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How Covid might have changed Bollywood for good

As theatre owners prepare tentatively to reopen in June after another bout of lockdown, the Hindi film industry is set to meet an audience with a variety of quality content at its disposalPremium
As theatre owners prepare tentatively to reopen in June after another bout of lockdown, the Hindi film industry is set to meet an audience with a variety of quality content at its disposal

  • Post-covid Bollywood is primed for a shift in the audience’s taste, mindset and in the very definition of stardom
  • Wooing back audiences might require a complete re-look at existing practices by movie studios, filmmakers and exhibitors, as they brace for lower footfalls and earnings

Roughly three months ago, at an event to promote a TV reality show, actor Salman Khan was accosted by reporters asking him about the likely theatrical release of his action-thriller Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai.

“This is a film made for (the) theatres," Khan, who also co-produced the film, said in a video clip which was later posted on YouTube. However, single-screen cinemas across the country have fallen silent, their seats have emptied and they resemble a qabristaan (graveyard) even after they reopened, Khan, 55, said wistfully.

The movie star, who along with Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan forms the Khan triumvirate of Hindi film industry, apologized to the movie exhibitors for not sticking to his earlier promise of a mega Eid release on the big screen for Radhe.

“The intention was to release the film as soon as the pandemic was over, but it doesn’t seem to get over. I apologize to all the theatre owners that we are doing this," he was quoted as saying in media reports.

That Khan had been compelled to renege on the promise of a silver screen Eid release and was forced to screen it instead in just a few theatres—accompanied by a simultaneous launch on Zee5’s pay-per-view service ZeePlex—was proof of how radically Bollywood’s business practices and economics had changed in just under a year.

As theatre owners prepare tentatively to reopen in June after another bout of lockdown, necessitated by a second covid surge, the film industry seems primed for an inexorable shift in the audience’s taste, mindset and in the very definition of stardom and success.

For starters, discerning audiences have discovered a range of new content, across language barriers and genres, on over-the-top (OTT) or streaming platforms, both local and global, which have exposed the mediocrity of formulaic Hindi films. For too long, Bollywood has also alienated small-town audiences with narratives that are primarily centred on the urban nouveau riche, a trend that South Indian films have successfully dodged.

Wooing back audiences might require a complete re-look at existing practices by movie studios, filmmakers and exhibitors, as they brace for lower footfalls and box office earnings at least for the next year.

Theatre tedium

A big takeaway from the covid-induced curbs is this: the charm of having a plethora of content available across genres and languages on OTT platforms can only be matched by the convenience of watching all of it from the comfort of one’s home. About 25 million Indians tried long-format web content for the first time in 2020, according to an estimate prepared by media consulting firm Ormax.

In addition to Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema opening up Bollywood-focused audiences to a new world of stories, the relative success of niche, foreign language content (Korean, Danish, Spanish and French movies) has revealed the resonance of global stories that have a local context.

More than a couple of mainstream Hindi films agreed to bypass a theatrical release and opt for a direct-to-digital launch. A major worry for Bollywood is that it could get increasingly tough to draw families, who have gotten used to the comfort of watching new films and web series at home, to brave traffic snarls, spend money on tickets, popcorn and beverages, sit for three hours inside a cinema hall—with the interruption of ads and intervals—and then possibly pay for dinner after the show. It’s a huge investment of time, money and energy.

“In the past year, the whole creative ecosystem, from directors and producers to actors, have learnt to tell stories and entertain whilst embracing the disruption. It would be fair to say we are evolving together and some of these changes are here to stay," said Vijay Subramaniam, director and head of content at Amazon Prime Video India. “While we don’t like to speculate about the future, it would be fair to say moving forward, we would see more disruptions in the distribution network and the emergence of new business models."

“While the window between theatrical and digital releases will continue to shorten, some titles may begin to opt for digital-first release to garner a wider reach, while some may go for the hybrid format—releasing the content in theatres and on OTT platforms simultaneously. We are seeing this happen in other geographies as well," he added.

Characters vs star power

The growth of streaming services in India presents a massive opportunity for new voices to share their stories with the world, said Pratiksha Rao, director of content acquisition at Netflix India.

“Storytellers from every part of our country have the unprecedented opportunity to share their stories in the language of their choice—from Hindi to Malayalam. These stories, aided by subtitles and dubs… transcend the barriers of language and geography to find like-minded audiences around the world," Rao added.

Plus, compared to usual Bollywood tropes that are often meant to cater to the lowest common denominator, OTT content is meant for a targeted audience. Which means, in Subramaniam’s words: “We cast for the characters and not for star power… customers of today are defined by limited attention spans and (they have) an array of content to choose from. The only way to break the clutter is to be distinct in storytelling and bring forth new, authentic, diverse and honest stories that are relatable and resonate strongly with the Indian as well as global audiences."

The question of whether people will come back to the theatres has already been answered, said Kamal Gianchandani, chief executive officer (CEO)-PVR Pictures and chief of strategy at PVR Ltd, who is, however, quick to point to the positive reception for South Indian offerings such as Master, Jathi Ratnalu and Uppena this year. “People will come as long as there are new choices. As cinemas, we need to focus on communicating, especially to the first batch that comes in, that we’re ready with all (the) safety and hygiene protocols. We need to make the right kind of marketing noise, for which producers should also join in," Gianchandani added.

Alok Tandon, CEO, at rival multiplex chain INOX, is quick to emphasise that outings for Indians, as a rule, translate into going to the cinema, followed by good food with the family. “It’s in our DNA," Tandon said.

In fact, cinemas and streaming services are not even competing with each other, said Vishek Chauhan, an independent exhibitor in Bihar. “Theatres create brands and differentiate content from the bundles on OTT platforms. But as real estate and operational costs rise, cinemas will turn into more premium and plush spaces with large-format screens, comfortable seating, great sound and gourmet food," said Chauhan, who foresees a time when his single screen in Purnea could offer buffet lunches, dinners and high tea for patrons along with a movie show for an approximate price of 2,000.

“That is the future. Cinema is no longer for the masses. There are 220 million TV screens in India, around 600 million mobile phones and only 9,000 theatres. So, guess which medium is niche?"

Large spectacles

The financial crunch of the past year-and-a-half notwithstanding, most Bollywood producers are looking at large-scale spectacles to draw audiences back to theatres and necessitate big-screen viewing. On offer are star vehicles like Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathan, Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s long-delayed Brahmastra, Fighter starring Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone, and the third instalment of Salman Khan’s Tiger franchise. All of these come with budgets of over 100 crore, with some even touching 200 crore.

“The writing on the wall is quite clear. It is the big event films that do well at the box office, even if they are repetitive, which was true even before the pandemic," said Siddharth Anand Kumar, vice-president, films and television, Saregama India that owns boutique studio Yoodlee Films.

Yoodlee has so far focused on niche, concept-driven films, many of which are released on OTT platforms. It is now looking at backing star vehicles too.

The covid-19 pandemic has dealt a bigger blow to movie stars and the idea of stardom in India than many of them currently realize, media experts said. Overall, the film business is likely to drop by at least 50% over the next year or two compared to the pre-pandemic era.

Top stars, who could earlier command up to 30 crore in box-office revenue on the first day of the release of a big-ticket film, are unlikely to see these numbers for a while. They can no longer be judged by their opening day or weekend draw, which used to be traditional benchmarks for evaluating stardom.

In an article for trade website Film Information this April, trade analyst Komal Nahta wrote: “Whether Radhe or ‘83 or any other big film hits the screen, we must cheer for them even if they net 75 crore. Because that would be the new trade paradigm."

The hurried release of some star vehicles directly onto digital platforms over the past few months has not paid off either. Akshay Kumar’s Laxmii and Varun Dhawan’s Coolie No.1 were both panned heavily, as was Salman Khan’s Radhe, which is unlikely to have sold more than 1.05 million tickets online on its opening day, with weekend collections hovering around 20-25 crore, as opposed to 100 crore made by the actor’s previous Eid releases like Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Critics say it is clear that mediocre fare, driven by stars, cannot stand the test of online streaming, where unsatisfied users can switch off shows at the click of a button.

In fact, the influx of fresh faces online, be it actors, YouTubers or influencers, has altered the definition of stardom, which was earlier restricted only to movie stars. As Netflix’s Rao put it, “Telling (these) authentic, entertaining and diverse stories from India cannot be possible without giving a platform to new talent; fresh voices. This opportunity is true for both the talent in front of and behind the camera. From new acting talent such as Tripti Dimri in Bulbbul to new directors, producers and writers like Anvita Dutt (Bulbbul), Udai Singh Pawar (Upstarts) and Neeraj Udhwani (Maska), Netflix can be the home for a new generation of stars and storytellers from every corner of India."

Effectively, Hindi cinema has been shown its place, as the world has woken up to the richness and diversity of films in other languages—be it Malayalam cinema or Korean dramas, said Uma Vangal, filmmaker and professor at the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy.

At the same time, incidents such as the suspected suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the ensuing conversation about entrenched industry practices like nepotism have taken some of the sheen off B-town’s biggest stars, Vangal said.

“The common man would spend his hard-earned money at the cinema because it was a sign of hope and aspiration. The narrative, however, has now been reconstructed and people have lost that kind of blinkered admiration after a can of worms was opened," Vangal said.

Southern competition

There is even more cause for worry for Bollywood as southern cinema slowly looks to make inroads across India. The pandemic has accelerated the shift of language-focused industries, which have started eyeing a pan-Indian audience.

Baahubali star Prabhas has a film called Adipurush lined up alongside Kriti Sanon and Saif Ali Khan and director SS Rajamouli has Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt star alongside Jr NTR and Ram Charan in his upcoming movie RRR.

Made on budgets of more than 200 crore each, these will be shot in multiple languages, including Hindi, Tamil and Telugu, and feature a mix of Bollywood and South Indian faces to draw on fan bases across states and geographies.

In contrast, Bollywood is seen to have alienated small-town audiences with multiplex offerings and niche, urban cinema. “That Hindi films have been very superficial is beginning to show," Vangal said, adding that while most films are remakes of southern movies, many that try to go into the heartland (like a Dabangg) do so without any nuance. “They are just managing with high production values and marketing without having any idea of imagining India in a proactive manner."

At the moment, nothing matters more than just bringing people back to theatres, said Nikhil Taneja, co-founder and CEO of Yuvaa Originals, a Mumbai-based youth media, research and impact organization. “The kind of joy that content has brought to us during the pandemic and its role in making us feel less alone is undeniable. The only aim should be to bring people back to cinemas when it’s safe. And if that means a film that could have made 400 crore makes only 200 crore due to constraints imposed by social distancing, it’s fine. If there are no people, there will be no cinema," he said.

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