Home / Opinion / Columns /  How to make Bollywood great again? Give popcorn for free

Omkar Prasad Nayyar was a very famous music director of Hindi cinema in the 1950s and 60s. His work fizzled out in the 70s, but he attempted a comeback in 1992 with a film called Nischaiy. Its music seemed of a bygone era and it sank. The times had changed. Hindi cinema seems to be going through a similar situation currently. Big-budget or low-budget movies, superstar or plot-driven, nothing seems to be working. The times have changed.

The last few years have seen the rise of the smartphone along with the availability of cheap mobile phone data plans. Before this, we watched TV almost every day at predefined times. We watched cinema now and then, usually in a cinema hall, perhaps twice a month.

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Now things are available on one’s mobile phone, including over-the-top (OTT) streaming services, which run everything from serials and films to sports. More importantly, one is not tied down to a specific time for watching.

Of course, smart phones, cheap internet and OTT apps have been around for at least half a decade. So, why is it hurting footfalls in cinema halls now?

Since April 2020, many people have been working from home (or not working at jobs at all), which has allowed them to sample a lot of content available on OTT menus. It’s like when European football was first broadcast into Indian drawing rooms in the early 90s; only then did we realize how fast football was actually played and that Bikash Panji, a top footballer of that era, was essentially playing in slow-motion. Similarly, OTT exposure has probably led to people getting used to better content.

In fact, director Anurag Kashyap, in a recent interview with film critic Baradwaj Rangan, had an interesting take on the content of Hindi cinema. Kashyap said that the Hindi film industry is controlled by second-generation filmmakers who grew up in cinema trial rooms. They have a very limited ability to understand original scripts and are usually looking for reference points based on cinema that already exists.

So, Mad Max: Fury Road becomes Shamshera. The trouble now is that the audience has already sampled the original. “It would have worked three years back," Kashyap said. This possibly also explains the failure of Advait Chandan’s Lal Singh Chaddha, a remake of Forrest Gump. Now, does this mean that the Hindi film audience is willing to watch films with ‘original’ stories in theatres? Doesn’t seem like it, given that they gave Kashyap’s Dobaaraa a miss too.

I really wanted to watch Dobaaraa, but then the entire idea of first looking for a taxi, then suffering traffic for 25-30 minutes on roads with huge potholes and then paying 500 for a ticket and 300 for a cup of coffee put me off, given that I have the option of watching the movie when it releases on OTT.

Also, the definition of ‘entertainment’ has changed. There is a lot of free and interesting content available on YouTube, an explosion of podcasts that one can listen to and ever more WhatsApp forwards and Instagram reels to sample. So, Hindi cinema is competing with stuff that it doesn’t realize as yet.

Finally, many films that have worked in movie theatres in the recent past have appealed to children or the child in adults at some level. Be it films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or RRR for that matter. Even Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 starring Kartik Aryan benefitted from the fact that Aryan is a big star among children. When a child wants to see a movie, adults need to go along and ticket sales automatically increase.

Now that leaves us with the Yash starrer K.G.F: Chapter-2, which has been the biggest Indian hit so far this year. Possibly, it’s the scale of the movie and the massive fan following Yash managed to build among the youth with K.G.F: Chapter-1 that explains its success.

Also, every few years, what works in Hindi cinema tends to shift. From the socially relevant films of the 50s, the ‘Muslim socials’ of the 60s, Salim-Javed’s angry young man of the 70s, the mindless action flicks of the 80s, the double- meaning songs, romance and NRI love spread across the 90s and 2000s and the small-town stories of the 2010s. Given this, perhaps the action genre mounted on a huge scale telling uniquely Indian stories is coming into fashion.

That possibly explains the success of movies like Pushpa, KGF-2 and RRR in their Hindi dubbed versions. The huge scale on which RRR was mounted could only be appreciated on the big screen. That it came from the maker of Baahubali also helped. By that logic, Shamshera should have worked as well. But just because we can analyse things doesn’t mean we can explain everything.

Also, all this does not explain the huge success of The Kashmir Files. One way to look at it is perhaps that most people who ended up watching the movie didn’t go out to get entertained; they watched because word-of-mouth made them curious and some probably wanted to support a cause as well.

Things will only get tougher for Hindi film producers because it’s not just the lack of good content that is holding people back from flocking to cinemas. They have more and cheaper choices of entertainment available. Hence, multiplexes need to offer an attractive proposition to get people back into theatres. How about offering free popcorn? That might just do the trick.

Vivek Kaul is the author of ‘Bad Money’.

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