmveer, Operation Majnu, Budhuram, Paro Tere Pyar Mein, Meri Laddo, Ramgarh ki Basanti – were shot using advanced video cameras.
Post production work, which was earlier carried out in Delhi and other cities, also moved to Meerut. A number of studios came up for editing, dubbing and adding the background score of CDs. Slowly, Mollywood was becoming self-reliant.
The films were now shot at locations outside western UP, including cities in Uttarakhand. Technicians from Delhi and Mumbai were hired for support. The standard of music and storytelling also improved.
The craze of Mollywood led many affluent people to act in and produce such movies. According to a report published in the Times of India in 2006, to act as a hero lawyer Chaudhary Yogendra Singh spent Rs 1.5 lakh and made Khel Kismat Ka Naam.
With the improving technology, Mollywood directors caught up with Bollywood trends and made films based on superhit Hindi films. Sequels were also made, like Dhaakad Chhora 2.
Some Bollywood directors and producers even tried their hand here. “Mohammed Haneef, who spent 26 years as director in Bollywood, also made films in Mollywood including Loafer, Angaar hi Angaar and Pyaar ki Jung,” says a 2007 Dainik Jagran report.
Another Bollywood director, S.U. Syed, made Ramgarh ki Basanti. Popular comedy actor Kader Khan was seen in Uttar Kumar’s film Kunba. Playback singers Udit Narayam and Alka Yagnik have lent their voice to songs in several movies.
By 2009, the fate of the industry took a turn for the worse. Piracy of CDs ate away at the very foundation of this empire. Mollywood producer and actor Bhupendra Titauria, who played the villain in Dhaakad Chhora, says, “Because of piracy, companies who invested in these films were not able to retrieve their money. At one time, the film industry gave up.”
For some time, film production was paused almost completely, but some people in the industry were relentless. Work started on films which could be released in single screen theatres and a new journey began.
Professional cameras were employed to shoot films. The next challenge was to take these films to the theatres. For single-screen theatres, they turned to cities like Meerut, Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli and Hapur.
Vedwan says, “After the CD business ended, films are being considered for big screen releases. But it is difficult to find producers for such big-budget projects. One solution to this problem is to make 16 mm movies. Natkhat was the first such movie. Four prints of the film were released. The film did well and more producers have come forward.”
Films like Laat Sahab, Dear Versus Bear, Katto, Ye Kaisa Pal Do Pal ka Pyaar and Loafer were released in single-screen theatres. Sharing an anecdote from his 2014 film Dear versus Bear, Vedwan says, “There is a multiplex in Hapur. When we sought to release our film there, they refused saying that Haryanvi films would not attract an audience and it would be embarrassing to take down a film after a single show. We told them we were willing to face embarrassment. So they released the film – and the very first show got a full house despite the fact that Rani Mukherjee’s Mardani was also running at the multiplex. They called us and told us they wanted to run two shows.”
However, the industry is not completely organised even after a decade. Films are not released on a regular basis. The lack of support from the government is often cited as a reason.
“Mollywood films do not have fixed release dates. So it is difficult to track which was the last film released and how much business it did. These films are still developing. If the government extends support to filmmakers and gives tax relaxation to cinemas, they will not only do good business but also become popular,” says Ashutosh Agrawal, who runs Vijay Theatre at Hasanpur near Gajraula.
“The industry has not been organised because once the actors are established here they move to Bollywood,” claims the producer of Laat Sahab and Katto, O.P. Rai. “There are various organisations here but there is no coordination. Besides, there is a lack of government support. It is easier to reach Delhi than Lucknow to seek the help of state government.”
“We can only help if they reach out to us,” says Uttar Pradesh Film Development Authority vice president Gaurav Dwivedi. “Six months ago, I offered to visit them but there was no response from their side. The government has recently released funds for Hindi and Bhojpuri films. People from Mumbai seek our support and work here. But, so close at home, they (Mollywood) do not come to us.”
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.
You can also read this piece in Hindi.