The 3-hour epic—a central feature of the Bollywood experience—is facing the threat of extinction.
With their convoluted storylines, song and dance routines and melodramatic narratives, masala flicks through the years have been known to easily clock in at the 3-hour mark.
Cut the songs: A scene from a Bollywood movie. Producers today are looking to limit the length of films to about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Manav Manglam / Reuters
But what was once a defining feature of Hindi films is gradually being phased out as producers adapt to changing economic realities and shorter attention spans.
The arrival of the multiplex, which allows for numerous shows to run concurrently throughout the day, necessitated shorter movies as financiers and film-makers moved to maximize ticket sales, explains Siddharth Roy Kapur, chief executive of UTV Motion Pictures Plc. “Today’s producers are going to be very particular about the length of their films,” says Kapur, “because a large amount of revenues comes from the multiplexes and there the length of the movie matters because the shorter the movie, the more shows you get.”
In addition, the importance of the opening weekend in the fortunes of a film furthers the case for shorter and tighter films, as producers look to squeeze in as many screenings as possible during the crucial first three days of a film’s release.
Inspired by the traditional structure of Indian theatre, with its sub-plots, story twists and heavy leaning on mythology, as well as the tradition of lengthy songs in Hindi cinema, Bollywood has been churning out marathon-long films for decades.
However, in contrast to LoC: Kargil (2003), the longest ever Bollywood film at 4 hours and 15 minutes, and Mera Naam Joker (1970), starring Raj Kapoor, which ran for 4 hours and 4 minutes, producers today are looking to limit the length of films to about 2 hours and 15 minutes, with this year’s UTV-produced A Wednesday running for just 1 hour and 40 minutes.
Kishore Lulla, chief executive of Eros International Plc., the production house behind Sarkar Raj, which runs for 2 hours, argues that the trend towards shorter films is a reflection of Hindi cinema’s move into an age of “intelligent movie making”, which takes into account that audiences no longer have the patience and time to sit through 3-hour films.
“Editing is faster these days, and youngsters don’t have so much patience for melodrama,” says Lulla, adding that a new generation of film-makers was being influenced by Western cinema and a tradition of tight, sharp storytelling.
Trade analysts also contend that audiences are becoming “smarter” and can therefore absorb storylines with less effort, while no longer being as compelled by the entertainment value of a 3-hour film as they used to be.
“People get restless these days, and they are smarter,” says Taran Adarsh, analyst and editor of Trade Guide, an industry publication. “You can tell the same story in a shorter amount of time now.”
Although Lulla emphasizes that Bollywood will continue to produce sagas and epics, such as Jodhaa Akbar, which was released earlier this year by UTV with a running time of 3 hours and 33 minutes, he says that Eros always looks carefully “at the impact” of the length of a film on box office takings before giving it the go-ahead.
“We wouldn’t run a film longer than 2 hours and 20 minutes, unless there are exceptional circumstances,” notes Lulla, adding that shorter films also means saving on time, raw film stock and shooting costs.
Tushar Dhingra, chief operating officer of Big Cinemas, the chain of cinema halls operated by Adlabs Films Ltd, says that movies being released have gotten shorter in recent years due to competitive pressures. “The last two-three years have seen films becoming shorter, as producers are chasing a very competitive commodity,” he notes, adding that “smart” producers keep the narrative tight and ensure that the content drives the story.
In addition to shifting audience tastes and new economic realities, Kapur cites one further benefit to the changing “grammar” of films—that it brings Indian production houses one step closer to finding that all-elusive “cross-over” film, or an Indian film which breaks through to appeal to worldwide audiences and not just to domestic sensibilities.
“The grammar is beginning to change because of audience sensibilities, and the length of a film has come down, both for production and creative reasons,” says Kapur. “And it could mean the difference between a film that crosses over and one that doesn’t.”