Home >Industry >Media >More bread and newer circuses: Entertainment and liberalization

Leisure and entertainment in India has undergone a dramatic shift since the early 1990s. From limited avenues and parsimonious spending in the sector, both supply and demand have mushroomed. Between 1991 and 2015, per capita spending on leisure and entertainment increased threefold (at constant 2015 prices). Liberalization spawned a generation comfortable with conspicuous leisure and immediate gratification.

The past, as they say, is a different country. Mythologies like Ramayan and Mahabharat were the defining features of Indian television. They would bring the country to a standstill, families would plan their Sundays around broadcast times, and neighbours who didn’t have a television set would turn up in time to catch the action. TV channels were few. Broadcast news was staid, sober, state-centric communication by the government of the day, so lacking in credibility that Mark Tully of the BBC was for long the most credible “Indian" newsman.

Movies were screened in large, single-screen theatres, and watching a hit movie relatively early involved standing in long queues at the ticket counter or buying tickets in “black" at exorbitant prices. Travel was a niche pastime, limited to the wealthy and connected. Vacations for most typically meant visiting family in other parts of the country.

On-field successes for Indian sports were rare, after the cricketing triumphs of the mid-1980s. In fact, 1992 was a nadir for Indian sports: no medals at all in the Barcelona Olympics and a disastrous cricket World Cup. Gaming didn’t exist, and the closest malls were in Singapore, Dubai or Hong Kong.

Change came after 1991, in a uniquely Indian way. Like everywhere else today, there is a lot more of everything and of better quality, too. This process is playing out in waves. TV was the vanguard during the 1990s, whereas sports saw a market-led disruption in the past decade.

In the 1990s, the government deregulated TV and a cable network emerged. The days of limited programming gave way to a kaleidoscope of content, including international TV, daily soaps (in many languages), news, sports, children’s programmes, reality TV, travel and lifestyle shows. Indians now choose from more than 800 channels in multiple genres.

If one were to think of TV news as a barometer of change, it has been transformational. There are a lot of news channels, most of them privately owned, carrying diverse viewpoints, snap polls and boisterous debates with wide audience participation—with high TRPs. However, TV in India is yet to see channels serving niche tastes. What we see are largely western, with some customization.

Cinema, the other staple of Indian entertainment, saw change come in the late 1990s. Studios have emerged (including foreign ones), budgets are bigger and production values have improved. There are also more sources of income than just box-office sales and also newer distribution models. Viewership has skyrocketed and so have collections. For example, Bajrangi Bhaijaan made 320 crore at the domestic box office in 2015, almost five times the estimated collections of the most successful movie in 1990 (Dil), even after adjusting for inflation. One thing, though, hasn’t changed: India is the largest producer of films globally.

Outside of TV and movies, the leisure space has broadened. Foreign travel has gone from being “work-centric" pre-1991 to serving such varied impulses as shopping, sightseeing, adventure and family vacations. The number of outbound tourists, which was three million in 1995, according to World Bank data, could hit 50 million by 2020, making India one of the fastest-growing outbound travel markets. Domestic tourism has followed suit, in part spurred by an aggressive focus by a few states (Kerala and Gujarat, for example) and also the general improvement in infrastructure and connectivity over the years.

The modernization wave hit sports relatively late. Cricket built on its pre-liberalization successes, such as the 1983 World Cup triumph, to drive mass appeal. But sports have effectively harnessed market forces only in the past decade. Now, there is a profusion of private leagues in a variety of sports (cricket, football, hockey, badminton, wrestling, boxing and even kabaddi). Globally, such commercial interest has been a precursor to sporting achievement. Hopefully, that will happen here too.

Along the way, a few concepts were invented (or borrowed). “Eating out" and “ordering in" are established practices now—more than half of India eats out at least once every three months; in metros, eight times every month. Order-in services like Foodpanda and Zomato are a crucial part of the e-commerce boom.

The one major area where market forces haven’t yet disrupted the status quo is classical arts. Indian high art remains in thrall of various state-led academies. Part of this is cultural—high art in India has historically been patronized by kings and nobles, so why should it change now? The other is market-led—high art is truly a niche area, and not yet attractive to “for-profits". Philanthropy, the other major mechanism for nurturing high art globally, is focused elsewhere in India, and hence academies rule the roost.

India’s leisure and entertainment industry is expected to continue growing at a blistering pace—in size, variety and quality. The forces unleashed by liberalization haven’t yet fully played out. The average Indian today spends about the same on leisure and entertainment as his or her Chinese counterpart did 20 years ago; Chinese spending has increased nearly sixfold since. And as smartphones, broadband and digital evolve, the space will become more personal, creating new opportunities in its wake (for example, online gaming) and disrupting others (for example, TV). While much is unpredictable, what we can say is that the ride will be as entertaining as ever.

Nikhil Prasad Ojha is a partner with Bain & Company in Mumbai and co-editor of the Mint-Bain series “25 Years of Reforms". Dinkar Ayilavarapu is a partner and Prateek Majumdar is a principal in the firm. Both are based in New Delhi and are members of Bain’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications practices in the Asia-Pacific region.

This is part of a special Mint-Bain series on 25 years of economic liberalization. For more on 25 years of reforms go to

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