Bollywood has dabbled in VFX for years. In fact India’s first ever film ‘Raja Harishchandra’ featured special effects a 100 years ago. Films like ‘Krrish’, ‘Ra.One’ and ‘Shivaay’ even won the National Award for special effects. Besides, we’ve had masterpieces like ‘RRR’, ‘Baahubali’, ‘2.0’ and many others that boasted of world class use of VFX and CGI technology.
But does the Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt starrer ‘Brahmastra’ – a project that took Ayan Mukerji eight years to complete and employed over 3000 people on 3D and VFX over the years – outdo what we have seen before in Indian and global cinema? The USP of the film inarguably is the VFX and its scale that make it a landmark film. But can we yet conclude that Bollywood has arrived when it comes to VFX? Have we finally matched up to the standards set over the years by the cinema in the West? Will ‘Brahmastra’ find a place on the global map alongside iconic films like ‘Avatar’, ‘Avengers’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Inception’, ‘Interstellar’ and the likes?
We get to the bottom of things as we speak to the best in the business of VFX, filmmakers, and critics and come out with insightful perspectives. Read on.
History of visual effects
As mentioned earlier, the earliest of films in India applied VFX. But according to Namit Malhotra, CEO of visual effects, animation and stereo conversion company DNEG that has done some stellar work in several award winning Hollywood movies, use of VFX in Indian movies started out as small fixes to be done in post production. “‘Star Wars’ changed the trajectory of visual effects in Hollywood. But in India we never really steered towards mega films,” he tells ETimes. “We ended up doing social drama, romantic storytelling formula films and that is why VFX became an afterthought. Whereas in Hollywood, it started becoming the main part of the films like that in ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’, ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Titanic’… They kept pushing that art form ahead. India is now catching up very, very quickly.” DNEG is also the company that worked on the VFX of ‘Brahmastra’.
Filmmaker Aanand L Rai’s film ‘Zero’ was one of the recent Bollywood movies to have used VFX technology. “The West started using VFX way before us, so it will be different,” he agrees. “We are not very consistent with it, especially the directors. VFX is a technique, you need a director to tell a story that requires VFX. Rajamouli sir has done it again and again so beautifully with a film like ‘Makkhi’ or ‘Baahubali’ or ‘RRR’. He is using it for story telling. VFX is similar everywhere, it’s how the director is using it that makes the difference.”
Producer Sunny Bakshi’s After Studios has extensively worked on VFX of Bollywood films like ‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2’ among others. “Initially, Indian movies were majorly family drama based, and later also films were dominated by the actors. Directors and writers only concentrated on the scripts that made the actors happy and gave prominence to their characters, whereas the focus should have been on larger than life stories. Whereas Hollywood focussed on making films based on sci-fi concepts. Hollywood production houses give weight to technicians and the VFX industry while making films,” he notes.
Namit sheds more light on the approach that Bollywood had and adds, “Until recently, the imagination or the level of challenge that Indian films were presenting wasn’t that high. They weren’t approaching it with enough time and budget and we always felt like we are going to do a fast job like a quick fix.”
Does ‘Brahmastra’ meet Hollywood’s VFX standards?
With ‘Brahmastra’ blowing the cinegoers’ socks off, one of the pertinent questions discussed in the industry circles is whether we have touched Hollywood standards of VFX and what lies ahead for the Indian film industry. Red Chillies VFX’s COO Keitan Yadav has been an integral part of the studio that has worked on VFX of several Indian and international movies. He affirms that the quality of VFX in India has improved dramatically over the last few years. “‘Brahmastra’ is certainly at par with any international VFX film. There have been other films as well that have achieved international standards,” he says. “If you go back in history, we did ‘Ra.One’ in 2011 which was also of international standards. Then we did ‘Fan’, ‘Krrish’, ‘Zero’ and most recently ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’. So if you see the quality of VFX from studios in India, it has been at par with international quality.”
Rakesh Roshan gave the Indian audience one of their first homegrown superhero franchises ‘Krrish’. Having won a National Award for VFX for the film, he says, “We are at par with the international standards. The only difference is that we have the machinery, many VFX studios have come up here, but Hollywood has more experience. They have been using VFX for so many years. So their way of working, understanding is faster and so is their visualisation. We have just about started and we lack experience. The visual effects in ‘Brahmastra’ were terrific.”
Sunny agrees ‘Brahmastra’ did a fair job in visual effects. “In Hollywood, movies are completely CGI based on face, and the storyline is completely VFX and CGI based. In the case of ‘Brahmastra’, we have a mythological storyline with VFX created elements. It won’t be wrong to say that ‘Brahmastra’ is the first Bollywood film that has achieved the Hollywood level of visual effects,” he opines.
Namit sheds light on the making of ‘Brahmastra’. “The way we have conceived ‘Brahmastra’ coming out from the origins of Indian astras and Indian worlds, we had our own very original visual designs and approach to take. And compared to any Hollywood film, it is fair to say that the quality and technology that has been involved in creating it is identical. There is no difference in that standpoint. It’s very Indian in its origin, but it’s got the same finesse and quality that any Hollywood film has. And that has been recognised by the audiences globally and that is the big win that ‘Brahmastra’ has scored as it tried to be different and not copied from any other Hollywood film,” he says.
With films like ‘RRR’ and ‘Brahmastra’ being made in recent times, Aanand L Rai believes we have really grown and we have started using VFX for larger than life things. “In ‘Zero’ I used VFX to make things look real, not larger than life. I had to make Shah Rukh sir look dwarf,” he recalls. “But here, it’s the right use of VFX in ‘Brahmastra’ and ‘RRR’. SS Rajamouli sir did it so good with ‘Baahubali’, he is using it in the right context of Indian mythology or folklore. It may take a little time, but we are going to match the international standards.”
Film critic and trade analyst Komal Nahta notes, “It’s not a long way before Bollywood matches up to Hollywood VFX standards because so many of their big films have been done by the same company that has done ‘Brahmastra’. Even in limited budgets, we are achieving the same quality, the workmanship in a lot of Hollywood films is of Indians.”
Keitan agrees we have huge skill sets in people who work on Hollywood projects via outsourcing. “Today, there are MNCs and Studios that are an extended arm of international studios that have set up shop in India. They are outsourcing work to India because of the cost difference. Recently, with workforce mobilisation, a lot of people who have the exposure are working on a lot of Indian homegrown projects. These are the reasons why the quality of VFX is also coming to international standards,” he explains.
Impact of budgets
They say quality never comes cheap. It is a no brainer the same applies for visual effects technology that requires a special skill set. “For a better quality VFX output, every post production house requires a very good budget and a good amount of time to deliver a good quality of VFX,” emphasises Sunny Bakshi. “Nowadays the VFX industry is in too much demand, and it has become costlier. For better VFX quality, producers need to keep a good budget for the VFX department. Unfortunately in our industry, producers only keep the budget for lead actors, they don’t give weight to other departments. Whereas Hollywood gives a heavy budget to their VFX and other departments.”
Namit gets down to numbers and says, “VFX work on a film can be as little as Rs 25 crore and go up to almost Rs 700-800 crore depending on the size and scope of the film. Hollywood film budgets can be extreme. In India, we are growing in terms of how we do it. It is fair to say that the cost of doing work in India is lower than that in the West, but that being said, the scope and scale of our quality and aspiration is meeting the Hollywood standards.”
Rakesh Roshan too agrees budgets impact the quality of visual effects. “VFX is a very costly affair, it requires both money and patience,” he says. “You can’t finish a VFX-heavy film in 3 months. The younger generation is watching Hollywood movies, so comparisons are bound to happen. So we have to be as effective as they are.“
Keitan notes the fact that Ayan Mukerji has spent 8 years on ‘Brahmastra’. “The investment is huge and so was the risk. Given the time and budget and opportunity, I am sure the Indian studios will be able to do international quality work. We spent about a year and a half on ‘Zero’, on ‘Fan’. For ‘Ra.One’, we spent two years only doing the VFX,” he shares.
“Budgets do matter, but it is not the only thing,” says Aanand L Rai. “You should have the understanding also. In a certain way, the money spent on VFX in South films is much less than what we spend here. If you see ‘KGF’, they had very good technicians. But again if you put in more money, you will get better output.”
The future of VFX in India
For years, critics have maintained that Indian technicians and companies create award winning VFX for Hollywood films, but the same cannot be said when it comes to Indian movies. Where does this thought originate? Sunny Bakshi makes a compelling statement. “Many international VFX companies have outsourced Hollywood work in India and they are using Indian artists to work on their projects. In the last few years, post ‘Baahubali’, the scenario of Indian movies has changed and we are using major CGI to create magic onscreen, which Hollywood has been doing for a long time. But Indian production houses consider VFX and post production as the last leg of filmmaking. After signing the actors and completing the shoot, they always end up without any budget, compelled to complete the post within x amount of budget only. So they will get the average quality of VFX only. They need to start believing that VFX is going to upgrade their film visuals. Cinema is a visual treat, and due to Hollywood films exposure, Indian audiences expect the same level of visuals in our Bollywood films. Indian production houses need to open their budgets for VFX. ‘Brahmastra’ is the biggest example of visual treat, VFX is the hero of the film,” he says.
The demand for VFX may be greater in the West, but Namit says his vision and aspiration was always to bring the best of technology and talent coupled with our Indian sensibilities for the Indian screen. “And that is what ‘Brahmastra’ is for me – a culmination of bringing the two worlds together. With pride we can say that we have delivered an Indian film that stands up to any other Hollywood film in the world,” he says.
Namit has big budget international projects like ‘Black Adam’, ‘Shazam’, ‘Fast and Furious 10’, ‘Oppenheimer’ and many more in the pipeline. “In Bollywood, we are starting to create the next version of ‘Ramayan’ which is going to be the biggest story of India that we want to show to the world. That is currently being prepped as we speak,” he says.
During the lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi connected with key players from the Animation, Visual Effects, Gaming and Comic (AVGC) sector and gave momentum to form the National AVGC Policy with a vision to make India, the entertainment hub of the world. Keitan Yadav who has been a part of the task force says, “We constituted an AVGC Promotion Task Force that has submitted recommendations to the government on how to form policies and how to create a community of professionals who can learn this art from the school/college levels and also have a degree and tie up from international universities. India will soon become a major player in the international market,” he affirms.
Indian films majorly focus on genres like comedy, social drama, romance and other live action oriented films that do not lend to use of VFX. Genres like historical drama, horror, mythology, superhero sci-fi, period saga have more scope in that area. While filmmakers have been reluctant to touch upon those genres, Keitan is hopeful after the success of ‘Brahmastra’, a lot more filmmakers will want to explore these subjects and that will give Indian studios opportunities to showcase their talents as well.
Aanand L Rai believes SS Rajamouli is also inspiring filmmakers. “You can see a certain use of VFX in a film like ‘War’ which was done so beautifully. And I am very sure that our future films will have that effect, what we are waiting for, the neatness that we are waiting for,” he says.
Rakesh Roshan promises ‘Krrish 4’ is going to be a VFX-heavy movie. “It will have a lot of special effects. After all, it has to compete with international movies,” he signs off.