Now that Bollywood is open for business — cinema halls began operating at 100% occupancy from February 1 and film shoots are well underway — it might be an apt time to ponder over an essential question. In the foreseeable future, what changes will one of the world’s biggest movie industries undergo, and how will it keep up to our increasingly changing times and needs? Battered by Covid-19, the box-office had its curtains down for the better part of 2020, and even though things are slowly bouncing back, the prospects of recovering the lost ground appear bleaker than ever. Some of that ground has been captured by the digital revolution, a reality Hindi cinema seems to have only reluctantly embraced.
With an annual turnover of reportedly Rs 4,000 crore in 2019, Bollywood turned out to be one of the biggest casualties of Covid-19. In an unprecedented year that saw experts equate its fatalities and economic tragedies to World War II, all sectors’ balance sheets must have read like a horror report, but none quite like Hindi cinema’s. At the start of what looked like any other year, crunchy films were flowing out of its well-oiled machinery like bread from toaster. But soon theatres and multiplexes, billed as Bollywood’s de facto lifelines, were shuttered as the Covid wave quickly transformed into an unstoppable tsunami. Thereafter, the year went downhill. No Salman Khan tentpole on Eid. Akshay Kumar reined in his much-awaited cop-buster Sooryavanshi. Shah Rukh Khan kept a low-profile. Fireworks went silent on Diwali. Priyanka Chopra wrote a book, instead. Aamir Khan gave his Santa duties a break. And the nation’s favourite megastar, Amitabh Bachchan, battled Covid and thankfully, recovered in even better spirits.
If not for Covid, all these stars would have churned out their products with practised ease, adding yet more zeroes to their wallet. But 2020 wasn’t a normal year, as everyone keeps insisting. Desperate times, they say, call for desperate measures. In this case, the desperate measures came in the form of streaming giants, led dramatically by Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, SonyLIV, Disney Plus Hotstar etc. A pile of major content had dropped out of theatres. Where would that go? Enter ‘direct-to-digital.’ The big-budgeted titles such as Gulabo Sitabo, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, Coolie no. 1, Laxmmi and more lately, The White Tiger starred some of Hindi cinema’s most popular stars. In an ideal world, they would have conquered the marquee. Fortunately, they found a silver lining on the OTT platforms. It’s incredible how OTT pitched in to cater to a billion-plus population, bored and listless at home. While the industry is still counting its losses, the Ministry of Home Affairs recently ordered cinema halls to reopen with 100 per cent capacity. Anxious exhibitors greeted the news with excitement. But it may not exactly have a happy ending yet. The vexing question remains, ‘How long will multiplexes be in the game?’ Even before the pandemic, signs of change have appeared on Bollywood’s horizon.
Big screen worries
“Theatres are looking like graveyards right now,” Salman Khan, who is recognised as having earned his stardom through single screen whistles and hooting, said recently. The big screen was on life support long before Covid struck. Shrinking theatrical revenues have knocked Bollywood over. Even Hollywood has not been spared. With its own regional industries, homegrown superstars and devoted fan base, India is one of the largest movie markets in the world. Yet, experts say few Indians buy as many movie tickets as the previous generation did. Bollywood worships the box-office, but that didn’t stop the single screens from getting nearly extinct. Back in the early 1990s, when the sweet-scented era of consumerism was officially kickstarted by economic liberalisation, single screens were just some years away from becoming anachronistic. In their place came glossy multiplexes with more fodder on its food shelves than on its screens. Still, many of these iconic single screen coliseums, especially in Mumbai, ploughed on until land sharks mutilated them into shining towers for a shining new India. But karma is a bad bitch. Today, the popularity of VOD (video-on-demand) threatens the peace and prosperity that multiplexes have enjoyed ever since. Streaming sites have experienced a surge in recent years. But the lockdown’s role in having acted as a propellant towards their turbocharging growth cannot be denied. Many have called this digital transformation a “seismic shift”. Where does this lead the cinema halls? What’s its future? As companies encourage employees to remote working and safety protocols dissuade even the more adventurous among us from stop stepping out altogether, we are staring at a future where the home is where the action will be. Expect OTT to come up with smarter ways to entertain you while ensuring you don’t leave your living room. As a result, a sharp rise in experimental content is in order. New revenue streams and modes of entertainment will be devised to keep the audience’s eyes on the ball and fingers on their platinum credit card.
This may sound old hat but take drive-in cinemas for example. Recently, Mumbai, Delhi and other cities saw the revival of the open air cinematic experience which offered audiences to watch films from the safety of their own cars. The Mumbai Mirror newspaper quoted Akshaye Rathi, a theatre owner, as saying, “Some films are meant for big screen consumption. For instance, you wouldn’t enjoy a horror film on the small screen as the ambience enhances the experience.” What will happen to top-tier stars and star-driven cinema? Is it death-knell for ‘blockbuster cinema’ or ‘summer hits’? The short answer: big players might opt for online releases but with a snip on their pay packages and profit margins. It is likely they will see a dip in their star power because other forms of celebrity will come into being vying for the modern viewer’s ever-shorter attention span. Just like a decade ago, nobody expected stand-up comics to have their own dedicated following (or that they would be jailed). Or how no one predicted that someday electric cars will rule the roads.
Bollywood version 2.0
The rapid spread of coronavirus in India last year halted film production. In other words, Bollywood virtually produced no new content. Movie webzines are abuzz with reports of film production resuming with gusto. Salman Khan, Kangana Ranaut, Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar are some of the stars believed to have returned to the sets. Having spent a great part of her lockdown flitting in and out of controversies, Ranaut recently tweeted a behind-the-scenes peek into her new film Dhaakad boasting of a Rs 25 crore splurge “on a single action sequence”. Producers hit hard by the pandemic might now think twice before stumping up that kind of money. Most analysts have agreed that the nature of shooting, their logistics and budgets as well as the whole creative process will be subject to some drastic changes in the post-Covid world. Most importantly, making films will be riskier, what with safety measures, medical insurances and social distancing to be kept in mind at all times. Here, one feels sad for makers like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowariker and the likes who thrive on period epics which require rich battle scenes and crowd clusters. Ironically, these very filmmakers once upon a time commanded great press thanks to glitzy premieres and music launches. All that shindig is a thing of the past now, a part of flavourful nostalgia like Govinda’s colourful wardrobe. Travel restrictions will ensure Bollywood filmmakers who loved to shoot a song or two in exotic European locales will be compelled to ‘make in India’. Think Himachal Pradesh, Seven Sisters or good ol’ Ooty, perhaps? More crucially, even mainstream players will throw away the playbook and adopt the new. Whether you liked or hated it, Anil Kapoor’s AK vs AK (on Netflix) is a classic case in point, in which a fading ’90s superstar is shown holding on to the last and lost vestiges of glory. One great performance and he will be the toast of cinephiles. Off screen, the meta-inspired film seems to be an attempt at launching the indefatigable Kapoor into the future where old ways of jhakas audience-love and tedious scripts will give way to god knows what.
In her missive about the pandemic, author Arundhati Roy wrote, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” What will Bollywood 2.0 be like? As it passes between two eternities, one thing is certain — the show will go on. Stay tuned. Wear your mask. And don’t forget to bring your own sanitised popcorn.