The return of the Bollywood potboiler | Mint

The return of the Bollywood potboiler

People settle down to watch Tiger 3 at an Inox multiplex in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh.
People settle down to watch Tiger 3 at an Inox multiplex in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh.

Summary

  • Hindi filmmakers have woken up to the need to cater to the lowest common denominator in the audience

Meerut/New Delhi: One can’t be entirely sure of making it to the Inox theatre on the top floor of the PVS Mall in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. The elevator has many buttons missing, while loose wires tell you to take the stairs. Much of the rest of the mall, in Meerut’s Shastri Nagar locality, in the heart of the city, is under construction, with dust and cement filling the air. Only a Westside outlet, a McDonalds and a local restaurant are open the morning after Diwali.

Once on the top floor though, a different world opens up, one packed with eager Hindi movie fans of actor Salman Khan. The sparkling Inox property houses three screens, two of which are equipped with 3D, which means they can showcase tentpole Hollywood flicks as well as the local language movies youngsters lap up. Salman’s latest action film, Tiger 3, is playing on all three screens with a huge crowd waiting outside one auditorium for the next show. A six-minute delay has made these fans furious and the operational staff is cleaning away inside at a furious pace so as to not rile them further.

“Things have been much better for us since Pathaan this year. Then, of course, there was Gadar 2 and Jawan. What has changed post covid is that people aren’t willing to step out just because it’s the weekend—they are selective and want value for time and money," says a member of the staff at Inox. This year marked the best Diwali post the onset of covid for the theatre, the staff added, with 3,200 footfalls clocked on the festival day. By 11 am, the manager was confident of exceeding even that figure.

The Inox staff say that of the 3,200 bookings on Diwali, 2,500 were made online. The team is swamped with work given that the day after Diwali is traditionally seen as the most lucrative for business all year. Some are making sure viewers are seated, others are taking food orders, a third has caught a young man trying to film scenes from Tiger 3 on his camera phone and is gently asking him to delete them. Some are outside the auditorium, ensuring latecomers make it to the right auditorium.

The large turnout is heartening for Bollywood, which has been increasingly accused of alienating audiences in small towns by making films on urban, elitist themes that a handful of viewers in posh metros relate to. A case in point being social message-driven titles such as Badhaai Do or bold, feminist subjects like Thank You For Coming. That, in turn, has helped the dubbed versions of southern language entertainers such as RRR and KGF take over mindshare, besting Hindi cinema on its home ground.

At least some of the top names in the industry have woken up to the need to cater to the lowest common denominator in the audience, and penetrate small towns with universally appealing films, where multiplexes are making a concerted effort to enable access.

To be sure, Tiger 3 fizzled out later in the month but things have really improved for Bollywood since last year, when few films were arriving in cinemas in the first place, allowing the southern flicks to take over the box office. There has been a correction of late with Shah Rukh Khan’s two all-time blockbusters Pathaan and Jawan and Sunny Deol’s period drama Gadar2. All three have crossed 500 crore in domestic box office collections within nine months and make for the top three highest grossers of all time in the Hindi language. Until 2023, the highest Hindi language grosser was Aamir Khan’s Dangal, which had made 387.38 crore when released in 2016.

Incidentally, the worldwide gross record for an Indian film is still held by Dangal, which made over 1,900 crore thanks to its release in China.

The viewers who walk out of the early morning Tiger 3 show seem satiated. Most point out the action entertainer is part of the spy universe of Yash Raj Films (YRF) and have watched previous instalments such as Pathaan, Tiger Zinda Hai and War. While a few have come for Salman, many were already aware Shah Rukh makes a cameo (a fact YRF has barely publicised), picking up on the trend they’ve seen in Hollywood superhero franchises where characters cross over from one film to another.

Second coming

Pathaan was SRK’s first film in four years, and fans will be hoping they won’t have as long a wait after his next release this Christmas.
View Full Image
Pathaan was SRK’s first film in four years, and fans will be hoping they won’t have as long a wait after his next release this Christmas. (HT_PRINT)

After years of minting money from the country’s top tier metros and plush multiplexes, the realization that there is a huge untapped movie market in India’s smaller towns, seems to have dawned on the Hindi film industry, which dominates the pop culture in India.

On the one hand, multiplex chains such as PVR Inox are making a conscious effort to expand into smaller Hindi-speaking territories such as Patna and Rourkela, strategizing pricing with the paying propensity of consumers. On the other, stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Sunny Deol, who haven’t had the best time at the box office in recent years, have managed to resurrect the business, along with their own careers, thanks to a bunch of mass-market films packaged with elements catering to universal audiences. Incidentally, Pathaan was SRK’s first film in four years, and fans will be hoping they won’t have as long a wait after his next release this Christmas.

Film producers and trade experts say this revival is marked by the gradual realization on the part of these stars that the only way to hold on to their stardom in the age of endless entertainment avenues, including those available at home, is by abandoning the urban, multiplex film trope and embracing emotionally rooted movies with mass sensibilities, a lesson well demonstrated by the Southern industry. Meanwhile, the multiplex expansion in small towns could help things at a time when most metros have reached saturation point.

Back to the future

Gadar 2, produced by Zee Studios, was a success. Subsequently, many producers have started targeting the mass market, beyond the top 100 locations.
View Full Image
Gadar 2, produced by Zee Studios, was a success. Subsequently, many producers have started targeting the mass market, beyond the top 100 locations.

After hits such as Gadar 2, everyone has woken up to the India that exists beyond glitzy multiplexes, and future projects are aimed at targeting the mass market beyond the top 100 locations, where the majority of collections come from currently, said Shariq Patel, chief business officer, Zee Studios, which produced Gadar 2. “The idea is to bring the bottom of the pyramid into the film-viewing fold, which can only happen through mass appeal entertainment created at scale, along with an emotionally rooted story arc," Patel said.

One challenge to this, many argue, is that there are few young writers or directors in the Mumbai film industry today who understand and identify with such sensibilities. One result of the success of films like Gadar 2 and Jawan is that the doors have now opened for several filmmakers of the 1990s to experiment with various genres, such as action dramas, comedies as well as family entertainers, to cater to diverse audiences, including small-town moviegoers. It’s a job they’ve been known to do well and the genres are tried and tested.

For instance, director Rajkumar Santoshi, known for hits such as Ghayal and Andaz Apna Apna in the 1990s, is collaborating on two projects with Aamir Khan, including a period drama that will feature Sunny Deol. Salman Khan has signed up for a family drama by Sooraj Barjatya, who has delivered blockbusters like Hum Aapke Hain Koun with him in the past. David Dhawan is planning a comedy with son Varun. The other strategy is to dish out sequels to mass-market hits, so instalments to commercial entertainers like Hera Pheri, Housefull, Welcome and Border are in the works.

“Catering only to multiplex audiences will mean that the box office is not going to go beyond a certain number and hence we have to broadbase our content offering," said Vivek Krishnani, CEO of MovieVerse Studios. Also, while big stars can ensure footfalls in theatres, Krishnani believes that even lower-budget, content focused cinema rooted in mass sensibilities can connect with the audience and deliver at the box office. A case in point being 12th Fail, an October release that delves into the struggles of UPSC aspirants, which has crossed the 50 crore mark despite having no big faces.

Limited access

A Miraj Cinemas multiplex in Gurdaspur, Punjab, which opened in October—the town’s first multiplex.
View Full Image
A Miraj Cinemas multiplex in Gurdaspur, Punjab, which opened in October—the town’s first multiplex.

Even if such content makes it out of Mumbai’s plush studios, the other big challenge is for it to reach towns beyond the metros. The covid-19 pandemic has shrunk India’s already dismal screen count by around 1,500-2,000. And it is well known that in contrast to big cities in well-off states, those in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and the Northeast remain relatively screen dark.

“We remain committed to opening screens wherever we see gaps and our expansion strategy is a mix of major cities and smaller towns," Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, executive director, PVR Inox Ltd, said.

While the mall culture has been around for over 25 years in India, Bijli said smaller towns have taken time to join the bandwagon and the growth has organically trickled down from metros to tier II and tier III cities. The company has launched properties in cities such as Rourkela and Patna and is looking at catchments in Mohali, Jodhpur, Ajmer, Tirupati, Cuddalore and Machilipatnam.

Amit Sharma, managing director of Miraj Entertainment, said the company, which crossed 200 screens this year, aims to surpass 300 in 2024, with 50% of this in smaller cities. Miraj properties are slated to come up in Patiala, Ludhiana, Alwar, Indore, Agra and Jamshedpur, among other locations.

Catering to the elite

A PVR Inox 3-screen multiplex that opened in Patna in August. The cinema is the company’s first property in the state.
View Full Image
A PVR Inox 3-screen multiplex that opened in Patna in August. The cinema is the company’s first property in the state.

The big criticism around multiplexes, however, remains their premium ticket and food and beverage pricing, even in small towns. On their part, multiplex owners say pricing is based on the paying propensity of the catchment, besides the day, timing and film in question. But industry experts point out that while catering to the elite in these markets, the strategy inevitably alienates a large chunk of the population.

Many multiplexes kept ticket rates for Jawan at close to 400 in several small towns in the second week of release, with recliners costing upwards of 500. This pricing strategy was even more detrimental when applied to mid-budget films such as Dream Girl 2, which was also priced above 350 in many cases.

“You’re essentially targeting only the top 10% of any city, and ignoring the remaining 90%. When rents are so high that it burdens the business, there is no option but to begin positioning cinema as an ultra-luxury medium. The common man is not going to walk into a five-star hotel," said Bihar-based independent exhibitor Vishek Chauhan, pointing to the flawed multiplex model and how greater government support is required to build low-cost cinemas in small towns, without such massive capital expenditure.

Chauhan’s other misgiving around the resurrection of mass-market Hindi cinema is that unlike this year, when a bunch of tentpole films delayed by covid released in quick succession, next year will not see as many commercial entertainers because there simply aren’t enough actors, directors and writers gifted with the acumen to make such films. “There is no reason to get carried away with this success. For one, five films can’t feed the industry. And two, the top order isn’t coming out with that many films next year," said Chauhan.

For now, all eyes are on Shah Rukh Khan’s Dunki, which releases over the Christmas weekend. The actor hasn’t announced a new film yet, but fans will be hoping that unlike Pathaan, it won’t be that long before his next.

Catch all the Industry News, Banking News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
more

topics

MINT SPECIALS

Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App